My Top 10

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  2. Mystic River
  3. City of God
  4. American Splendor
  5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  6. Nowhere in Africa
  7. Whale Rider
  8. Big Fish
  9. Bubba Ho-Tep
  10. Matchstick Men

note:  A strong Top 5 but the second 5 is fairly weak.  But it does still have several (weaker) films on my complete list down at the bottom, minus the #13 (Cold Mountain) and #16 (The Secret Lives of Dentists) which are reviewed because of awards.

Consensus Nominees:

  1. American Splendor  (344 pts)
  2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King  (200 pts)
  3. Mystic River  (184 pts)
  4. Cold Mountain  (176 pts)
  5. Seabiscuit  (112 pts)

note:  American Splendor has the lowest percentage for a winner since 1999 and there won’t be a lower one again until 2013.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium):

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • American Splendor
  • City of God
  • Mystic River
  • Seabiscuit

note:  Cold Mountain is the first film since Being There in 1979 to earn WGA, Globe and BAFTA noms but not an Oscar nom.  It won’t happen again until 2014 (but then it will happen in three consecutive years).

WGA:

  • American Splendor
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Mystic River
  • Seabiscuit

Golden Globes:

  • Cold Mountain
  • Mystic River

Nominees that are Original:  Lost in Translation, In America, Love Actually

note:  This is the only year between 1995 (Dead Man Walking, Get Shorty, Mr. Holland’s Opus) and 2015 (Steve Jobs, Hateful Eight) that the Globes nominate both an Adapted and an Original screenplay that don’t manage to earn Oscar noms.

BAFTA:

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • Big Fish
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Girl with a Pearl Earring
  • Mystic River

BFCA:

  • Big Fish
  • Mystic River
  • Seabiscuit

Nominees that are Original:  In America, Lost in Translation

NYFC:

  • The Secret Lives of Dentists

LAFC:

  • American Splendor

NSFC:

  • American Splendor

BSFC:

  • American Splendor

CFC:

  • Cold Mountain

My Top 10

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

LOTR return of the king - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpgThe Film:

An absolute film for the ages, an epic fantasy that has as good of technical achievements as any film ever made and a large ensemble cast that is filled to the brim with fantastic performances.  The very rare film in which I list five supporting actor performances and left performances worth being listed off the list (because I cap it with five).  A magnificent conclusion to the series that deservedly swept every Oscar it was nominated for.  Reviewed in full both here and here with additional notes here.

9780007273508The Source:

The Return of the King being the third part of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien  (1955)

Of course, this isn’t really a novel – it’s one third of a novel, or two of the six books of a novel released in this form because it wasn’t feasible at the time to release the entire novel in one volume.  Even so, the single novel of which this is one volume is one of the greatest ever written for reasons I made very clear here.  The cover on the right, of course, is just one of many covers I could have gone with, and that’s just includes the editions that I own, which are detailed here, although that is out of date and I have more than what is in the post.

The Adaptation:

This is going to be long and detailed, so if you’re not really into Lord of the Rings, you might want to skip down to the next film.

I’ve punted on a lot of films over the course of this project when it comes to this section because other people had already done the work.  This time, because it’s a book and a film I love so much and because I actually haven’t seen it detailed in other places, I am going to go through chapter by chapter and give a rough breakdown of the changes.  Chapter titles that are in bold are the names of tracks on the soundtrack.

Book Five

I  –  Minas Tirith  –  This is pushed later in the film because in the book, Gandalf and Pippin leave before they get to Edoras.  This is much truncated and the characters of Beregond and Bergil are completely excised.  Pippin doesn’t go around the city, but stays in the citadel.  The overlap between Gandalf seeing the light from Minas Morgul and Frodo being there shows how the books overlap, with Gandalf and Pippin already in ROTK while Frodo and Sam are still in TTT which is why the films move the way they do.

II  –  The Passing of the Grey Company  –  Also moved later in the film and changed a bit, since Aragorn makes his decision in the book at Helm’s Deep and travels separately to Dunharrow.  Of course, it’s Elrond’s sons who talk to Aragorn (and accompany him to Minas Tirith), not Elrond himself, who never leaves Rivendell in the book (and, of course, all the stuff between him and Arwen in Rivendell never happens – the sword was re-forged in the book back in Book Two before they left Rivendell).  And of course there are a lot more than just the three of them on the Paths of the Dead because Aragorn has a company of Dúnedain.

III  –  The Muster of Rohan  –  Not as dramatically depicted as in the film where the decision has already been made to help Gondor (see also the next chapter).  And in the book Merry seems not to know who he is riding with.

IV  –  The Siege of Gondor  –  It’s just heightened dramatic tension that Pippin lights the beacon in the film (they are already lit in the books before they come to Gondor and it’s the red arrow, not the beacons that alert Rohan to their need).  One of my favorite small changes in the film is the exchange between Faramir and Pippin when they first meet, rather than the way it is depicted in the book (after Faramir has reported to his father).  I love the gleam in Pippin’s eyes when he realizes that Faramir has seen Frodo and Sam.  Gandalf’s speech to Pippin about what happens when you die is almost word for word the description of the boat arriving in the West at the end of the book (“the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”).  In the film, Gandalf never faces off against the Witch-King while in the EE they face off in a very different manner than in the book (with Gandalf clearly coming off worse).

V  –  The Ride of the Rohirrim  –  Except for one scene in the EE, cut from the film except for the charge at the end (which borrows some dialogue for Théoden’s stirring speech from other parts of the book).

VI  –  The Battle of the Pelennor Fields  –  Théoden dies without seeing Eowyn in the book.  In the book, of course, the Dead only help against the Corsair ships and it’s the other men of southern Gondor and the Dúnedain that arrive with Aragorn to seal the battle.

VII  –  The Pyre of Denethor  –  Except for the absence of Beregond, fairly similar, though, of course Denethor simply dies in the hall rather than running the mile from there to the edge of the cliff.  Denethor doesn’t reveal the palantír in the film (there is no mention that there are other palantír).

VIII  –  The Houses of Healing  –  There are a few scenes in the film (and more in the EE) but most of this is cut.

IX  –  The Last Debate  –  With no Imrahil, the debate is a little different (and takes place in the citadel instead of Aragorn’s tent) but the decision is still the same.  In the film, Aragorn uses the palantír to draw out Sauron, but he had already done that back in Chapter II in the book.

X  –  The Black Gate Opens  –  All the events between Gondor and Morder are excised with the book moving straight to the battle.  The brilliant scene with the Mouth of Sauron is only in the EE.  In the book, Pippin hears that the eagles are coming (he’s our POV third-person limited character) but doesn’t actually say it himself (though I’m sure some people remember it that way).

Book Six

I  –  The Tower of Cirith Ungol  –  Truncated to remove the Watchers but similar in concept.  Of course, it’s much later in the book because of all the scenes from TTT that have to come in first.  Overlaps with the actions of Book Five.

II  –  The Land of Shadow  –  Truncated in the film, a bit less in the EE where they actually do fall in with the orcs.  They also won’t know Gollum is still alive until after when they do in the book.

III  –  Mount Doom  –  Frodo doesn’t claim the ring, of course, and Sam doesn’t have to save him from the precipice, but the rest is pretty close to the book.

IV  –  The Field of Cormallen  –  This is basically just the reunion scene from the book.

V  –  The Steward and the King  –  Most of this is completely excised in the film except for a small scene in the EE.  Probably confusing to people who hadn’t read the book why Faramir and Eowyn are seen together at the coronation.  The coronation itself is combined with parts of the wedding from the end of the chapter, though Arwen wasn’t a surprise in the book since the whole “Arwen is sick because of the ring” subplot is only in the film.  Because the start of the chapter flashes back, this chapter covers over three months.

VI  –  Many Partings  –  Completely excised.

VII  –  Homeward Bound  –  Completely excised.

VIII  –  The Scouring of the Shire  –  Hinted at with scenes in FOTR but excised.  Saruman’s death (which only happens onscreen in the EE) has a vague similarity (Wormtongue kills him, then shot down) but very different as well.

IX  –  The Grey Havens  –  The same in concept with a few differences (Merry and Pippin aren’t surprises, Sam learns Frodo is leaving when they first meet Bilbo).  The last line, of course, is exactly the same as in the book.

The Credits:

directed by Peter Jackson.  screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson.  Based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Mystic River

mystic river - cinema quad movie poster (2).jpg

The Film:

It’s a shame that Eastwood delivered an absolute masterpiece, easily one of the two best films he ever directed (Unforgiven being the other) and the first reminder in a long time that he was one of the best directors in film history and it had to be in the same year as Return of the King.  It meant that Eastwood never stood a chance of winning the Oscar (or really any of the Nighthawks either).  And it’s possible that compounded things the next year when he did win Picture and Director over a considerably superior film with a work that wasn’t nearly as good as this one.  But this is, as I wrote in the full review, a great film that really understands what it’s about.  It understands the complications and violence inherent in Boston’s society and the dark undertones that run through the city and its history.  It’s masterful in its construction, its technical achievements, its acting (it did win two Oscars and while it doesn’t win the Nighthawks that’s because of the competition, not because of any weakness in the performances) and especially the writing and directing.

mrThe Source:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane  (2001)

I’ve got an interesting history when it comes to Lehane.  This was my first experience with him, when I saw this film on opening night.  At the time, I had spent a semester in the Boston suburbs in college but that really hadn’t made me understand the people and the city in the way I would later.  Next, I met Lehane at a book signing when I worked at Borders in Braintree.  It was a great experience because Lehane was so local (there was no bookstore in Southie at the time and the store was filled with people who knew him and his parents who he brought along).  Sadly, it was for his short story collection, Coronado, which I hated, the first work of his I had read.  But I enjoyed meeting him and talking to him (see more on that below).  Then Gone Baby Gone was filmed and we had people coming in to the store every day (“they’re filmin’ in my yahd”, “they’re filmin’ by the church down the street”) and then I saw it (on video) and I was shaken to the core.  By that time, I had been mugged by a bunch of fucking punks who had a knife on them and could have killed me, on Mother’s Day, on my own block.  I had been threatened by a kid for asking him to stop cussing so loud in a schoolyard I could hear him in my house.  I had been threatened by a guy who was willing to stab me to stop me stopping him from shoplifting from my store.  I understood the dark cycle of violence that was stuck in Boston and Boston was stuck in it.  Lehane understood that.  He had seen it and he could write about it.  And it was only then that I tried reading him again, reading Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River.  I saw how good he was with story and understanding his characters and really coming to grips with the darkness in the city that he both loved and hated.  That’s obvious in the stories that he tells and in the way he reacts to things.

This is a really good novel, a dark and disturbed novel that understands what Boston is like.  It’s about a man whose daughter is killed and even though the man is violent and has a criminal history, the death is actually an accident that never needed to happen.  It’s about the violence that just happens, the same way I was mugged and could have been killed, just because some kids were trying to have some fun.  It’s a very well-plotted mystery in which things come together in such a way that you get an even better understanding of the characters involved, what has happened to them, and how it’s possible there was nowhere for them to end up other than there.

The Adaptation:

“Eastwood called me.  He wanted to adapt one of my books.  Anything but Mystic River, I said.  Mystic River, he said.  So I put things in his way.  I insisted that Brian Helgeland had to write it and I knew he couldn’t because of complications.  But Eastwood kept at it.  Found a way to get him.  Found a way to make it.  And it was brilliant, far better than I could have hoped.”  That’s a condensed and paraphrased version of the story that Lehane told at Borders (and I actually met him a couple of more times later when I worked at the Booksmith and I like him a lot).  I asked him afterwards, when he was signing all our store stock, if he insisted on Helgeland because he had co-written the script for L.A. Confidential and he seemed pleased that I knew that and said that yes, I was correct.  He liked what Helgeland had done, taking such a long and complicated novel and making a brilliant movie out of it.  Here, he actually had an easier job.  In L.A. Confidential, Helgeland and Curtis Hanson had to change most of the second half of the film from the actions in the book.  But here, he’s actually able to stay very faithful to what happens.  There are subplot items that are either dropped (Sean’s relationship with his parents) or condensed (more of the history in the neighborhood) while almost everything we see on-screen actually comes straight from the book, including most of the dialogue and the brilliant ending.

The Credits:

Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Screenplay by Brian Helgeland.  Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
note:  The title is in the only thing in the opening credits.

Cidade de deus

cogThe Film:

I would have written about this film as one of the best films of 2003 (which it definitely is even if the idiots in the Foreign Film division of the Academy failed to even nominate it in 2002, which worked out to its benefit, since if it had been nominated, it wouldn’t have been eligible for its awards in 2003) except that I had already written about it when I bumped Meirelles into the Top 100 Directors in the 2.0 version of the list (he won’t make the 3.0 because I bumped up the number of films required).  A brilliant film that stays close to being a documentary in its content but not in its brilliant style.

cityThe Source:

Cidade de Dios by Paulo Lins  (1997)

This is a hard book to read, not because of its style, but because of the content.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with this much violence; it’s not just the killings either, even the sex is violent.  The book is told in three parts – the stories of three men and the reason it changes (and isn’t told in first person) is because all three end with that person dying violently.  It can be confusing trying to keep track of all the characters so the best way to experience it is to just flow into it and let the language take over and not try to keep track of who is who, especially since they’ll probably die before too long anyway.

The Adaptation:

The film doesn’t so much adapt the actual action from the book as it use it to create a feel for the film.  It makes use of Lins’ actual story (getting out of there by becoming a journalist) which isn’t actually part of the book, to create a focus for the film to narrow in upon.

The Credits:

Direçãu: Fernando Meirelles.  De romance de Paulo Lins.  Ruteiro: Braulio Mantovani.

American Splendor

american_splendorThe Film:

Robert Crumb had already had a documentary made about him, so, in some ways, the most logical next step was for someone to make a film out of American Splendor.  After all, Harvey Pekar, the writer behind the acclaimed series, lived in Cleveland like Crumb and Crumb had even drawn some of the strip.  If made properly, a really good documentary (like Crumb) could be made or even a feature film that expanded the notion of what a comic book film could be (like Ghost World from 2001 Road to Perdition from 2002).  But what kind of film to make?  After all, American Splendor is the memoir of comic books, less a story than an exploration of one man’s life spread across the page.  So perhaps there was no more fitting way to make this film than the way that Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman went ahead and made this film: a feature film mixed with a quasi-documentary style that brought in the real people being portrayed in the film but also allowing the actors to do their thing in playing the characters.  It made for a film that wasn’t like other films and definitely wasn’t like other comic book films.

Meet Harvey Pekar.  He’s exactly the kind of man that you would imagine would yell at the kids to get off his lawn, except that he doesn’t have a lawn because he lives in a miserable apartment that looks like it should be condemned at times.  Of course, eventually he’ll have a house.  He’ll even have a wife, in fact more than one over the course of his life (and the film).  He has a job that in a sense is menial (file clerk at the VA) but is also quite important and requires attention to detail (which Harvey has) but mostly allows him to do his job quietly and correctly and be left alone.  But Pekar happens to like comic books and believes that he can write a comic book.  That he can’t draw doesn’t really seem to be an issue for him because he knows people who can draw, including Robert Crumb, the acclaimed independent comic book artist who had made a huge name for himself and whose Fritz the Cat had already been made into the first X-rated animated film.

So we take a journey through Harvey’s life.  We see him through the performance from Paul Giamatti in the film that finally separated him from the smaller, supporting roles in important films (The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, Man in the Moon) and made him became a major independent film actor (which was only massively magnified the next year when he starred in Sideways).  We see him standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for the woman in front of him and imagining in his head precisely how this could appear in a comic book. Then we see Harvey himself, much older, and explaining how he came to write the comic in the first place.  We move between fictional re-imaginings of Harvey’s life and Harvey telling us about it, complete with the supporting people standing around him.

Perhaps what is most surprising is not that this film is as good as it is or as original as it is or that it even got made at all.  It’s that Harvey somehow, through all the cantakerousness, through all the griping and whining and complaining, somehow manages to find love.  He meets Joyce (played very well by Hope Davis), who has been a big supporter of his book (she works at a comic store in New Jersey) and they click enough that they simply get married almost right away and somehow they find that they really are the right match.  It’s not true love, it’s simply the matter of two people who fit together really well and are at odds with the vast majority of society, finally finding the right person who fits into their grooves.

asThe Source:

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar (1976-2008) and Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner  (1994)ocy

Hannah Arendt famously wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she coined the phrase (in the subtitle) “the banality of evil.”  In the comments here, mountanto makes a good case that Scorsese’s The Irishman is also an example of the banality of evil.  Well, here I’d like to think about the banality of comic books.  That’s not just meant to be an offhand diss of Pekar and his comics (whose greatness rather eludes me) but to speak about the content of the comics themselves.  While it would have been nice when I was a kid if I could have pointed to Pekar when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say “comic book writer” and they would retort “but you can’t draw” (people really never seem to hear the “writer” part), I’ve always been amazed that Pekar managed to get so many artists over the years who were willing to draw the various mundane and rather unpleasant aspects of his life.  Reading through American Splendor takes longer than watching the film and you really understand what a nightmare Pekar is to be around (and credit to him for not hiding any of that) and you wonder, with the complete banality of what he is writing about.  It’s no secret that I’m a big comic book guy and I mostly focus on superhero comics from DC or Marvel but that doesn’t mean I think that comics have to be like that.  I love the work of Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, Lynd Ward and Art Spiegelman.  You can tell amazing stories in comic form.  I just don’t find Pekar’s stories particularly interesting or worthwhile.  But there’s no question that they were critically acclaimed long before the film and continued to be so afterwards.  American Splendor ran as a comic for over 30 years (until after the movie) and only stopped because Pekar died.  Our Cancer Year was a separate book that documented the year in which Pekar dealt with lymphoma.  All of the work is highly autobiographical and doesn’t hide it with Pekar the main character (or Pekar and Joyce in the latter book).

The Adaptation:

The film documents the creation of the comic book as well as a lot of individual scenes.  Aside from the pseudo-documentary style that would bring in the real people involved to talk about things, it would also recreate scenes from the actual books on-screen, sometimes with Pekar’s character standing there thinking of how he would write this into the comic.  It’s an absolutely brilliant way to approach adapting a comic book to film, especially one that’s not fiction.

The Credits:

Written and Directed by Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman.  Based on the comic book series “American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar and “Our Cancer Year” by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

master and commander - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpgThe Film:

I described this film in my full review as the film David Lean never got to make.  It’s got that Lean epic scope but also the ability to balance that with characterization and story.  Those qualities aren’t just lost in the scope.  It helps, of course, that we have such strong performances from Russell Crowe and Paul Bettanny and that the film does such a good job with their friendship, right down to those fantastic closing lines.  It’s a great film and if it’s just barely outside my Top 5 for the year that’s no reason not to appreciate how brilliantly made it is.

macThe Source:

The Novels of Patrick O’Brian (1970-1999)

For the purposes of this project I read the two title novels, the first in the series (Master and Commander) which introduces the series’ two title characters (Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin) and the tenth (The Far Side of the World) which provides most of the plot.  I didn’t go farther than that, certainly wasn’t going to read all 20 novels (a 21st was published posthumously and after the film was released) or even the 13 novels in the series that provide at least some element of the film.

I can understand why these novels are popular but they don’t appeal to me.  They are so filled with details (which probably delight those who do read them) that I found myself just getting lost and struggling to complete even the two I was reading for the project.  But at least O’Brian is more than capable of writing bold adventure stories with great historical detail and no lack of characterization for his two title characters.  This is the kind of thing in decades past would have been pulp writing but O’Brian is far too talented with his writing to sink down to that level.

The Adaptation:

I’m not going to attempt to discuss all the aspects of the film and where they come from.  Suffice it to say, those who are much more familiar with the entire series have put in the work on the Wikipedia page of the film explaining the novels involved and which major aspects of the film come from which novels.

The Credits:

Directed by Peter Weir.  Screenplay by Peter Weir & John Collee.  Based Upon the Novels by Patrick O’Brian.
note:  There are no opening credits except the title.

Nirgendwo in Afrika

nowhere_in_africa_ver2The Film:

In this post, F.T. notes that Academy Foreign Film voters often go for World War II films and I replied that no War film had ever won the Oscar in that category.  But that’s because The Assault, the film under discussion, though with World War II themes, I classify as a Drama.  As can often be the case in life, we were both right.  While no War film has ever won the Oscar, lots of films that aren’t actually War films but have World War II as a setting (like, not only The Assault, but also Forbidden Games, The Shop on Main Street, Closely Watched Trains and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and that’s as far as I bothered to look before having proved the point) have won the Oscar.  Another example, of course, is Nowhere in Africa, a film based on a novel that was less a novel and more a memoir (more below) about a German family that uproots to Kenya just before the war breaks out because, while the father has pride in his country, his culture and especially his language, they are also Jewish and he has realized that to stay is to die.

Depending on how you approach the film and how well you remember it, you may think of those Holocaust themes when you think of the film or you might actually forget them entirely.  I vaguely remembered the reasons that the family went to Africa, but I mostly remembered it as a story similar to Out of Africa, except told through more of the child’s eyes as she grows from a small child into a young woman over the course of the film and the way she witnesses the issues in her parents marriage.  Others make more of a connection to that previous film’s themes (again, see below) though I think this is a far superior film because the writing is so much better and the story is actually interesting.

It’s interesting that it is a story of the young girl (told through her eyes, although not directly, which again, see below) and while I remembered the strong performances from both Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz as the girl Regina at two different ages, the film really rests on the shoulders of Julianne Kohler and her strong, sexy performance as Jettel.

That’s where the film resides.  Jettel is a woman who is pushed out of her place in the world and suddenly finds herself in this overbearing heat, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, where she has only her husband to rely upon and then he leaves because there is a war and he feels he must fight in it so that Germany can regain itself from the horrors that have taken it over.  She has to learn to be strong and find her own way.  It’s very much not what the book was about, but it’s very much what it feels like the film is about.

This is a strong film, a great film.  It won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars and it was a good choice because it’s a great film, though that choice is also tinged by the idiocy of the Academy voters (it actually wasn’t the best of the nominees – Hero was), the idiocy of the Foreign Film voters (Hero wasn’t the best of the submitted films – City of God was) and the idiocy of the whole process (City of God wasn’t the best of the Foreign language films of the year – Talk to Her was).  This might be the only year in history where each of the top four films on my own list are the four different categories and each one is the next step up in the process.

Zweig, Stefanie - Nirgendwo in AfrikaThe Source:

Nirgendwo in Afrika by Stefanie Zweig  (1995)

As has been discussed numerous other times, I am not a fan of looking at fiction and trying to figure out how much of it is autobiographical.  It becomes a bit different when the book is published with a subtitle of “An Autobiographical Novel” (which may not have been the case with the original German edition although the cover I found seems to indicate that it was but definitely is in the 2004 English translation).  It’s an interesting book, though Zweig is not as talented as Dinesen so you focus more on how this book is different than Out of Africa which is actually easy in some ways because of the points I mentioned above (and because Dinesen wasn’t writing fiction).

My first point above was that this is more of a memoir than a novel and that’s very true.  Zweig discusses in the introduction how much of it is from real life (pretty much all of it) so it’s unclear why she decided to publish it as fiction instead of as a memoir.  Perhaps because of the third spot above where I point down here which is that the story isn’t actually told in first person, which, given how true to her life it is, seems like an odd choice.  It always feels a bit jarring.

But the more important bit is about the theme of the book.  Dinesen’s book was about how she came to Africa and fell in love with it.  Zweig’s book is about how the family is forced to leave Germany or die (many of their family members do die in the Holocaust).  Once in Kenya, the war breaks out and they are treated as enemy aliens because they are German in spite of having left Germany because they are Jewish.  But in the introduction to the English translation, Zweig notes that most German readers through the years asked her about Owuor, the Kenyan man who was such an important part of their lives in that period and that they were interested in Africa and it only got more so after the film won the Oscar.  But once the film opened outside Germany (in 2003, which is why this review is not in 2002 when the film won Best Foreign Film), she was flooded with mail from around the world, from people who had been refugees, who remembered that life and they wanted to be able to read the original book.  They knew that this film was dealing with very different themes from Dinesen’s book even if you might not remember it that way.

The Adaptation:

When I first started reading the book, I was surprised in the introduction to read that the book was about her love for her father and her connection to him because I barely remembered him even being in the film (he’s of course in the film quite a bit, especially early on, but I remembered Kohler’s more forceful performance and the performances from the two young actresses and he slipped to the back of my mind).  But she wanted to document his experience and what he had given up (he had been a lawyer before the war) to save his family.  But the book itself is fairly faithfully adapted to the screen with almost every major point in the book up there on the screen.

The Credits:

Buch und Regie: Caroline Link. frei nach dem gleichnamigen Roman von Stefanie Zweig.

Whale Rider

whale_rider_ver3The Film:

History is full of rulers who never expected to have to play the role.  The entire point of The King’s Speech is about a man who never expected to be king, let alone king in wartime.  Likewise, Henry VIII wasn’t raised to be the king because he had an older brother.  But even more extreme are those who were expected to deliberately not step into the role.  Think of Elizabeth I and how much came between her and the throne (and how much was done in Henry’s efforts to have a son in which she wouldn’t have to take the throne).  All of that is a roundabout way of discussing the situation here.  Pai is a girl, a young girl at that.  She’s of the line of Paikea, the original Whale Rider of Māori tradition but as a female she’s not expected to take that role.  What’s more, she was never expected to take it – her father should be before her and she had a twin brother.  Unfortunately, the twin died in childbirth as did their mother and that experience left her father so shaken that he ignored his responsibilities and left for Europe.  Stuck being raised by a grandfather who still rules the village and desperately loves her but also is mired in his tradition and not only refuses to countenance the idea that she could fall into the role of whale rider but also actively blames her for problems in the village, she is left in an untenable position.  And that would be the setting for a tragedy if Pai were not so headstrong and if she weren’t clearly destined to be a whale rider.

If you think that somehow Pai won’t be acknowledged by her grandfather and she won’t find her destiny as the whale rider by the end of the film then not only have you never seen a film but you probably never should see one either.  There are films where a sad or tragic ending is the right one and this isn’t one and wouldn’t have been made if that was the case anyway.  This is the story of a triumph of the modern day over entrenched traditions, of flexibility over narrow-mindedness, of the notion that the world only spins forward.

That story might be what the film such a triumph with audiences but it is not what makes it such a good film.  First, of course, is that the film is well-written.  Though it moves towards the only ending it can possibly have, it does so intelligently with characters we understand even when we disagree with them.  The grandfather contains contradictions because such a man would contain them.  The father returns and we understand his position even if we would hope that we would step up in more of a way than he has.  We feel the strong bonds of emotions between the characters and no one ever acts like an idiot just because the plot insists upon it but rather because their character does.

But the most important thing about the film, of course, is the magnificent performance from Keisha Castle-Hughes.  The Oscars have long had a history of category fraud, of pushing people into supporting categories because they aren’t stars, but in a year where SAG bizarrely nominated Castle-Hughes as a supporting performance, it was the Oscars who rightly placed her in the lead category, the youngest nominee in the history of the category (until nine years later).  She is caught, as children often can be, between what she knows she can do and what other people thing she might do and what she is expected to do.  If the film were just about her performance that would be enough to watch it and almost be enough to make it very good but everything about the film comes together for a realistic portrayal of a society on the edge of changes and the person who will lead them there which we see in every moment of her performance.

wrThe Source:

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera  (1987)

Apparently not that easy to get hold of in the U.S., especially in COVID times.  So I have not yet been able to read the book.

The Adaptation:

There’s not much I can say here, having not read the book.

The Credits:

Written and Directed by Niki Caro.  From the book “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera.
note:  The credits on this are odd in that they begin (production companies, main actors, title) then just stop with nothing more after the title until the end of the film.

Big Fish

big_fishThe Film:

When it was first released in late 2003, Veronica and I had different reactions to this film.  I thought it was a bit of whimsy, the marriage of Tim Burton’s visual sensibilities to a larger story about fatherhood.  It looked great, of course, because it was a Burton film, and it was amusing, as so many Burton films are.  But I didn’t think it was the film that was finally going to get Tim Burton into the Oscar race.  Veronica, on the other hand, absolutely loved it.  In the relationship between the two men, Edward Bloom and his son, she saw a pained relationship that was trying to bridge across a lack of understanding.  She still loves it.  I still think it is a very good film but not a great one.

There are definite strengths of the film.  The first is in the dual performances of Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney as Edward Bloom at different ages.  McGregor had already shown he could perfectly mimic Alec Guinness’ voice and mannerisms as Obi-Wan, but here, he embodies very much what Finney was like as the young Tom Jones so many decades before.  Finney provides most of the humor to the story, with the great, exaggerated manner in which he tells his stories.  You can understand precisely why he is the life of the party and why his son resents it.

Then there are the things that Tim Burton always brings to the table.  The visual look of the film is fantastic, with its cinematography, art direction, use of color.  His visual eye is one of the best things about him and his films.  And, of course, there is his constant collaboration with Danny Elfman, who once again provides a wonderful score (added to this time by the original Pearl Jam song “Man of the Hour” which should have earned an Oscar nomination but they’re dumb).

But the story really tries too hard to rely on the whimsy.  It makes for an interesting difference from the book that Edward has to work for years to find out about his love, but in the book he simply meets her and woes her.  Yes, he still fights for her, but there is less of a fantastical task involved.  And that brings me to the Danny DeVito character.  He’s fine enough, in context, but the joke gets old, and when he reappears at the end, it’s supposed to show how true all of Edward’s tales are, but I just kept thinking, well, wouldn’t he be dead by now?  You don’t want look for too much reality in a Burton film but sometimes in this one he doesn’t quite provide enough and that’s what really keeps me from calling it a great film.

BigfishnovelThe Source:

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace (1998)

This is a short little comic novel.  It is short enough (180 pages on small pages with generous margins) that I was able to reread it on my morning commute to work (when I was still in Boston and my commute was an hour as opposed to the 15 minutes it was at SDSU before COVID and the 11 seconds it is now from my bed to my computer).

It’s amusing enough – the story of a man who seems to live entirely in his stories, the epic mythology he has built around his younger life that he uses to entertain anyone who comes within listening range.  The novel is told by his son who has been somewhat estranged from his father because he feels like he has never known him and since his father is dying he wants a chance to get to really know him before the inevitable end.

In the end, of course, he will find a measure of peace with his father, because it’s a comic novel and would you really want to read through the whole book only to find that they never reach any accordance?

The book is told from the point of view of the son, but it is really about the father and the discovery into his past and so, when he finally places his father in the water and watches him turn into a fish and swim away, it’s the natural ending.

The Adaptation:

A lot of the book ends up in the film.  Some of the individual stories that the father tells (about the giant, for instance, or the way looking at the witch’s eye will make you see your death) make it into the film intact.  There are also the parts that his father doesn’t really tell but the son finds out (like how his father bought a whole town).

But much of the film is invented wholesale.  The book does some have tall tales to it, but stays mostly grounded in some form of reality.  But the film takes that and really runs with it.  The film is a fantasy, filled with fascinating characters that are far too outlandish to have actually existed, no matter what we see at the end.  Indeed, much of the film is true to the idea of the book, but is invented.  The son is the primary example, because in the book, he is much younger and not married.  In the film, part of the reason he’s trying to learn about his father is to prepare himself for his own impending fatherhood.

The Credits:

Directed by Tim Burton.  Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace.  Screenplay by John August.

Bubba Ho-Tep

bubba_ho_tep_ver2The Film:

You might look at my appreciation of this film, at the fact that not only do I list it in my Top 10 for Adapted Screenplay for the year (meaning I appreciate its quality) but also saw it in the theater in spite of only limited engagements (meaning I had a desire to see it as well) and wonder how the hell this could be.  I am, after all, a man who notably disdains camp.  But camp generally refers to liking something because of its bad taste or liking things ironically.  A film that is already good does not have to be considered camp – it is good in and of itself.  Camp no longer applies.

So why would people think this is camp?  Because the premise of the story is that Elvis and JFK team up to fight an ancient Egyptian mummy.  That would certainly be enough to qualify but it’s not even all.  They are teaming up in the present.  How so, you might deign to ask?  Well, Elvis switched places with an impersonator back in the 70s (it was the impersonator who died) and then all of the proof of who he was burned up in a trailer fire and now he’s old and his pecker doesn’t work and he lives in a nursing home.  Also in the home is an old black man in a wheelchair who claims he’s JFK, that they kidnapped him after trying to kill him and they even dyed him black.  What’s more, the mummy kills people by yanking out their souls, through the anus.  Given all of that, this easily could have been the worst film of 2003 and yet it’s one of the most enjoyable.  So why is that?

First of all, there is the courage of the filmmakers convictions.  They went all in for this film.  They gave the mummy itself an aura of shadow and mystery instead of just going for straight up gore.  It’s not a slasher film but instead a supernatural horror film.  It is well-filmed and the makeup for Elvis is very well done.  It also has wit to it, in the way that Elvis and JFK interact with each other.  Yes, it’s Horror but it’s also a Horror Comedy, a film that tries (and succeeds) at being funny rather than taking itself too seriously.  It knows the situation is ridiculous but then goes forward with all due seriousness when necessary anyway.

But the real reason is the performances.  Ossie Davis, the veteran of such films as Do the Right Thing, comes across as sincere when he tells us he’s JFK and rattles off ridiculous things that have landed him in this situation.  For a man with such credentials as he had in life to even be in this movie is bizarre but he does it so well you understand why he would want to.  But the film is really about Bruce Campbell.  Bruce really should have played Elvis long ago as is obvious from the film (and the scenes where he gets less makeup and plays a younger Elvis).  Because Bruce is so often in such ridiculous things with Sam Raimi he’s never really gotten his due as an actual actor (like his performance in Hudsucker Proxy).  He was, in fact, the reason we saw this (he did a tour promoting his new book and the film and we were supposed to get a signing but something happened and he couldn’t make it and we had to wait until his next book / film tour with the infinitely inferior Man with the Screaming Brain instead).  He’s fantastic as Elvis with the perfect intonation in every syllable and you never doubt that he would be the real thing.  And of course we get the perfect line to go out on, whispered magnificently as Elvis knows he has been a triumph once again.

kingThe Source:

“Bubba Ho-Tep” by Joe R. Lansdale (1994)

Now this is camp.  It’s in horrible taste with far too much fascination with Elvis’ penis than the actual story.  It’s badly written and rather stupid.  And it’s exactly why you might think the film would be camp as well.  It was written for an anthology called The King is Dead and was reviewed at the time by Kirkus as easily the worst of the collection which didn’t stop Lansdale from selling the story, writing a sequel or including it in his own best of collection.

The Adaptation:

The basic framework of the story is straight from the original.  What the film does is build up the story with more interesting characters (namely thanks to the performances) and better dialogue.  The most satisfying change is actually the last one, where we get the message in the stars and the final “Thank you.  Thank you very much.” that is a perfect ending and nowhere to be found in the original story.

The Credits:

Directed by Don Coscarelli.  Screenplay by Don Coscarelli.  Based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale.

Matchstick Men

matchstick_menThe Film:

Story, characters and talent can trump people you don’t particularly enjoy.  I’m not one of those Nicolas Cage fans, I’ve never particularly liked Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman is a generic blonde who was big for a couple of years and then faded away and wasn’t all that good to begin with.  As mentioned here, I saw this with my friend Tavis during a long lunch break from work.  We were both excited to see it because it was the newest Ridley Scott film and Scott is a great director.  Cage could be annoying and Rockwell still wasn’t anything to me but it looked to be intriguing.  And it was.

Cage and Rockwell play Roy and Frank, two con men who can make a good solid day’s money pretty damn quick with a variety of cons.  Roy is the one in charge and he’s the one who has money saved up but he’s also a bundle of neuroses and Frank is trying to talk him into a long-range, big score that could pay enough that they could possibly quit the racket entirely.  What complicates that is when Roy ends up with a new therapist and that therapist makes the suggestion that Roy try to find out what happened to the baby his ex was carrying when she left him fifteen years ago.  What happens, it turns out, was a daughter, one who comes skateboarding into Roy’s life with the potential to upend everything, not just the score that they’re working on right now, but all the defense mechanisms that Roy has placed around his life to keep himself from going insane, which is really only a couple of pills away.

The plot gets complicated and it takes a lot of twists and turns and you’re never quite certain what’s going to happen next and sometimes that is upended by what happens after that.  But it’s not really about the big con, the way a film like Ocean’s Eleven is, but rather a character study about Roy and the way he guards his life and then allows it to become very unguarded.  It’s one of those good Cage performances because it takes all of his weaknesses and turns them into strengths, the same way Moonstruck did and also not at all like Moonstruck did.

Now this is a 17 year old film and it was a novel before it was a film (barely – see below) so I could talk about the twists, but it’s more fun to let you discover them and see how well Scott pulls you into the story and then sucks you back out of it and you can see if you know where all of this is going to end (and a hint – not necessarily where the book ends).

mmThe Source:

Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia  (2002)

The rights to this book sold pretty quick because I’m holding a first edition in my hand (from the library) and it says right on the cover “Read next summer’s big movie this winter” (the film, in fact, finished filming three months before the novel was released).  It’s a decent little book (not much over 200 pages) about two con men and what happens when the daughter of one them suddenly enters their lives.  In some ways, more of a character study than a plot driven book.

The Adaptation:

Apparently, during the script process, they thought about deviating from the ending, then went back to it, then went beyond it (the final scenes are not in the book at all).  There are a lot of deviations and many of the details differ (certainly Cage is not nearly as big and menacing as the character described in the book and one notable difference is that’s a real hospital in the book) but the basic premise stays the same.

The Credits:

Directed by Ridley Scott.  Based on the book by Eric Garcia.  Screenplay by Nicholas Griffin & Ted Griffin.

Consensus Nominee


Cold Mountain

cold_mountainThe Film:

This was expected to be the big Miramax film for the 2003 Oscar race.  It had all the prestige behind it (Oscar winning director and star, best seller, overdue star for an Oscar with a massive Oscar-bait role, rising Oscar star, epic scope) and had lead all films at the Globe and BAFTA noms.  Instead, it stumbled at the end (signaled by a lack of a DGA nom) and 2003 became the first year since 1991 without a Miramax film among the Best Picture nominees which is why this film is being reviewed now and wasn’t reviewed back in 2012 when I covered the 2003 Best Picture race.

We start with The Battle of the Crater, one of the biggest slaughters of the Civil War, in what seemed like an easy Union victory but turned into a disaster that helped hold off the end of the war.  Inman is a Southerner who is hurt in the battle, crawling up from the dirt after the explosion beneath him that creates the crater of the battle’s name.  He’s managed to survive the battle.  In order to survive the war, he will decide that the hospital is not the place to be and that he’s heading home.  Now he just has to make it home and reunite with his love.

But is Ada his love?  She’s a beautiful woman who moved out to Inman’s small rural town by Cold Mountain far from the bustling life of Charleston that she was used to.  Inman was struck by her beauty and Ada was struck by Inman’s courage but they barely get a chance to share more than a few words together before the war intervenes and Inman is off for several years, just desperately hoping to survive.

In fact, the war isn’t really the problem for either of them.  The real problem is the Home Guard, the men who have been terrorizing everyone, it would seem, while the real men are off fighting the war.  Inman has to avoid them on his way home, going through enough adventures to make Ulysses feel like he’s being taunted and never far from death from a variety of sources.  Ada, on the other hand, has to keep her farm going, and struggle to push back against the awful man in charge of the local Home Guard who wants her land and wants her and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

The talent that shines through in the film, from the cinematography to the music to the direction to the two stars (Jude Law would earn an Oscar nomination and Nicole Kidman is very solid as well) is all kind of undone a bit by the script.  We’re supposed to admire Inman’s journey but it seems like kind of a waste on one level.  He’s going because we’ve been told he’s in love with Ada.  Indeed, the most memorable scene in the film comes when he comes across a young widow played very well by Natalie Portman and as Roger Ebert put it “Nothing takes the suspense out of Boy Meets Girl like your knowledge that Boy Has Already Met Star”.  That seems to be a metaphor for the film as we are told about this great couple but almost never see them together.

I was also put off a bit by the clearly Oscar baiting performance by Renee Zellweger as the helping hick who comes to see Ada through her tough times.  Zellweger had been so much better in the string of movies that had lead at first to nothing at the Oscars (Jerry Maguire, One True Thing, Nurse Betty) and then finally to back-to-back nominations (Bridget Jones, Chicago) but here was a role where Oscar voters could feel comfortable voting for her (big dramatic performance with important speeches) and yet, it was so much weaker, not only than the other nominees but than her other performances that I found it oddly distracting when I saw the film in theaters the opening week and it still does not work all that well for me.  That also seems to be a metaphor for the film.  It’s got so many pieces right but it can’t seem to really put it all together in a convincing film.  It’s got some really great supporting performances but they’re all so small (Philip Seymour Hoffman is another) that it was Zellweger, in the plum supporting role, that got all the attention and awards.

Don’t get me wrong.  Cold Mountain is quite a good film and it does a lot of things right.  But, like with the Academy on nomination morning, it just can’t quite seem to seal the deal.

Cold_mountain_novel_coverThe Source:

Cold Mountain by Thomas Frazier  (1997)

I’m quite surprised that this was such a big seller, partially because it wasn’t published by a major publisher (it was published by Atlantic Monthly Press) and partially because the writing tends to get in the way of the story at times.  Frazier’s writing is good but Kirkus Reviews really hit the nail on the head with their review: “there’s no doubt that Frazier can write; the problem is that he stops so often to savor the sheer pleasure of the act of writing”.  That’s really the problem – you get lost at times simply because Frazier can’t stop the descriptions enough to actually do something with his story.  Yet, at the end, after 300 pages of journeying, Inman’s end is so quick, so underwhelming that you wonder why you read it at all.  It’s a fairly well-written book but it has problems with the story-telling and there’s a reason I had to get a copy out of the library to read it because I got rid of my copy a long time ago.

The Adaptation:

There are significant differences between the book and the film.  In fact, pretty much accept that Inman is wounded and then leaves the hospital to return home to Ada and that he meets some characters along the way, including a young female ferry captain, a preacher who has knocked up one of his flock and a young widow with a baby who is bothered by Union troops.  That’s about as much as the two things have in common because almost all the details, including the order of events (for instance, in the book, Inman takes the ferry before he ever meets the preacher, there is no mention of raising her dress and it is the boat that is shot, not her – making the film scene much more memorable than the scene in the book which takes place much earlier) and how things happen.  Even the death scene is completely different (although with the same basic results) and the Home Guard is really much more awful in the film than they are in the book (as if Minghella decided he needed more of a villain for the film).  It’s interesting that I complained about the writing above in the film because in almost all the cases I much prefer how the film did things (especially in all the scenes with Hoffman and the scenes with Portman) rather than how they happened in the book.

The Credits:

directed by Anthony Minghella.  screenplay by Anthony Minghella.  based on the book by Charles Frazier.

Consensus Nominee

Seabiscuit

seabiscuit-quadThe Film:

As mentioned in my original review (because it was a Best Picture nominee), this film feels like it was made in the 1930’s, except, of course, if it had been made then it would have been about 90 minutes instead of a ridiculous 140.  It’s well-acted but the writing is fairly pedestrian and in the end, it’s still just a well-made film that’s too long and is about a damn horse and maybe I could have been made to care if the film was better but it isn’t.

seaThe Source:

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand  (2001)

I did not read this book all that closely because I just don’t give a shit.  It’s a horse.  If horse racing interests you (why?), this is definitely the book for you because Hillenbrand does have a good narrative feel and she really did her research.  For what it is, it is solid.

The Adaptation:

With a lot of changes to make the story more Hollywood (like that Red was much older or the timing is different) and some flourishes because it’s the Hollywood thing (the William H. Macy character is completely fictional and in the 30s he probably wouldn’t have existed with much of his stuff done through newspapers flashing on the screen), it does give a decent idea of the real story of Seabiscuit.

The Credits:

Written for the Screen and Directed by Gary Ross.  Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.

note:  There are no opening credits aside from the title.

NYFC Winner

The Secret Lives of Dentists

secret_lives_of_dentistsThe Film:

A woman is performing in the choir.  Her husband goes backstage to give her her good luck charm when he notices her in the arms of another man.

Is it just a momentary thing, two colleagues in the midst of an emotional moment?  Or is it an affair?  They have three daughters and they share a dental practice, meaning not only are they together during the evenings but also during the day.  How will this kind of thing play out, both across their personal lives but through their professional ones as well?  And being a dentist, it means he not only must pay close attention to what he is doing at work, without distractions, but he is also up close with the people he is working on, sometimes getting their own lives right up close in the face of his.  A side note that my own dentist when I was a kid would ask me questions about my siblings and always managed to somehow perfectly understand the answers in spite of me having my mouth open and his hands in there.

All of this makes for a well-done little introspective drama as the dentist must take stock of his life, his job and his marriage, all of this played out against real (and not real) conversations with a difficult patient played by Denis Leary and yes including his name means having the word “difficult” become redundant.

The writing in the film is fine, with some comic moments at times, but mostly a drama that presents a realistic view of how two people fall in love and start a family but also the things that can come between them.  The better highlight is the acting from Campbell Scott and Hope Davis (Davis won the NYFC award for Supporting Actress just as the film won the Screenplay award from the same group but I feel that the award was more for her performance in American Splendor which is considerably better) while you just cringe watching Leary (not because he’s bad but because he’s Leary and he says things people shouldn’t say out loud).

ageThe Source:

The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley  (1987)

Something about Smiley’s work has always left me a bit cold.  She’s a talented writer but I can’t ever manage to quite slide properly into her work.  This is a decent novella that formed the second half of a story collection (and was the last thing published, almost as if she had enough stories for half a collection and wrote the novella so she could finally collect a decade’s worth of work) about a man who is worried his marriage is coming apart and becomes very introspective as he both looks back at his past and takes stock of his present.

The Adaptation:

It is a very straight-forward adaptation (yes, even when it looks back into the past, it does so in pretty much the same way that the first-person narrator of the novella does) that stays very close to the original novella.

Credits:

Directed by Alan Rudolph.  From “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley.  Screenplay by Craig Lucas.

BAFTA Nominee


Girl with a Pearl Earring

girl_with_a_pearl_earringThe Film:

Vermeer presents an interesting contrast against Van Gogh.  Both of them were Dutch painters, both of them were masters of the use of color, both achieved worldwide recognition after their deaths and both have had films made about them.  There the similarities end.  Vermeer had a good reputation during his life and had a patron; it was only his full esteem that was re-evaluated and that didn’t come until centuries later.  Van Gogh had trouble selling anything and dealt with severe mental health issues.  What’s more, Van Gogh’s life is thoroughly documented which is why we get such films as Lust for Life and Vincent and Theo while very little is known about Vermeer which is why fiction has to be written about him.  So while Lust for Life looks at Van Gogh’s life with the paintings bringing it to life, this story mostly pushes Vermeer himself into the background while focusing on a fictional subject of one of his most famous paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Griet’s family is poor.  Her father, a tile painter and glazer, lost his sight and use of his hand in a kiln explosion.  So she is sent off to be a maid to the Vermeer family.  While working as a maid, which includes cleaning Vermeer’s studio, he becomes interested in her and her eye for color.  Eventually, of course, she will become an assistant to him and even a subject of one of his paintings.  During all of this, she must fend off his lecherous patron who tries to rape her, decide whether she wants to marry the butcher’s son (I was going to write “handsome butcher’s son” but, first, I don’t think handsome is really the right word for Cillian Murphy and second, there’s that hair to be dealt with).  Of course, in the end, he will paint her, she will leave and the painting will be revealed to us.

The film does several things well.  Those things include an ethereal performance from Scarlett Johansson that, pressed up against her performance from Lost in Translation, really showed her range years before the Oscars finally nominated her, masterful cinematography that really understands the eye of the Dutch painters of the era and the first film score from the brilliant Alexandre Desplat (even if it’s not up to the level of his later work).  But the story isn’t particularly subtle and the film makes it even less so than the novel did (see below).  I was quite surprised when the BAFTAs gave it nominations for British Film and Adapted Screenplay and still am so today.  But it’s a solid film with a good eye for its work even if it can’t quite live up to the level of color in something like Lust for Life.

girlThe Source:

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier  (1999)

A decent novel that imagines the subject of one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, giving the character a full life.  In some ways, it’s far more interesting than the film (see below) and in some ways, because Chevalier doesn’t write with a lot of subtlety (she seems to feel that the town is divided into Catholics and Protestants and that all the Protestants are interchangeable), it’s not that great either.  Also, it suffers from the same problem all such books do, which is that it’s hard to make an artist come to life in fiction when so much of their work is caught up in their art.  The book mentions these paintings but we can’t see them – it argues for an illustrated edition where the paintings can also appear.  You could argue that’s what imagination is for, but since Chevalier doesn’t write well enough to really bring the paintings to life, that negates that argument, especially since the paintings really do exist.

The Adaptation:

The film sets the tone for being different from the book in the opening scene.  In the book, Griet’s arrangement of the vegetables by color catches Vermeer’s eye and he comments on it with the implication that he accepts her as a maid because she has an eye for color.  But it’s clear that they wanted to hold back on the first appearance of him for later in the film.  It’s a sign that though the primary theme and story will be the same, there will be a lot of significant changes.

Perhaps the most significant are the elimination of Griet’s two siblings (she has a younger sister who dies of the plague and a brother who is serving his apprenticeship) and the lack of use of the religious differences (which are such a major theme in the book).  Those things make the book more interesting than the film in terms of story-telling (and the film gets less subtle with the attempted rape which doesn’t happen in the book).  There is also the practical aspect to Griet allowing herself to be courted by a butcher’s son in the book; in a family that hasn’t eaten meat in months, having access to meat all the time is a boon and a reason to marry.

But the film has the advantage that it can actually show us Vermeer’s work in a way that the book isn’t able to do.  That alone is a reason to perhaps choose the film over the book.  Neither is great but neither is a waste of time either.

Credits:

Directed by Peter Webber.  Screenplay by Olivia Hetreed.  Based on the Novel by Tracy Chevalier.

Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10

(in descending order of how I rank the script)

note:  As with every year from 1989 to 2005, you can find more about every film I saw in the theater on the Nighthawk Awards.
note:  This list is much much shorter than the 2002 list.

  • The Good Thief  –  High ***.5 Crime film from Neil Jordan but just short of my Top 10.
  • Peter Pan  –  Low ***.5 version of the classic novel and play.  But who would have thought the awkward, gangly Wendy played by Rachel Hurd-Wood would explode into babehood so overwhelmingly that just a few years later the image of her in my Tom Tykwer post would lead to literally tens of thousands of Google hits.
  • I Capture the Castle  –  One of a number of performances that helped propel Bill Nighy to a much greater household name in 2003.  Based on the classic novel by Dodie Smith which I can never remember if I’ve read or not.
  • X2  –  The best of the X-Men franchise for everyone except Veronica (who is bothered that Stryker’s son is left behind to die).  It begins the tradition that will blossom in later films in the franchise of a collaboration between Xavier and Magneto.  The ending is a bit dumb since, of course, Jean could stop the water from inside the plane.  It has nods to a couple of major X-Men storylines but mostly just making use of the characters.
  • Shattered Glass  –  Hayden Christensen almost pulls off acting but it’s really about a good script and a very good performance from Peter Sarsgaard, preparing for his great 2004.  Based on the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger that detailed Stephen Glass’ fabrications.

Other Adaptations

(in descending order of how good the film is)

note:  The adaptations go up for the second straight year.

  • Open Range  –  A mid ***.5 film but the script is perhaps the weakest part.  Based on the novel The Open Range Men by Lauran Paine.
  • Once Upon a Time in Mexico  –  Good, fun conclusion to the El Mariachi trilogy from Robert Rodriguez.  A film so gloriously over-the-top it could contain a line like “Are you a Mexican or a Mexicant?”
  • Horseman  –  Solid Croatian Drama based on the novel by Ivan Aralica.
  • Ripley’s Game  –  The third Ripley book had been adapted before (as The American Friend in 1977) but this time Lilana Cavani gives the role to Malkovich and it works quite well.  Not actually released in theaters in the States for some inexplicable reason but it was in the rest of the world.
  • Matthew’s Days  –  The Polish Oscar submission for 1968 finally gets an L.A. release.  Solid Drama based on the novel The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas.
  • Runaway Jury  –  I have to assume the novel was shit because John Grisham’s a shit writer but I had stopped reading him by the time the novel came out.  The film, however, is surprisingly good.
  • Dekada 70  –  Filipino Drama based on the novel by Lualhati Bautista.
  • The Cat Returns  –  Adapted in that it’s based on a manga series but also adapted in that it’s a spin-off (a quasi-sequel) to Whisper of the Heart and like that film, a rare Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki or Takahata.
  • Mamay  –  The Ukrainian Oscar submission is based on an old Ukrainian folktale which is a similar story to Romeo and Juliet.
  • The Human Stain  –  In my review of the film in my piece about the novel (which I rank at #86) I mention the problems, both as a film, and as an adaptation of the novel.
  • The Housekeeper  –  Solid French Comedy from director Claude Berri.  Based on a book by Christian Oster.
  • The Italian Job  –  Down to mid *** with this remake of the classic British heist film that’s beloved in the U.K..
  • Spy-Kids 3-D: Game Over  –  The third in the franchise could have been much better if first, they hadn’t decided to do it in 3-D (I don’t like 3-D because I have to wear the glasses over my regular glasses) and second, if Rodriguez hadn’t decided to focus on super-annoying Juni rather than Carmen.
  • Looney Tunes: Back in Action  –  Only adapted in the sense that the Looney Tunes characters have been used before.  Fun in parts and a good role for Brendan Fraser.
  • Taking Sides  –  An István Szabó Drama based on the trials held in Germany after World War II.  Based on a play by Ronald Harwood.
  • Buffalo Soldiers  –  Black Comedy about American soldiers in Germany after the fall of the wall based on the novel by Robert O’Connor.  It played the Toronto Film Festival during the first week of September in 2001 but a week later there was no way a film this cynical about the military was getting a release so it had to wait until 2003.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun  –  After a solid performance in a bad film the year before, Diane Lane settles for a decent one in a much better (and more charming) film.  A reminder why she was, as I once read, “the actress your wife doesn’t mind you having a crush on.”  Based on the memoir by Frances Mayes.
  • The Dancer Upstairs  –  Malkovich isn’t in the film but it’s his directorial debut, based on the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare.
  • Monsieur Ibrahim  –  Based on the novel and play by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, this was one of the more prominent and popular Foreign films in the States this year with a good supporting performance from Omar Sharif.
  • Hulk  –  Ang Lee’s take on the classic Marvel character wasn’t a success the way Spider-Man and X-Men had been, either artistically (the storytelling is muddled and the acting isn’t great) or financially.  It had the sixth biggest opening weekend of the year but barely doubled that by the end of its run (its 47% of its total gross from opening weekend set a new record for a film with this high of an opening weekend and wouldn’t be broken for six years).  But it proved that Hulk could look decent (not great, but decent) on film and Lee deserves credit for the comic book panel look of the film that really was cool and that no other filmmakers have decided to copy.  It’s a better film than most people gave it credit for being.  And after I wrote all that, I reviewed the film in full.
  • Freaky Friday  –  Disney had already used Lindsay Lohan for a Parent Trap remake so when she hit her teen years they did this one as well.  For a remake, actually pretty solid.
  • The Professional  –  The Serbian Oscar submission, directed by Dušan Kovačević based on his own play.
  • Friday Night  –  We drop to low *** with this adaptation by Claire Denis of Emmanuele Bernheim’s novel (with screenwriting collaboration from Bernheim).
  • Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas  –  The disaster that lead to DreamWorks abandoning traditional animation as it cost a bundle and just barely eaked its way into the Top 100 at the box office domestically, yet it’s not as bad as those numbers would make it seem.  Not based on any specific Sinbad story but does use the pre-existing character.
  • Soldados de Salamina  –  Spanish film based on the novel by Javier Cercas.
  • The Sea  –  Icelandic Drama from Baltasar Kormákur based on a play by Olafur Haukur Símonarson.
  • Amen  –  The first film from Costa-Gavras in five years is a moralistic story about the Catholic response to the Holocaust based on the play The Deputy.
  • The Shape of Things  –  I remember reading the rather nasty play by Neil LaBute before the film came out and decided to skip it for quite a well.  Not badly done but still rather distasteful.
  • Open Hearts  –  This is not the first Dogme 95 film to have been listed as adapted at the old oscars.org and I wonder if it was something about the process that got them labelled that way.  Not adapted as far as I can tell and it’s Dogme, so I’m not a fan.
  • Suddenly  –  This Argentine film based on the novel La prueba did quite well at a number of festivals but was not the Oscar submission.
  • Sakura Wars: The Movie  –  Anime film derived from a video game franchise.
  • Owning Mahowny  –  Philip Seymour Hoffman is compelling but this True Crime film isn’t all that interesting aside from him.  Based on a non-fiction book about a Toronto man who embezzled $10 million.
  • Little Crumb  –  The Dutch Oscar submission from 2000, based on the novel by Chris van Abkoude.
  • In the Cut  –  Disliked by critics and hated by audiences, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Susanna Moore’s erotic thriller was perhaps best-known for squeaky clean Meg Ryan going topless in the sex scenes.  This is high **.5 (or, one of the greatest films this century if you trust David Thomson’s opinion which I don’t recommend doing).  If, in the early 90’s, I had told you a movie with a topless Meg Ryan would earn less than $5 million domestically you would have thought I was insane.
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines  –  My eyes (and spreadsheet) tells me this was in the Top 10 for the year at the box office but I certainly don’t remember it being a hit.  I remember nobody caring much and then forgetting the film as soon as they saw it.  Nick Stahl takes over the John Conner role but he won’t stick with it (nor will anyone else).
  • Holes  –  Louis Sacher’s Newbery award winning novel gets turned into a mediocre film which is no reason to hate it but also kick-starts the film career of Shia LaBeouf and that is a reason to hate it.
  • Paycheck  –  The original Philip K. Dick story is one of his very satisfying twisty Sci-Fi stories with a great concept.  The film uses the concept decently but the execution isn’t really there.  It didn’t help that it opened at Christmas of a year where star Ben Affleck had already hit massive duds with Daredevil and Gigli.
  • The Singing Detective  –  Flawed but interesting.  This is the first film I remember turning the volume down and turning the captions on because we watched it on video not long after Thomas was born in June of 2004 and we didn’t want him to hear the cursing.  Robert Downey Jr is good but the original television version is better.  However, as someone who deals with psoriasis on a daily basis, I dislike watching it so overblown (and yes, I realize this does happen to some people).  I also remember that I was completely unfamiliar with the song “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” before this film but Veronica definitely was not.
  • The Jungle Book 2  –  Disney actually releases one of their animated sequels in theaters.  Could have been worse but definitely could have been better.
  • My Life Without Me  –  Based on the short story “Pretending the Bed is a Raft”, Sarah Polley gets a grown-up role as a young woman with kids who learns she is dying.
  • The Statement  –  More Holocaust issues from a former Oscar nominee, this time Norman Jewison.  Based on the novel by Brian Moore that was inspired by a true story.
  • Gasoline  –  An Italian Crime film based on a novel by Elena Stancanelli.
  • Le Divorce  –  The Merchant-Ivory team probably should have realized that casting Kate Hudson wasn’t going to pay the same dividends as casting Helena Bonham-Carter.  Mediocre Romantic Comedy based on the novel by Diane Johnson (who co-wrote The Shining screenplay with Kubrick and whose literary interview with SDSU professor Larry McCaffery can be found here because that’s what I do for a living).
  • Patlabor WXIII: The Movie  –  Actually the third Patlabor film which followed on the Manga series and if you can tell me what it’s about you’ve done a better job than the film itself.
  • Rugrats Go Wild  –  This film actually combines two Nickelodeon franchises, with the Thornberrys also appearing.  The third, and thankfully final, Rugrats film.
  • Gloomy Sunday  –  A 1999 Hungarian film that seeks to provide a backstory to the famous Hungarian song of the same title which is perhaps why the old oscars.org listed it as adapted.  Down to mid **.5 with this film.
  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie  –  We’ve had Anime from a video game and Anime from Manga so here’s Anime from an Anime television series.
  • Party Monster  –  Adapted from the non-fiction book Disco Bloodbath and the 1998 documentary of the same name, this is a true story of a famous New York promoter.  The first film role for Macauley Culkin in almost a decade but no one really cared.
  • Piglet’s Big Movie  –  I wish this film was better and not just because I saw it in the theater.  The weakest of the animated Pooh films.  Low **.5.
  • Mambo Italiano  –  Canadian Comedy based on the play by Steve Galluccio.
  • Willard  –  A remake of the 1971 film unless you ask the filmmakers in which case it’s a reimagining of the themes from the original book Ratman’s Notebooks.  Proof that having Crispin Glover being weird is not enough to make a good film.
  • Ichi the Killer  –  Well this one is based on manga but got turned into a live action Japanese film.
  • Fulltime Killer  –  Hong Kong Action film based on the novel by Pang Ho-cheung.
  • Cheaper by the Dozen  –  The #8-11 films at the U.S. Box Office for 2003 were, in order, Terminator 3, Matrix Revolutions, Cheaper by the Dozen and Bad Boys II.  Those prove that Americans will pay to see unoriginal shit which is why Hollywood makes unoriginal shit.  Remake of the 1950 film.
  • The Gospel of John  –  Based on one part of the second half of a long work of fiction that is pretty good but discordant as it seems like the two halves were written by completely different people.
  • Hope Springs  –  The one that stars Colin Firth and not the one that stars Meryl Streep.  Based the novel New Cardiff by Charles Webb (better known for writing The Graduate).
  • The Lizzie McGuire Movie  –  That’s two Hilary Duff films in the space of four movies which is two more than I needed to see.  Continuation of the Disney show.
  • What a Girl Wants  –  Remake of The Reluctant Debutante, a 1958 film in which my review of it begins “Do you possibly expect me to give a shit about these people?”.  This film stars Amanda Bynes who I have to remind myself is not the same person as Hilary Duff or the singer-actress who swung naked on a giant wrecking ball.  They’re all the same in my head.
  • The Missing  –  On the other hand, you can have my favorite actress of all-time and still be a relentlessly mediocre film, even with an Oscar winning director (though, to be fair, Ron Howard didn’t remotely deserve that Oscar).  Western also starring a young Evan Rachel Wood based on the novel The Last Ride.  We’re down to high ** with this.  Actually I should note this film earns the rare 50 from me, the film that’s almost good enough not to be bad.
  • American Wedding  –  The first film was genuinely funny.  The sequels all blend together in my head as a formless mess of bad jokes about sex.
  • Identity  –  As mentioned in my review of Adaptation, when this film came out, my friend Tavis saw it and said “Remember that movie The Three that Donald is writing in Adaptation?  It’s totally that movie.”  Technically it’s original but it’s basically And Then There Were None.
  • Sur le seuil  –  Disturbing Canadian Horror film based on the novel by Patrick Senecal.
  • Pokemon Heroes  –  Yet another Pokemon film.  Down to mid **.
  • House of Sand and Fog  –  Really good performances from Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo and a solid one from Jennifer Connelly are under-mined by a terrible one from Ron Eldard (the answer to the question what if Tim Roth were just whiny) and characters who just do stupid things.  The only ** film to have multiple performances to earn a 6 or higher.  Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, not nearly as good a writer as his father (who wrote the story that was made into In the Bedroom).
  • Gods and Generals  –  Speaking of writers not as good as their fathers, Michael Shaara’s son wrote a prequel to his The Killer Angels and it’s made into this film which is a prequel to that novel’s adaptation Gettysburg except this film is terrible.
  • Dead or Alive 2  –  Japanese Action sequel.
  • S.W.A.T.  –  Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner act together almost a decade before The Avengers.  Instantly forgettable Action film based on the television series.
  • Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde  –  More unnecessary sequels.
  • Die, Mommie, Die!  –  Female impersonator Charles Busch stars and writes this adaptation of his own play.  Now we’re at low **.
  • How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days  –  Stupid Rom-Com based on a cartoon book.
  • Daredevil  –  Affleck and Garner really can act (I’m less sold on Colin Farrell personally) so I lay most of the blame on crappy writer-director Mark Steven Johnson who had already badly botched a John Irving novel (Simon Birch) and would, after this, still be allowed by Marvel to direct Ghost Rider.  When I pointed out to Veronica that he was given another Marvel film after this she replied “This is what we call failing up.”
  • The Matrix Reloaded  –  I had always proclaimed the original to be over-rated but Veronica, John and Tavis badgered me to go see this in the theater, proclaiming that it would be great.  I did not let them forget how wrong they were.  So bad that the sequel, released less than six months later, made less than half its total at the box office.  Then, so as not to have competing films for the Visual Effects Oscar (they shouldn’t have bothered), Warners actually didn’t submit this to the Academy, making it almost certainly (baring checking a spreadsheet that I haven’t finished making yet; COVID delayed this post so long I have finished the spreadsheet and the 2018 Peter Rabbit is the only film even to make 1/3 of what this film made and not be submitted to the Oscars and it still made less than half), far and away the highest grossing film of all-time not to be Oscar eligible.
  • The Legend of Johnny Lingo  –  Longer version of a 1969 short film that had been based on a short story by Patricia McGerr.
  • How to Deal  –  Two Sarah Dessen novels combine to form one crappy Mandy Moore film.
  • Freddy vs. Jason  –  The film that had been rumored for years and finally came true, combining two dying Horror franchises.  In spite of being terrible (high *.5 which is an improvement over most Friday films) it made decent money, so it’s a little odd that this was actually it for both franchises until they were each rebooted several years later.
  • Lara Craft: Tomb Raider – Cradle of Life  –  They decided to give Lara a full body-suit which defeated the point of why many males saw the first film and they gave her Gerard Butler as an old flame which made it all worse.  Mid *.5.
  • Jeepers Creepers 2  –  Horror films tend to be profitable so they get sequels even if they suck.
  • Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle  –  Not the worst film I saw in the theater this year so I won’t lay too much blame on Veronica for wanting to see it for her birthday.  But bad enough.
  • The Matrix Revolutions  –  Now we’re at low *.5.  That people are excited about a potential fourth installment must show they have collective amnesia over how much this film sucked.  Still not the worst film I saw in the theater on this list and I only saw it against my will and better judgment.
  • Timeline  –  Gerard Butler and Paul Walker.  Michael Crichton deserved better.  Now we’ve hit the * films.
  • Interstella 5555  –  An Animated film described on Wikipedia as “the visual realization of Discovery, the second studio album by Daft Punk”.  That should say it all.
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  –  Beating the other Horror franchises to the punch, this isn’t a sequel but a remake of the original.
  • Bad Boys II  –  Another crappy sequel on this list but at least I didn’t see this in the theater.  Mid *.
  • Dreamcatcher  –  One of Stephen King’s worst books becomes a rather incomprehensible film.  Enough of a disaster that Lawrence Kasdan didn’t direct a film again for nine years and it helps keep him out of the Top 100 Directors.
  • Final Destination 2  –  See Jeepers Creepers 2.  It also is weighed down by having Ali Larter.  Low *.
  • The In-Laws  –  This was a bizarre era with a lot of terrible Comedy remakes.  This is one of them, having originally been a 1979 film.  The original wasn’t good but it wasn’t nearly this bad.
  • House of the Dead  –  I don’t like gun arcade games to begin with.  I certainly don’t like them being turned into films.  Even worse to be turned into a film by a talentless hack like Uwe Boll.
  • 2 Fast 2 Furious  –  This franchise has a lot of fans but except for the most recent installment I really don’t like them because they are 1 – badly acted and 2 – even more badly written.  That this was directed by a former Oscar nominee (John Singleton) didn’t make it any less mindless sadly.  Now we’re into the .5 films.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentleman  –  Now we’ve finally reached the worst film on the list I saw in the theater.  I had read the book.  I love the book, love the concept, love the humor and darkness in the book (and all the sequels).  But the film was just a piece of ridiculous shit.  When you reach a point in Venice where you have to decide which is more stupid – an enormous submarine the size of an aircraft carrier supposedly drifting up the canals or a car chase through a city that has canals – you know the film is too stupid to think about.  Read the book.  I heartily recommend the books (fair warning of excessive sex and violence).  Depressingly, this is the last film Sean Connery made before retiring and since I wrote that (before it has posted) he has also died so it’s definitely his last film.  Down to mid .5.
  • Son of Alladin  –  Terrible Animated film from India that is a story of Aladdin.  Apparently it was re-edited and released in 2016 as Mustafa and the Magician.  Initial reports in 2016 apparently listed it as an Animated Film submission to the Oscars.  However, my own spreadsheet doesn’t list it as a submission and no film by that name was listed as eligible for the Oscars by the Academy themselves.  I think what happened is they intended to submit it and somehow the Academy realized that 1 – it was from 2003 originally and thus wasn’t eligible under their current rules and 2 – it had actually already been submitted in 2003 (though not for Animated Film) and was ineligible anyway.  Because it is listed among the 2003 eligible films which is why I finally saw it.
  • Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd  –  Surprisingly, not even among the ten worst films New Line has ever released so I won’t have to watch it again to review it for my eventual New Line post (actually, I honestly probably won’t do a New Line post as the studios posts are so much work).  I didn’t like the original.  This was much, much worse.  Now we’re at low .5.
  • The Cat in the Hat  –  Fully written about in my 2003 Nighthawk Awards as the Worst Film of the Year because at the time I wrote that I hadn’t seen House of 1000 Corpses (which apparently isn’t adapted).

Adaptations of Notable Works I Haven’t Seen

  • none

The highest grossing Adapted film I haven’t seen from 2003 is The Book of Mormon Movie (#196, $1.68 mil) and no other film, adapted or original, is higher than #236 and $603,520.  Unless there are sequels that are not obviously named Taxi 3 (#249, $497,208), is the only sequel listed at BOM that I haven’t seen.

Of the 10 Oscar eligible films I haven’t seen in this year the only one that is adapted is some version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw that is so little seen it has less than 20 votes on the IMDb and the IMDb doesn’t even know who distributed it.