No+Country+for+Old+Men+final+scene

“And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.” (final lines)

My Top 10

  1. No Country for Old Men
  2. Atonement
  3. There Will Be Blood
  4. Away from Her
  5. Gone Baby Gone
  6. Charlie Wilson’s War
  7. A Mighty Heart
  8. Persepolis
  9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  10. 3:10 to Yuma

note:  An excellent Top 5 but not nearly as strong Top 10.  It’s worth noting that thanks mostly to Harry Potter and the MCU this is the last year until 2020 where none of my Top 10 are franchise films.

Consensus Nominees:

  1. No Country for Old Men  (504 pts)
  2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly  (192 pts)
  3. There Will Be Blood  (120 pts)
  4. Atonement  (112 pts)
  5. Into the Wild  (72 pts)

note:  While the points and percentage for No Country are only the best since 2004, the points are 5th best all-time through 2007 (7th best through 2019) and the percentage is 4th best all-time through 2007 (5th best through 2019).

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

  • No Country for Old Men
  • Atonement
  • Away from Her
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • There Will Be Blood

WGA:

  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Into the Wild
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Zodiac

Golden Globes:

  • No Country for Old Men
  • Atonement
  • Charlie Wilson’s War
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Nominees that are Original:  Juno

BAFTA:

  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Atonement
  • The Kite Runner
  • No Country for Old Men
  • There Will Be Blood

BFCA:

  • Charlie Wilson’s War
  • Into the Wild
  • No Country for Old Men

Nominees that are Original:   Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, Michael Clayton

NYFC:

  • No Country for Old Men

NBR:

  • No Country for Old Men

CFC:

  • No Country for Old Men

My Top 10

No Country for Old Men

no country for old men - cinema quad movie poster (8).jpg

The Film:

“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” he is asked part-way through.  His perfect reply is “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”  That’s Tommy Lee Jones giving the best performance in a film filled with great performances (even if it was Javier Bardem who won the Oscar instead).  It’s a great film all around, the best film of a truly great year filled to the brim with great films (only the second year in Oscar history where all of the Best Picture nominees earn ****) and the one that finally saw the Academy give Best Picture and Director to the Coen Brothers after years in which much of their great work hadn’t earned a single nomination (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski).  It is a dark and disturbing film that follows three men, none of whom are about to stop in what they are trying to accomplish.  It also became the rare film to follow the Terms of Endearment / Schindler’s List mold  of winning big at the critics awards and then still going on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.  For a full review, go here.

ncfomThe Source:

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy  (2005)

Cormac McCarthy is anything but prolific.  Over the course of his first 40 years as a published novelist he averaged a novel every five years.  Before the publication of this novel, his first in seven years (and first since completing the Border Trilogy, which saw him complete three novels in a span less than the gap between the trilogy and his previous novel, Blood Meridian), McCarthy had already been embraced as one of the great modernist novels of the era, on a par with Toni Morrison, but while Morrison had won a Pulitzer and even the Nobel Prize, McCarthy had to make do with the National Book Critics and National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses.  In fact, it wouldn’t be until his next novel, The Road (which isn’t nearly as good a novel in my opinion but thanks to Oprah was almost certainly his biggest seller) that McCarthy would finally win the Pulitzer.  But aside, from Blood Meridian, which is widely acknowledged to be his best book (and which I agree – full review here), I think this is his next strongest work.

This is the dark, disturbing story of poor Llewelyn Moss, a poacher and welder who manages, while trying to shoot some game, to stumble across a shitload of money in a drug deal gone wrong.  But he makes the mistake of going back to check on things and that’s when things really go dark for him.  Or maybe it’s the story of Anton Chigurh, the calm, collected hitman who uses a cattle airgun to kill his victims, though he’s equally adept at other ways of dealing out death and is single-minded in his determination to fulfill his goal.  Or perhaps it’s the story of Sheriff Bell, the man who just wants to bring Moss home alive because Moss is one of his flock and like any good shepherd, his goal is to keep his flock safe.  It’s a novel filled with dark, disturbing behavior, characters you’ll remember long after you’re done reading and sharp, witty dialogue that cuts to the bone (almost all of the dialogue in the film is straight from the book).  It’s a modern modernist classic, a book great enough that I list it as the ninth best novel so far this century.

The Adaptation:

A fantastically faithful adaptation.  Almost every line of dialogue that we get in the film is straight from the book.  There is a little bit more in the book that we don’t get in the film (most notably how the sheriff follows up after the events at the end of the film and what he is able to find out (and not find out)) but the vast majority of the novel does make it on-screen intact.  What’s brilliant is how well the Coens manage to preserve the book while making the film feel like their own.

The Credits:

Written for the screen and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.  Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Atonement

atonement - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpg

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film twice.  Once was because the book is one of the Top 100 Novels of All-Time (see below for more on that).  The other time was because it was a Best Picture nominee.  It was kind of a relief that it made the Oscar lineup.  It had won Best Picture at the Globes and the BAFTAs but had been blanked at the critics and had done very poorly with the guilds.  Indeed, of films with as many total awards points as this film, only three films before it had managed as many awards points without a single critics award (A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Two Towers) and only one film had fewer guild points (Hope and Glory).  Even its Oscar success was muted since it was inexplicably passed over for Director and less inexplicably but no less disappointingly passed over for Actor and Actress as well.  But it is a truly great film and would be my easy winner for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay had it not been for No Country.

Atonement_(novel)The Source:

Atonement by Ian McEwan  (2001)

I have already written much about this novel when I ranked it as the #53 novel of all-time.  It is a brilliant book with a dark, disturbing story at its core that only gets somewhat darker and yet more brilliant as we peel away the layers at the end of the book and realize what has happened.  It gives interesting views on sexuality, childhood, truth and crime with all of them being wrapped in shades of gray.  And don’t think that you can skip on reading the book simply because you’ve seen the film.  The film is brilliant and gives you the story but there are extra layers in the narrative of the novel that makes it an absolutely compelling read.  The film is reviewed in the piece as well.

The Adaptation:

As mentioned above, the film gives you the story but there are additional layers to the novel.  What’s fascinating is how both of them show you the same scene from different viewpoints and help you understand why people think what they think.  One of the few actual differences is that in the novel, you see Robby and Cecilia’s scene by the fountain from their viewpoint before you get it from Briony’s while it is reversed in the film.

But the film is not the entire novel.  The vast majority of the first part of the novel (the actions at the house) are presented fully on-screen (though there are layers to that as well that can’t possibly make it to the screen) but the second (Robby at Dunkirk) and the third (Briony’s experience as a nurse and going to see her sister) are far longer and more complex in the book.  I understand (and agree with) the decision to limit those portions of the film as that would simply be added story that would have made the film feel too long, but it’s a good reason for you to go read the book even if you have seen the film.

The Credits:

Directed by Joe Wright.  Screenplay by Christopher Hampton.  Based on the novel by Ian McEwan.

There Will Be Blood

there will be blood - cinema quad movie poster (teaser 4).jpgThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film as one of the Best Picture nominees but of course I would have done so later anyway because it is easily one of the five best films of the year.  And of course it contains what is easily the best performance of the year in any category, the performance that easily won Daniel Day-Lewis a second Oscar as the hard-hearted oil man who will drink your milkshake, a performance that you are unlikely to ever forget.  It’s a brilliant film on every level from the cinematography to the brilliant score to the direction and an interesting adaptation of a book that had long since been forgotten.

Oil!_(Upton_Sinclair_novel_-_cover_art)The Source:

Oil!: A Novel by Upton Sinclair  (1927)

I don’t know which is more surprising: that Paul Thomas Anderson somehow found a copy of this novel, which was long out of print (since basically everything that Sinclair wrote except The Jungle has been pretty much forgotten by anyone who isn’t an English major and even most of those don’t know him) or that he saw enough in the novel to decide on making a film from it.  If you remember The Jungle as a non-fiction book you’re not alone and that’s kind of the thing about Sinclair – his fiction reads like either non-fiction or like a moral treatise and that’s a major reason why he’s been mostly forgotten.  This book is no different and it’s a long, difficult slog to get through it, the story of a determined oil man and his son, the family their interact with and the world that is changing around them.

The Adaptation:

I gave that really minimal description of the novel because that’s all that crosses over.  There is an oil man and a son and a family.  Almost nothing else in the film actually comes from the book.  Daniel Plainview is primarily the creation of Anderson as is the main bulk of the story and certainly all of the scenes that you are most likely to remember.

The Credits:

Written for the Screen and Directed bu Paul Thomas Anderson.  Based on “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair.

Away from Her

away_from_herThe Film:

Can love survive where memory has not?  In a sense, the answer, of course, is no.  Love is about so much more than a physical attraction.  Love is not instant.  You can not fall in love at first sight.  You might come to love the person you found an instant attraction to at first sight, but that does not mean the love was instant.  Love is a process, something that grows between two people.  That’s why it’s possible, if you can’t be with the one you love, to love the one you’re with.

Grant and Fiona are finding their love stretched to a breaking point.  They haven’t fallen out of love with each other, in spite of Grant having a history of past infidelities.  It’s that Fiona is reaching the ends of memory.  She is clearly falling into dementia, losing her way home, putting a frying pan away in the freezer.  She agrees it’s time to get put into a home and she must be kept apart for thirty days (it helps the process of learning to fit in at the home) and when Grant returns to see her, there is almost nothing left.  She hasn’t fallen out of love with him.  She has forgotten him.  And now comes the really hard part.

Grant, of course, has not fallen out of love with her.  He continues to return to visit, to see her, to interact, but Fiona is now more interested in interacting with Aubrey, a man she has met in the home.  Thinks become quite interesting when Aubrey leaves the home and Grant goes to visit Aubrey’s wife, Marian so that the friendship can continue.  And then Grant finds himself in a different kind of relationship with Marian because they both can still interact with their full facilities.

Away from Her is a love story but a different kind of one.  It’s not about two people falling in love.  It doesn’t even tell a straightforward narrative (we go in and out of the present and the past to find how we have come to be where we are).  Instead, we track a love that continues to somehow endure when most of what love is all about has faded away.  It works so well partially because of the fascinating way that Polley tells the story but also of course because of the performances from Gordon Pinsent as devoted Grant, more firmly devoted to his wife when she is mostly gone than when she was completely there, and of course, Julie Christie, as a woman who is struggling to find some kind of illumination in the man she is sitting next to.

Sarah Polley was a talented child actress (most notably in Baron Munchausen) and a pretty teen actress (most notably in Sweet Hereafter) and then showed that she was a talented director, though, sadly she’s only made one more feature film since this one (Take This Waltz).  She’s definitely shown she’s the right person to adapt a work and I wish she would make more.

hfclmThe Source:

The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro  (1999)

The story was originally published in The New Yorker in 1999, republished in Munro’s magnificent collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (the title story of which was adapted into a good film in 2014), republished in The New Yorker in 2013 (not many stories have that distinction) and the version I used is from My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, a wonderful collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides in 2008.  That this story is the most recent one in a collection that includes Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov and Carver shows its power.  It’s the story of an elderly couple and the wife ends up going into a home because her dementia is strong enough that it makes living anywhere else a risk for her.  Then, after a 30 day waiting period, her husband returns to find that he has been forgotten.  It’s the story of what happens afterward, and how they manage to endure beyond that.

The Adaptation:

Almost everything on the page is on-screen and vice versa.  The main difference that Polley makes in adapting the story is to not tell the story entirely sequentially like Munro did, but to give us pieces of it and then loop back and help us really understand the characters as they are going through the story.

The Credits:

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley.  Based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro.

Gone Baby Gone

gone_baby_goneThe Film:

As has already been made clear in my review of Mystic River and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (the bottom here), I have some complicated feelings about the city of Boston.  I love it but I also hate and even fear it.  There is a strong under-current of violence that runs through the city and I wasn’t short of reasons to leave it behind and come to San Diego.  I never had much to do with the neighborhoods that we see in this film, the poorer parts of Roxbury and JP and Dorchester and Southie where crime runs rampant and sometimes that’s the least of your concerns.

Amanda McCready has gone missing.  She’s only four and she disappeared right out of her mother’s apartment while her mother’s back was turned.  Or maybe the mother wasn’t in the apartment.  Or maybe not even in the building.  Maybe she was down the block drinking or scoring drugs.  Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro don’t want to take the case.  The situation is too ugly, the mother is a nightmare and the odds are that the kid is dead and who wants to be the one to find the body?  But they do take the case, against the complaints of the mother (played brilliantly in a drugged out performance by Amy Ryan that finally made audiences know her name after years of performances), against their own better judgment and against the will of the police officers who are in charge of the investigation.  They set out to try and find the girl and what they find is misery and pain and violence and darkness, the things that infect the soul of the city.

Ben Affleck is from Boston and it’s clear that he had the right notion of what was wrong with his city (I am reminded of the brilliant line from Blood Meridian: “What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.”).  When, in his mid thirties, he decided to expand and start directing (let’s remember that he was already an Oscar winning writer), he looked at the darkness in his city, looked at the violence and what it does to your soul when you try to combat it.  He directed his little brother Casey in what surely would have been considered a star-making turn after years of ensemble work in films like Good Will Hunting and Ocean’s Eleven had he not earned an Oscar nomination this same year for Jesse James.  Casey’s Kenzie is all hard edges even when he doesn’t want to be.  He wants to be able to relax with his girlfriend and live a life that could maybe bring marriage and children but by the end of this story everything will be over between them because the world is too bleak and what is right for one person is not necessarily right for another and when you are forced to make these kind of moral choices, in a sense, everyone loses.

I won’t explain the convoluted path that the two detectives go down in their morally corrupted investigation.  It’s a labyrinth journey and things take you where you don’t expect and no one seems to know what’s going to happen next.  But I will say that this was proof positive that Affleck had a natural hand as a writer and director.  He took a complicated detective novel, whittled it down the necessities, simplified the plot a bit and excised characters and made it easy to understand.  At the same time, we see masterful cinematography and editing as well as a fantastic ensemble cast from the likes of Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman as we dive deeper into the darkness.  Gone Baby Gone is a difficult film for me to watch, not just because of its subject matter, but because I have experienced too many of the types of people depicted in the film but it is a great one and definitely should not be overlooked, even in a year as stacked as this one.

GoneBabyGoneThe Source:

Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane  (1999)

This was the fourth of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels that helped give Lehane a solid name as a mystery writer but it is the only one to date to have been filmed, perhaps because this one was done so well, why would you mess it up by doing another but not getting the cast?  It is actually the only one of the novels that I have read (though I’ve read most of Lehane’s other books) and he would revisit the characters in the sixth novel, written over a decade after he wrote the others.  It’s a more typical mystery and doesn’t have the depth that Lehane’s later mysteries would have when he would leave his two detectives behind (Mystic River, Shutter Island).  The book has a very complicated plot as the kidnapping of a four year old leads the two detectives into a bizarre plot and cover-up that keeps taking them in different directions from where they expect.  There are also mentions of what I presume are actions from the earlier books (I’m not certain since I haven’t read them) which make it a little more difficult to follow than a stand-alone book like Mystic River.  In the end, it is a quite solid mystery with good characters and an interesting story that keeps you riveted to the end, although how you react to the end might say something about your relation to either of the main characters, given how the ending actually ruptures their relationship (which apparently gets patched up in the fifth book).

The Adaptation:

I thought I had remembered the film as being quite faithful to the book but I was surprised this time through at discovering how much it differs, especially in the second half.  The film takes a lot of characters and really narrows them down, compressing and combining actions and keeping the much more elaborate relationships among the Boston criminal class to a minimum in the film while it was a considerable portion of the book.  In the end, things start the same and they definitely end pretty much the same but this is a great example of how to take a mystery that has a lot of complications and characters and figure out what is needed for the film and making that work.

I must say that I also have very vivid memories of the film being made.  Dorchester and Southie didn’t have a bookstore at the time (somehow I doubt they do now either) and so people would come to my Borders in Braintree to buy copies of the book (or other Lehane books) and talk about how they were filming on their street that day or the previous day.  It’s an anecdote I often tell but it doesn’t work as well written down because you can’t hear me do the accents.

The Credits:

Directed by Ben Affleck.  Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.  Screenplay by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard.

Charlie Wilson’s War

charlie_wilsons_warThe Film:

This film starts and ends with a party.  They take place almost 10 years apart, one at the beginning of a decade that saw continual international incidents that threatened to turn a cold war into a hot one and the other one at the end of the decade when one of the things that had most threatened to blur that line had ended.  The first one really happened and simultaneously inspired a man in a hot tub watching a news report to actually start paying attention to his job (and even enjoying it) and almost destroyed that career at the same time.  The second one is fictional but provides a nice moment for the main characters to gather together and drink to what seems to be their happy ending.  But of course real life doesn’t provide endings, let alone happy ones.

The one person who is at both parties is Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman with the luck to come from a district that likes him and doesn’t have any particular issues (other than taxes and guns) and thus, as he says, “I get to vote yes a lot”.  That means he’s piled up a lot of favors and when he decides that something is important to him, he can twist arms and call in those marks and get people to vote how he wants them to vote, which is easier for him than for others, because what they’re voting on is classified anyway.  What inspires him is Dan Rather’s report from Afghanistan, something that I should have guessed at long before I ever knew it actually happened because I’ve been reading the parody of it in Doonesbury since I was a kid.  Charlie actually looks at the country and what is going in after the Soviet invasion and he thinks about the fact that he’s a congressman on both the Defense and Appropriations subcommittees and he’s one of the people who can actually do something about this.  What doing something means is that he will pretty much decide to fund the CIA and provide this poor country the tools to fight back against the oppressors.

The other part of the party is that he may or may not have been doing cocaine at that party.  That becomes an issue because an ambitious prosecutor starts coming after him (I won’t name him because the film already does and because he’s a reprehensible piece of shit who doesn’t deserve credit for anything positive at this point) and it may derail his chance to help Afghanistan.  This comes to a head on the same day when Gust Avrakotos, a CIA agent who also wants to do something, comes to brief him in his office in a very funny scene that reminds you that even though is a true story (just about everything in the film did happen, though time is altered to make it work better as a film) it’s also a Mike Nichols satirical comedy about the way life works sometimes, even when you’re funding a secret war against the Soviets.

There’s a lot more to be said.  We can talk about what fun it is to watch Tom Hanks once again play someone a lot closer to the edge, whose every behavior isn’t dignified and decent.  We can talk about the spark plug performance Philip Seymour Hoffman gives, including smashing in his superior’s window, which earned him a very deserved Oscar nomination.  We can talk about the smart, satirical screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, a screenplay that really must have hit close to the mark for Sorkin, returning to films after a decade in television, because it was his first screenplay based on a true story and he hasn’t written a film since that wasn’t based on a true story.  It was also the final film for Nichols, providing a nice 1-2 punch to close out his career, following on Closer and a reminder that Nicholas was always one of the great directors even when he wasn’t being given good films to work with.

cwwThe Source:

Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile  (2003)

I honestly didn’t take much to this book.  First, it’s longer than it needs to be because it doesn’t want to just focus on what Wilson and Avrakotos managed to do with the CIA funding the Afghans, but focus a lot on their lives as well.  It’s almost simply a parallel story of what the two men during the 80s.  But I also got the feeling that Crile was proud of the work and was enjoying writing about them (it might not be the case but that’s certainly how it felt reading it).  The fact is we weren’t actually at war with the Soviets and to read the two men talking gleefully about how many Soviets they can kill was distasteful.  If you are going to read about the whole history of what the CIA did in Afghanistan during this years I think you’re much better off with Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (a book, I will note, that won the Pulitzer).  One thing that did work out for Crile was that it too him so long to write the book that by the time it was published 9/11 had happened which provided a handy epilogue for the book, including the quote from Wilson that played up on the screen to finish the film: “These things happened.  They were glorious and they changed the world.  And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice.  And then we fucked up the endgame.”

The Adaptation:

Sorkin does a great job of pushing events together in the book to make them fit a better storyline.  He also manages to create interesting dialogue that works well.  A good example is that Avrakotos in real life didn’t break his superior’s window twice but rather told him to go fuck himself twice.  A better example is the first meeting between Charlie and Gust.  Their meeting was nothing at all like the book, especially because Charlie’s trouble didn’t happen at the same time.  But Sorkin does a great job of bouncing between the two stories and adding to the humor with the bugged wine bottle.  But that meeting didn’t happen like that, although the general gist of it all did all happen of course.  Another big change is the ending – in real life Gust was in Europe and Charlie was alone when the Soviets left and it was Charlie who toasted the motherfucker not Gust.  But then comes the fade out to the lines and that was the big battle:

Sorkin’s script establishes early on that Wilson can see the Pentagon from his office; it’s the setup for a final scene in which he watches the building burn on September 11, 2001.  Sorkin intended the image to be the last thing people saw before they read “We fucked up the endgame” on a black screen.

“Sorkin saw everything that happened to Charlie Wilson as a precursor to 9/11,” says Hanks.  “And we did shoot the scene, because I thought there was about a 50 percent change it’d work.  But it wasn’t the point of the book, or the movie, or the performance I was giving.  I can understand a guy as good as Sorkin saying, ‘I love that there.’  But when I saw it put together, I don’t think we connected the dots.  I said, ‘We took a shot, but this ain’t it.'”

“Charlie Wilson himself didn’t want the scene in the movie because he was afraid that people were going to blame the people of Afghanistan for 9/11,” says Sorkin.  “And Tom didn’t like playing ‘the guy who caused 9/11.'”  (Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris, p 559)

The key information is that Hanks produced the film and put it together with Sorkin’s script and then hired Nichols.  It was really work-for-hire and Hanks not only had a viewpoint, but it was his film, so that was the way it went.  I wish the Nichols book had been published earlier since this was his final film and six of his previous films have already been covered in this project but at least it came out in time for that anecdote.

The Credits:

Directed by Mike Nichols.  Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.  Based on the book by George Crile.

A Mighty Heart

mighty_heartThe Film:

Back in 2008, when I used to occasionally write some pieces for other websites, I wrote It’s Not Fair , a piece in reaction to two articles that had suggested that the lack of women in summer blockbusters was part of Hollywood’s problem with women.  Now, Hollywood hasn’t done great since then of providing possibilities for women and my rankings for the performances in 2007 have altered a bit but my general point stays the same: what was the point of lauding a film like Wanted (which clearly looked better than it was given my reaction at the time and my current rating of it) as being progress for having a female led blockbuster when it was far more important to get people to watch a film like A Mighty Heart and be reminded that Angelina Jolie was first and foremost an actress.  And I say that having never been a particular fan of hers.

I write this review at the same time the U.S. is announcing that its troops will finally leave Afghanistan after 20 years.  These things seem to never end.  The film listed just above this marks a period of history that helped lead to the instability that brought about 9/11 and had reactions like in this film and the film just below marks the period of modern Islamic interactions with politics and revolutions that helped usher in this era.  In some ways, all three films are all part of the same story.  And that story, in some ways isn’t ending.  The extremism that brought about the death of Daniel Pearl isn’t confined to a country with Islamic terrorists.  In this country, the extremists on the right target journalists every night in their own attempt to rule the country in a way that has nothing to do with democracy or honesty.

Ostensibly, this the story of the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was working on stories in Pakistan, which has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world.  But it’s not really about Daniel but about his wife Mariane and what she went through from the minute that Daniel disappeared until the birth of her son a few months later (yes, she was already pregnant when he was kidnapped).  She is also a journalist and she is determined to find her husband and when it starts to become clear that this might not happen, is equally determined to find out what has happened to him.  She is in a country that in a lot of ways view her as the enemy.  She is from the West (France though she is also of Cuban descent), she is a strong, capable female, she is a journalist and her husband is Jewish.

Though supported by a solid cast (Archie Panjabi, Irrfan Khan, Denis O’Hare) working in different ways to help and support her, it’s really Jolie’s film and she shines, far brighter than in her actual Oscar winning performance for Girl, Interrupted (she failed to even earn a nomination though as mentioned in my article, 2007 is a really good year for the category).  It’s a combination of strength and vulnerability, right down to the moment where it becomes clear in no uncertain terms that her husband will never return to her and the child she is carrying is now hers alone.

Mariane_pearlThe Source:

A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl by Mariane Pearl with Sarah Crichton  (2003)

This is a fairly straight-forward, easy-to-read, thoughtful examination by Mariane Pearl of the awful circumstances of her husband’s death, beginning shortly before he disappeared when he went to do a late night interview and never came back, past the birth of her son, the start of the foundation and the work done on her behalf by the international community.  The fact that it has a co-writer makes me wonder if that’s because Mariane Pearl had an interesting pair of parents who were a variety of things, but none of them came from an English speaking country.  My guess would be that even though she speaks English, she probably made us of Crichton to help her with English rather than writing the book in her native French, but that’s just a guess.

The Adaptation:

It’s a faithful and consistent adaptation.  It starts in the same place, pretty much ends in the same place and makes use of much of what is in the book.  It even keeps to the book’s notion of describing certain characters by a title or a word rather than naming them (Captain, for instance), presumably so that there identities are kept secure and their own lives were not put in danger.

The Credits:

Directed by Michael Winterbottom.  Based on the book by Mariane Pearl.  Screenplay by John Orloff.

Persepolis

persepolis - cinema quad movie poster (reviews 2).jpg

The Film:

Sometimes opposite political views have the same goal.  Sometimes leftists who want to buck the system end up siding with Libertarians who would prefer to have no system to elect people in the United States.  But in Iran, the social moderates who wanted more freedom and the Islamic reactionaries who wanted fewer freedoms allowed both wanted to get rid of the Shah and when the right won there was no place for the left after the revolution.  Thus we get the life of Marjane Satrapi, a child of the middle class, a kid during the revolution, growing up in an Islamic state and learning who she is.  That lead to one of the great all-time graphic novel memoirs and this wonderful animated film that absolutely brought her visual depictions of her life to the big screen.  My full review is here.

persepolisThe Source:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi  (2000-2003)

I have a large graphic novel collection but most of them are Marvel or DC.  I have a strong dislike of memoirs, but I champion this book.  In one sense, this is a forebear for a graphic novel like Fun Home, a memoir distilled into a volume of black and white illustrations that allowed a young woman to get a grasp on her life.  In another sense, this is like Maus and a graphic representation of a dark time and what it was like to live in that time.  It’s not Satrapi’s only graphic novel (her graphic novel Chicken with Plums was also filmed, though in live action and apparently the two films unleashed her desire to be a director because her newest film Radioactive is currently Oscar eligible as I write this).  It’s hard to really describe how well Satrapi does what she does.  She has a simplistic style of illustration but it brings things vividly to life.  She’s not afraid to point the finger at herself (there’s a gut-wrenching scene where she informs on someone who is bothering her) and it’s hard watching her separation from her family and watching the country and her life turn darker.

The Adaptation:

The film really makes the book come to life.  I had actually forgotten (again) about the color scenes that form the framing device for the film.  The book itself starts just after the revolution and then flashes back but the film begins with her as an adult and then goes back and tells the story.  We get most of what was in the book and the book is faithfully adapted, as we could have expected.

The Credits:

Un film de Marjane Satrapi et Vincent Paronnaud.  D’après l’œuvre originale de Marjane Satrapi, publiée aux éditions L’association.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

sweeney_toddThe Film:

Veronica and I have a sense of humor that is mostly aligned.  Things like Monty Python, Kevin Smith, Black Books, Twenty Twelve and the Coen Brothers make us both laugh.  But it doesn’t line up perfectly, nor does what repels us.  Look at Sweeney Todd.  There are moments that make Veronica and I turn away from the screen, but they aren’t the same moments.  It’s those moments when Sweeney is slicing throats and then dropping bodies down to the basement with a sickening thud (and very awkward angles) that make Veronica cringe.  Those don’t bother me.  However, when Ms. Lovett is in her pie shop and there are bugs running around that she is crushing or putting in pies?  Good lord, that makes me want to vomit.  Likewise, Veronica likes puns whereas I see them generally as the lowest attempt at humor (not form, because that would imply that they are funny).  But, the song “A Little Priest”  which is full of them makes her queezy while I find the whole concept brilliant.  So, to sum up my sense of humor, bugs in a bakery?  Disgusting.  “Shepherd’s pie pepperred / With actual shepherd  / On top”?  Hilarious.

People were a bit concerned when this film was announced.  It was a long-time coming to the big screen, which is ironic, since Stephen Sondheim has always seen it as a film in the first place, and when it finally arrived we had a director who wasn’t known for Musicals with two stars who hadn’t really done any professional singing.  Was this going to work or was this going to be a disaster?

The director question was the most easily solved.  This is a very dark musical which begins as a taste for revenge and dark comedy and instantly goes much darker than anyone could have imagined when Sweeney, the barber who was sent off to prison for the crime of having a beautiful wife returns to London and wants to get the man who set him up, seduced his wife and has basically kidnapped his daughter.  But when that attempt at revenge is thrown off, he goes off the deep end in one of the best scenes in the film, roaming through the streets, ready to slice the neck of anyone he meets.  It’s not a question of anyone who gets in his way.  He’s ready to take on anyone at all.  And it works because Johnny Depp, whose singing voice isn’t masterful but works for the songs he needs to do, has the requisite darkness in his acting that we can truly believe it when this man embraces that darkness.  It helps, of course, that he’s helped by Ms. Lovett, the terrible baker downstairs who discovers that human flesh is exactly the meat she’s been needing to turn her disaster of a bakery into the biggest hit in London town.

This film didn’t quite do well enough to make it into the biggest Oscar categories, even though it was the rare film to win the Best Picture – Comedy / Musical at the Globes and then have a film it beat make the Oscar race instead of it (Juno, in this case).  Was it too dark?  Is the Academy still just not ready for Tim Burton, a great director who has still yet to earn a nomination?  Well, it doesn’t make the Top 5 at the Nighthawks either, so maybe that’s not the problem.  But it is a great film, one with fantastic production values (the sets won the Oscar while the costumes were nominated and the makeup was somehow obscenely overlooked in favor of the fat suit in Norbit which I will never understand), some of the best direction of Burton’s career and a fantastic cast that hits every right note even when it’s the wrong note.

sondheimThe Source:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim  (1979)

Of the Sondheim musicals (thus not counting West Side Story where he only did the lyrics), I am hard-pressed to decide on my favorite between Into the Woods, A Little Night Music and this.  On the level of quality, I think I would have to go with Into the Woods for the way it so brilliantly subverts the meaning in the original fairy tales but this is close behind.  To take the old pulp character (he originally appeared in penny dreadfuls in the 1840s) and bring him to life through music was a dark and macabre and brilliant idea, especially when you think of the humor that Sondheim manages to infuse with it along the way.  Sondheim makes use of Christopher Bond’s early 70s play that added more of a back story and motivation to Todd.

The Adaptation:

There are some minor changes along the way (there is one particular line that is repeated at the end of “A Little Priest” because Sondheim decided it worked better that way).  But the primary difference between the original musical and the film is the dropping of the various versions of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”.  While I understand that for pacing reasons and because they work better introducing things and helping the audience along in a theater (Sondheim approved of dropping them – the other of his two comments on the film version in the book above, though he notes that highly approves of the film version), I lament their loss musically because I absolutely love those songs.  Yes, the music is still used as incidental music in the background of those scenes, but I really wish the songs could have been used.  This same issue will crop up again when Into the Woods hits theaters in 2014.

The Credits:

Directed by Tim Burton.  Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Based on the Musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler.  Originally Staged by Harold Prince.  From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond.  Screenplay by John Logan.

3:10 to Yuma

three_ten_to_yumaThe Film:

Every now and then a remake comes along and it’s interesting to me for more than one reason.  First of all, it can make you go back and look at a film and wonder if you perhaps didn’t judge it properly the first time (I had seen the 1957 film but it hadn’t stuck with me that much).  Second, it can make you wonder why the people involved in the new film felt it was necessary to remake it.  Then there is the interesting tidbit that sometimes, and this seems unnecessary to point out in the year following The Departed, remakes are actually a considerable step-up from the original version of the film.  The original 1957 film was actually a good film but more on that in the next section.  But this film, it was apparent right from the start, was a great film with Christian Bale, right in the opening scenes, playing a much weaker man in between his first two performances as Batman.

This is a story about two men.  The first is Dan Evans.  He’s a Civil War veteran, fallen on hard luck, threatened by a man he owes money to, feeling unable to protect his wife, his family and his livelihood.  His older son, William, looks at him as a weakling and maybe even a coward.  Then Evans and William witness a stage being robbed by Ben Wade.  Wade is a legendary outlaw.  He is everything Evans is not and it’s clear when William looks at him he finally sees a man he can admire.

Through circumstances, Wade will be captured, his feral dog of a sidekick Charlie Prince will try to rescue him and Evans will volunteer to be part of a group to take Wade to a small railroad station where he can be put on a train to Yuma Prison.  The money Evans makes will help square his debts, although of course there is the chance he could be killed along the way and there is William, who ends up following the group and helping out but also putting more worries in Evans’ mind.

Aside from the film aspects that make this so strong (direction, cinematography, editing, sound, score) and a script that really understands the character, making a good man who appears weaker than he is because he knows what he has to lose and a bad man who nonetheless is in possession of a strong sense of honor and helps lead to a fascinating conclusion, there are the two lead performances.  Without the writing, the performances wouldn’t be as meaningful but without the depth of two actors like Bale and Crowe, the writing wouldn’t work as well and the film would fall flat.  This version is a full half hour longer than the original but it doesn’t just pad the time but instead adds depth and detail to the story and the characters.  And to take a remake in a genre that had mostly gone out of fashion and come out with such fantastic results?  That’s just incredible.

Three-ten to Yuma storyThe Source:

Three-Ten to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard  (1953)

I went into this story wondering, how even with Leonard’s gift for sparse, stark descriptions and quick moving plots, how this whole story could be covered in just 15 pages (in the Library of American edition which is what the link above goes to).  The answer, if you have never read the story, is that he doesn’t.  This story begins with a marshal (Paul Scallen) holding an outlaw (Jim Kidd) in a small town until the 3:10 train to Yuma comes in and he can put him on it.  Which he does, in spite of gunfire from Kidd’s sidekick, Charlie Prince.  It ends with Kidd telling Scallen he really earns his money.

MV5BMGNjMzJjOWUtODQzYy00ZGExLThkYjMtZWUwYWQzNjMwOGMzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_3:10 to Yuma, Directed by Delmer Daves, Screen Play by Halsted Welles, Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Originally Published by Popular Publications, Inc.

A herd of cattle are used to block a road so an outlaw by the name of Ben Wade can rob the stagecoach.  The problem is that the cattle belong to Dan Evans, who is watching from a nearby hill with his two sons.  This will set in motion a set of circumstances that will end up with Wade being held by the law, sentenced to Yuma prison, if anyone brave enough to join up will help get him there and Evans, in need of money to support his failing farm, going along.

This is a perfectly fine film, the kind of Western that was in full fashion in the 1950s, a black and white film with a lot of shooting, a lot of heroism and more shades of gray than just black and white, the kind of thing that often starred Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart.  But that’s also the problem.  This isn’t an Anthony Mann film and it doesn’t star Jimmy Stewart.  It does have Glenn Ford who gives a solid performance as a villain who also has a sense of honor (he will go with his captor at the end of the film partially because he saved his life earlier) but Van Heflin, while believable as a weak man, doesn’t quite have the heft to pull this off and most of the rest of the cast is pretty weak.  The direction from Delmer Daves is not great either.  It’s the script from Halsted Welles, that turned a story that could have easily been a half-hour show on television and made it a creditable and enjoyable 90 minute film, that really makes the difference.

In the end, while it is a good film, a high ***, it never really gets higher than that.  It’s not a classic and it’s not obscene that it should be remade.  It is what it is: a good, solid Western that is well-made and is worth watching with a strong sense of justice.

The Adaptation:

This film does something I don’t ever recall seeing before.  It clearly takes much of what is in the film from the 1957 film version and not the original story (as I will detail in the next paragraph) but instead of actually crediting the film, it simply lists Halsted Welles (who wrote the 1957 film and died in 1990) as the first credited screenwriter before listing the team of Brandt and Haas after him.  It never explicitly credits the original film and I was shocked when I read the story and realized how much the film was an extension of the later film until I looked again at the credits and realized what they had done (and had to actually review the original film).  Clearly the WGA approved that but it was still a very odd way to do things.

As you might be able to tell, most of what is in this film actually comes from the 1957 film.  The original idea and the race to get the outlaw on the train comes from the original Leonard story.  The idea of it being a farmer in financial trouble and getting him to the town comes from the Welles script as do the names Dan Evans and Ben Wade (much, much better names).  The depths of this film (the use of the son, the stagecoach man going along and being killed, literally everything about the ending) come from the filmmakers of this film.

The ending is really the major difference.  I much prefer this ending to the 1957 ending where Dan is safe on the train and his wife sees him and then it suddenly breaks the drought with a big rainstorm coming out of an empty sky.  This one is so much more poetic and gives Ben Wade so much more depth in paying Evans back for keeping him safe, even aside from the ending scenes involving William.  That’s part of what makes the original a good film but makes this one a great one.

The Credits:

Directed by James Mangold.  Screenplay by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas.  Based on the short story by Elmore Leonard.

Consensus Nominees

Le schapandre et le papillon

diving_bell_and_the_butterflyThe Film:

This is a bold film.  As mentioned below, the film is in French when the original plan definitely didn’t call for that and that was a major decision to make when it came to how commercially successful the film would be.  What’s more, not only does the film star Mathieu Amalric rather than Johnny Depp, but the film has the temerity to barely even show him through the first third.  Amalric plays Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor at Elle who had a sudden stroke and found himself paralyzed across his entire body with the exception of one eye.

The film does not spare us this.  We begin just after the stroke has happened, as Bauby is waking up in the hospital after a coma only to have to come to terms with the fact that his life as he knew it is now over.  The film will move between his actions as he tries to come to any sort of recovery (physically not possibly, psychically, very difficult), as we see out of his eyes, only viewing what can be seen directly in front of us with no range of motion and Bauby slipping back into his memories when he was still able to move around.

Eventually, as is often the case with films that are being filmed from a first-person point-of-view, we eventually get to step outside the body and see what is happening around him.  That’s especially important in this film since Bauby’s line-of-sight is completely immobile.  It’s less being able to see through his eyes than seeing what moves in front of his face (which does not make it less effective).  We watch his life as he tries to come to terms with what his new reality is (through a remarkable performance from Amalric) and memories of what his past was like.

This is a great film but also one of those films in a strange position.  Though one of the most acclaimed Foreign films of the year, it was not the French Oscar submission (you could make the argument that the filmmakers are barely French but the Oscar submission was Persepolis which is also, in some ways, very not French).  It did well at the Globes, winning Best Director and Foreign Film but wasn’t eligible for Picture.  It earned Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Oscars and won Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTAs but wasn’t nominated for Picture from either group.  I also feel it’s a great film (****) but not a high **** and in 2007, that leaves it out of my Top 10, so it’s hard for me to find faults with those groups either.  But either way it works, it’s a powerful and moving film and one that should be seen.

db&bThe Source:

Le schapandre et la papillon by Jean-Dominique Bauby  (1997)

This is a short (just 132 pages in a small book that would have been less than 100 in a normal sized book) memoir by Bauby of his time adapting to his new reality after a stroke paralyzed everything but one eye.  That he could even write the book (dictating it letter by letter based on blinking) is remarkable enough.  He would also die just two days after the original French edition was published.

The Adaptation:

It’s interesting that this film is in French.  The director is American and the screenwriter is English (but born in South Africa).  That’s because the film was originally going to be a Hollywood production with Johnny Depp starring and Universal making it but things changed and Schnable, in spite of not knowing French at the time, felt it was a French story that would work better in its original language, so that’s how he made it.  Because the original book is more about Bauby’s feelings and memories, it doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, which Harwood had to create for the film.  But most of what we see in the film at least has ideas rooted in the original book about how Bauby thought about things after he had the stroke.

The Credits:

rélisé par Julian SCHNABEL. d’après l’œuvre original de Jean-Dominique BAUBY, “Le scaphandre et le papillon” parue aux éditions Robert Laffont en 1997.  scénario: Ronald HARWOOD.

Into the Wild

into_the_wildThe Film:

A young man walks out into the Alaska wilderness.  He is alone and has very little food with him but is convinced he can find a way to survive.  What makes him a bit odd is that he is basically asking to die, not being properly prepared, not knowing enough about how to survive, without any plan, but is not actually looking to die.  He wants to live but he doesn’t seem to understand that this will result in nothing but death.  So he dies.

This is the story of that man, Christopher McCandless, who went by several names after he graduated from college, gave away his money and started wandering the western half of the country.  He didn’t look for friendship though he continually found it from the people he would meet along the way.  He definitely wasn’t looking for love.  He was looking for himself and was determined that he would find it on his own, out in the vast nothingness of the American West.  When that didn’t seem to be enough (or there seemed to be too many people willing to help and offer him guidance, support and love), he headed farther west and north and found his death.

The film is well-written and directed by Sean Penn, who has always been much more restrained as a writer and director than as an actor or a man.  It also has a lot of good performances in small roles (particularly memorable is Kristen Stewart in the first role I had seen her in since Panic Room and she had leapt from a talented kid to sexy jailbait and that last bit is important because it’s part of why Christopher leaves rather than stay with her) and a very good one from Hal Holbrook in a larger one as a man who comes to care for Christopher and worries that he will only find death out in Alaska.  But the film mainly rests on three things: Emile Hirsch’s performance, the cinematography and the songs.

Hirsch’s performance, while strong in parts, is also part of what keeps me from seeing the film as great.  Perhaps it’s just a measure of the personality of Christopher, but he just can’t seem to get into the swing of human interaction.  Hirsch is strong when he’s alone, but I never really felt things come through as much when he meets all the people along the way.  I found it hard to buy into Stewart falling for him other than that he is there; he seems so lost inside that I wonder what spark she sees.  But the cinematography is amazing, moving from deserts to vast plains to the Alaska wilderness where he will eventually die.  And the songs are something else.  It’s very rare to get an entire soundtrack of original songs but Eddie Vedder provides several for the film and they help in the moments where Christopher is alone, the vast stretches where there is no dialogue.  It’s a very good film but in the end I was not sorry that it felt short at the Oscars in favor of Atonement, a film I hold up much higher.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverThe Source:

Into the Wild by Jon Krakaeur  (1996)

I held off on reading this book for a very long time, in spite of having read and been impressed by other Krakaeur books (namely Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven).  I just had no interested in reading about a man who does something dumb and then dies.  I don’t skydive and I don’t scuba dive and I don’t even ski and with all of those, I am adamant that I won’t engage in an activity that if done wrong will kill me.  So I don’t understand those people determined to live so close to the edge that it takes them over the edge and into death.  But this isn’t just a narrative about Christopher’s life.  Krakaeur, who has done his own dumb things and is lucky to be alive at this point, not only understands him, but spends almost half the book looking at other, similar people and what has taken them out into the wilderness.  It made for a more interesting book than just following Christopher (which I had generally no interest in).  It’s certainly well-written and I understand why people read it, but I had very little interest in it until halfway through and got that better understanding into a type of personality that I am glad I don’t have.

The Adaptation:

With most books, there is much that needs to be cut to make them fit onscreen.  That’s not really the case here because the book is only barely over 200 pages and nearly half of it is either looking at other, similar people, or a look at the aftermath of Christopher’s death.  There wasn’t anything I noticed that was particularly different from what was in the book and most of what was left out of the film wasn’t the stuff about Christopher’s journey itself and that’s what the film is focusing upon.

The Credits:

screenplay and directed by Sean Penn.  based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

WGA Nominee

zodiac

zodiacThe Film:

While this film has gone up a bit in my estimation since I originally saw it over a decade ago, it still has not reached **** and thus still falls short of what a lot of critics feel about it.  Over at TSPDT, it ranks in the Top 600 all-time and in the Top 50 for this century.  So it’s in that weird nebulous land of films that I think are very well-made but are not at the same level that others think, along with films like The Piano and Vertigo.  What precisely is it about this film that causes people to go bonkers over it?

Well, first of all, it’s a David Fincher film.  That alone is enough to make a number of people love it no matter what else goes on about it.  For certain people, Fincher brings out a level of unvarnished critical acclaim the way that Lynch did in the 80s and 90s and Altman did in the 70s.  To them, every film is a masterpiece, no matter what it may be.  What’s more, it’s from the Fincher era where he wasn’t getting any nominations for his films, when he made films like Seven and Fight Club.  So to them this is one of those great films that audiences ($33 million, less than Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Good Luck Chuck) and awards groups (just two guild noms for 50 awards points) that left Fincher fans feeling smug about how they knew their director was brilliant and others just didn’t get it.

But what about the film itself?  Well, it’s a fascinating ensemble piece about the killings that terrorized San Francisco to help kick off a terrifying dozen years that included Patty Hearst, the Zebra Killings, Jonestown, the assassination of the mayor and Harvey Milk and the arrival of AIDS (all covered in this fascinating book).  It approaches the killings not through the killer himself or often even the victims but through the detective that worked the case tirelessly, the newspaper reporter that the case nearly killed and the political cartoonist who ended up becoming the most knowledgable person about the killings and ended up writing two different books about them.  In stars Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal we get a true ensemble piece.  Not one is the real star because it focuses on their relationship over the years as the killings continue, as the tauntings begin and end and begin again, as the case takes over all of their lives with one accused of faking a letter, one fading away from drugs and exhaustion and one sacrificing his marriage to an obsession.  What’s more, there is the dark, brooding cinematography that won so many people over (and is perhaps the real star of the film) yet couldn’t scrounge up a nomination from any group.

What keeps the film from really rising to the level of what the Fincher fanatics would have you believe is the length.  Clocking in over two and a half hours, the film simply wears you down the same way the case wore these men down.  There’s only so much you can take, especially when you know that in the end, though there is a strong suspect, the case is never made, the suspect is long dead and there is still no definitive proof as to who the real Zodiac killer actually was.  You leave the film feeling a bit empty, wondering what it was all for.  You remember the performances and the cinematography and the editing is crisp but the film just wears on you after a while and you think, well, that’s not a film I’ll be returning to any time soon.

zodiac-bookThe Source:

Zodiac (1986) and Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed (2002), both by Robert Graysmith

Graysmith, the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who is played by Gyllenhaal in the film, became obsessed with the case (it actually cost him two marriages) and worked tirelessly to bring together all the information about the case from the multiple police departments working on it (because Zodiac killed in at least two different cities and possibly far more, numerous departments were working on it and as Graysmith writes, they weren’t great about sharing with each other).  The first book details the killing spree itself and presents a strong suspect under a pseudonym.  In the second book, which functions much more as a timeline that stretches back before the killings and reaches what was then the present, Graysmith makes a strong but ultimately unproven case against Arthur Leigh Allen (who he wrote about in the first book but uses the real name this time, presumably at least in part because Allen was now dead.  While Graysmith makes a solid case, he can’t prove it and Allen is now long dead and so it’s a bit depressing to read because we’ll never really know and Zodiac, in the end, will go down with Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia killer as an unsolved case for all-time.

The Adaptation:

The film takes the timeline from the books but most of what is actually in the film doesn’t come direct from the book.  The book doesn’t really provide dialogue like the film does and certainly most of the second book covers a much longer time period than the film does, both in looking back at Allen’s history and covering things long past his death.  It’s notable that one of the most memorable scenes in the film, when Ruffalo walks out of Dirty Harry (which was based on the killings while they were still going on) is not in the book (which isn’t to say it didn’t happen – two of the three main people in the film were still alive when the film was made and just because it wasn’t in the book doesn’t mean they couldn’t have gotten that information elsewhere).

The Credits:

directed by david fincher.  based on the book by robert graysmith.  screenplay by james vanderbilt.

BAFTA Nominee

The Kite Runner

kite_runnerThe Film:

Do I want to watch the film, I wondered.  I had read the book a couple of years before because it was the book everyone was reading and I had not taken to it at all for reasons that are explained below.  Then came the awards attention and my desire to see it became irrelevant because I knew I would see it.  I wondered how much I would like it.  Of course, liking it wasn’t really the question.  The question was how highly would I think of the film.  I don’t know if I surprised myself to discover that I rated it at ***.5 and thought it was a very good film.  Or maybe, with a very good director (the same man who had already directed Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, two better films), a serious subject matter and solid acting (not to mention good cinematography and a very good score), the film had no problem being very good.

Amir is an Afghan-American who has just published a novel.  It’s his child, the part of him that he can pass on.  But soon after the novel is released he gets a call from an old friend in Afghanistan that brings him back to his past and eventually to his home country.  It turns out that Amir had a childhood friend (the son of his father’s servant) that he left to be raped and afterwards, filled with the shame of his own cowardice, framed his friend and lead to both him and his father leaving.  When he returns to Afghanistan it is to find that his friend has died but there is a chance for him to save his friend’s son, who has been taken from the orphanage and is now being abused by a member of the Taliban.

The film, like the book, deals with a lot of issues that Afghanistan dealt with over the decades that included several changes in rulers, the Soviet invasion and the turmoil of the Taliban and this was all before 9/11 changed things for the next 20 years.  The direction is solid, the acting is solid, especially when you consider that some of the adults were speaking a language they didn’t actually know (Dari) and the children were amateur Afghan kids whose lives ended up being threatened for being in the film in the first place.  It has a sense of pathos that extends through the film and while it threatens to overwhelm it, Forster manages to keep a hold on the film as a whole and make it seem poignant and not over the top in spite of some of the less believable events that cover the last part of the film.

krThe Source:

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini  (2003)

There are books that become phenomenons.  I’m not talking about things like The Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Grey that attract people who aren’t serious readers.  I mean books that suddenly get talked about a lot and have a broader appeal than you expect, like the two times that Jonathan Franzen interacted with Oprah.  In my famous (among people I know) anecdote, when Tom Brady was carded by one of our employees at Borders who failed to recognize him, not only in spite of being the reigning NFL champion but also being on the cover of the Sports Illustrated located two feet from her head at the register, one of the books Brady was buying was The Kite Runner.

I read the book around that time and struggled to see what people were so crazy about.  Was it that it was telling a serious story about a lot of problems that didn’t affect them?  Is it easier to think about misery when it’s far from home and you can’t do anything about it?  Were people attracted to this misery?  The book falls back on what had already seemed like a tired trope to me – that of a man being revealed as ultimately evil because he rapes boys.  That the raping continues through his life and that revenge is taken upon this man through a set of circumstances that make Dickensian coincidences seem realistic was something that took me out of the book entirely.  Hosseini was clearly a talented writer, but I couldn’t find myself believing in the story and was repelled by the abject misery through the book that still wants to tie things up with a sort of happy ending that redeems guilt and allows for a better life for a boy who of course turns out to be his nephew (another tired trope – discovering that the other kid is actually your sibling).

I realize that this sounds like a curmudgeonly view of a book that was widely beloved but that was my feeling when I first read it and reading it again after all this time, I found that nothing had changed.  That’s how I feel when I read this book and react to the events of it.

The Adaptation:

The film does a fairly straight forward and faithful adaptation, putting most of what is in the book (some of the earlier scenes depicting the end of the monarchy in Afghanistan are cut) on screen and being fairly faithful to how they appeared on the page.

The Credits:

directed by Marc Forster.  based upon the book by Khaled Hosseini.  screenplay by David Benioff.

Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10

(in descending order of how I rank the script)

note:  After increasing years, this part of the list has seven fewer films than the year before.

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  –  One of the more streamlined of the Harry Potter adaptations for which it gets some criticism.  Fully reviewed here.
  • Lust, Caution  –  I recently saw a tweet that suggested that sex scenes add nothing to films with a retort tweet that the person needs to watch this film.  Ang Lee continues to bounce between English and non-English language films.  The third highest grossing NC-17 film of all-time.  Adapted from the novella by Eileen Chang.
  • Stardust  –  A book I love and a film I’m a bigger fan of than many people.  Neil Gaiman’s book bridges the gap of YA and Adult Fantasy and the film is quite fun and one of two returns to form for Michelle Pfeiffer this year (Hairspray being the other).
  • The Bourne Ultimatum  –  It’s the Direction, Editing and Cinematography that make it a great film, not the script.  Based on the third Bourne novel and the last written by Ludlum himself.
  • The Namesake  –  A very good first novel from Jhumpa Lahiri after one of the greatest short story collections ever.  A solid film version that introduced me to Irrfan Khan.
  • American Gangster  –  The third Ridley Scott – Russell Crowe collaboration.  Based on an article in New York magazine about gangster Frank Lucas.  Big Oscar contender that fell quite short.
  • As You Like It  –  Sadly, Branagh’s last Shakespeare adaptation to date (aside from playing Shakespeare himself) with a luminous Bryce Dallas Howard.  Not released in theaters in the US (it played on HBO) but it was a theatrical release outside the US.

Other Adaptations

(in descending order of how good the film is)

note:  The adaptations finally go down with over 30 fewer films than the year before.  There’s less adapted dreck is why.  Of the 72 films below ** only 27 are adapted.

  • The Golden Compass  –  A more than solid adaptation of the first His Dark Materials book with great effects that deservedly won the Oscar after Harry Potter wasn’t nominated.  Fully reviewed here.  Mid ***.5 but the script isn’t good enough for my list.
  • Black Friday  –  Low ***.5 but also not a strong enough script.  Hindi Crime film based on the non-fiction book about the 1993 Bombay bombings.
  • Hairspray  –  If the whole film had lived up to the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore”, it would have been higher.  But Travolta in drag gets old real fast and the film is really only alive when Pfeiffer is on-screen.  Remake of the John Waters film.
  • Rescue Dawn  –  Documentaries sometimes get re-made as feature films but rarely by the same director.  Werner Herzog does a new version of Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
  • I Am Legend  –  One of two films here that most people wouldn’t have nearly this high but I think this version of the well-known Sci-Fi novel is quite solid.
  • Sleuth  –  Another remake, this one starring one of the original two stars.  Branagh does a solid directorial job but it can’t compare to the original.
  • Summer Days with Coo  –  Japanese Anime film based on two different novels.
  • Starting Out in the Evening  –  The adaptation of Brian Norton’s novel actually won Frank Langella Best Actor at the BSFC but that was all the Oscar traction he got.
  • Chronicle of an Escape  –  Based on a non-fiction book about events in Argentina in 1977.
  • The Hoax  –  Clifford Irving was displeased with the end results of this film about his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes that he was purportedly helping out with.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End –  Landing one spot above where the previous film landed the year before but not because it’s any better.  Fun conclusion to the original trilogy and they should have left it there.  Down to mid ***.
  • Ocean’s Thirteen  –  Also fun though not particularly memorable, but it’s fine that they continued this series after this one because of how they continued it.
  • The Simpsons Movie  –  Veronica and I are nearly done with our epic rewatch of the entire series but we didn’t even bother to rewatch the movie because it was so flat compared with the show.  Just proof that the show works better in 22 minute bursts (or even shorter, since many of my favorite episodes are the story-telling episodes).
  • Shrek the Third  –  We saw this as a drive-in double feature and I haven’t seen it since and remember basically nothing about it.  I remember enjoying it and thinking it was okay.
  • Saawariya  –  Dostoevsky’s White Nights via Bollywood Musical.
  • Nancy Drew  –  Emma Roberts is just super adorable in this film which could have been a franchise except most of the rest is just too silly and not all that great.  It just uses the character rather than any of the specific books in the series (of which I’ve read a lot but not nearly as many as the Hardy Boys).
  • Days of Darkness  –  Denys Arcand returns to his story from Decline of the American Empire and Barbarian Invasions though the results aren’t nearly as strong.
  • Bridge to Terabithia  –  The Newbury winner that makes everyone cry at the end becomes a film that’s okay but without the same impact as reading the book when you’re a kid (at least for me).
  • Private Fears in Public Places  –  An Alain Resnais film adapted from the play by Alan Ayckbourn.
  • The Great Debaters  –  To get a Golden Globe nomination for Picture – Drama without any other noms is rare enough (only film to do it since 1992, one of just 15 films ever) but to do it without any other awards noms from any other group?  It’s the only film aside from La Bamba to ever do it.  Not so much based on an article about the Wiley College debate team as the article gave the filmmakers the idea and they bought the rights to the article.
  • Starter for 10  –  In terms of talent that hadn’t yet broken through (or at least has become much better known) this film about a college game show is equivalent to Elizabeth.  Just look at the cast list.
  • Secret Sunshine  –  Korean film based on a short story by Yi Chong-jun.
  • brycedallashoward-gwenstacySpider-Man 3  –  The other part of the double feature with Shrek 3, the paired disappointing third installments that were still big hits.  If nothing else, it had Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy, with her red hair dyed blonde to counteract Kirsten Dunst being a blonde cast as MJ.  In answers to the question often posited by females I know “do bangs ever look good”, I present the following evidence that yes, yes they do.  With this we’re at low ***.
  • Lady Chatterley  –  It’s got the sensuality down pat but it’s a reminder that for all the sex, it’s not one of Lawrence’s stronger novels.
  • Satanas  –  Columbia’s Oscar submission, based on a novel which was based on a real spree killing.
  • Bhool Bhulaiyaa  –  Something that you often see in India, with a remake of a film that had already been made in India but in another language (in this case, a Hindi remake of a Malayalam film).
  • 1408  –  Decent adaptation of a Stephen King short story that I haven’t read.
  • Meet the Robinsons  –  Forgettable Disney Animated film based on a 1990 children’s book.
  • Princess Iron Fan  –  The first Chinese Animated film, from 1941, based on the Chinese legend, gets a U.S. release.
  • Twin Sisters  –  Likewise, this is a 1934 Chinese film from one of the country’s founding fathers of cinema, Zheng Zhengqiu and based on a novel he wrote.
  • Midnight Eagle  –  Japanese film based on the novel by Tetsuo Takashima.
  • Bug  –  We hit **.5 with this William Friedkin film based on the Tracey Letts play with Michael Shannon taking on the role he had done multiple times on stage.
  • Youth Without Youth  –  Back to back films from 1970s Oscar winners as Francis Ford Coppola is the director here.  Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade.
  • The Castle  –  Michael Haneke’s 1997 version of Kafka’s novel makes it to the States.
  • 30 Days of Night  –  Mediocre vampire film based on the comic book series.
  • Cashback  –  A whole lot of nudity in this expanded version of the 2004 short film.  The other thing it’s known for is the rare non-Harry Potter appearance of Sean Biggerstaff (Oliver Wood).
  • December Boys  –  Speaking of Harry Potter, here we have the only other film Dan Radcliffe made during his time in the role based on the novel by Michael Noonan.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera  –  One of the Top 100 Novels of all-time as I review here but the film itself can’t live up to the novel.  Magical realism just doesn’t work very well on film.
  • Control  –  You’re much better off with 24 Hour Party People which shows that there was some joy in all of this.  Anton Corbijn, a magnificent photographer, can’t quite tell the story of Joy Division right as a director.  Based on Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis (Ian’s widow) which is a very good book.  Down to mid **.5.
  • TMNT  –  The turtles are back and this time they’re animated like in the comics but they’re still not good or funny like in the comics.
  • Evan Almighty  –  A sequel to Bruce Almighty that actually made $100 million but it’s only the 13th worst $100 million grosser of the year (out of 28) which says a lot about the box office this year.
  • The Water Horse  –  A Kids film based on a kids book.
  • Interview  –  Steve Buscemi takes on directing, writing and starring in this remake of Theo Van Gogh’s 2003 Dutch film.
  • Trade  –  Another film based on an article, this one about sex slavery.  Not as bad as it could have been because Roland Emmerich produced and didn’t direct.
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  –  I will admit that I hated the film simply based on the title before seeing it (a Confederate bank-robbing murderer – absolutely shoot him in the back) and only later, on listening to an interview (sadly not available to the general public) with author Ron Hansen about the book and realized the designed irony in the title.  A solid book but the film is still massively over-rated with good cinematography and a really good performance from Casey Affleck and not much else.
  • Partner  –  A Hindi remake of Hitch.  Why?
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age  –  Cate Blanchett’s strong performance and great costumes can’t save this unnecessary and not even remotely accurate sequel (most of what Raleigh does against the Armada was really done by Drake).  It was interesting to go back to it though and realize that was Eddie Redmayne as Babington years before I knew who he was.
  • National Treasure: Book of Secrets  –  Speaking of totally unnecessary sequels, yet the 8th highest grossing film of the year.
  • The Nanny Diaries  –  ScarJo and Chris Evans team up for a second time before the Avengers films in this silly adaptation of the book.
  • Resurrecting the Champ  –  Another adaptation from a magazine article, this one about a boxer.
  • Tekkonkinkreet  –  It was a big hit as a Manga series but not all that good as a feature length Anime film.
  • Silk  –  After getting James McAvoy and Orlando Bloom in films above, here Kiera gets saddled with Michael Pitt.  Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco.
  • 28 Weeks Later  –  Another future Avenger (Jeremy Renner) but this film can’t come close to the original.
  • Beowulf  –  The poem is why Veronica didn’t major in English.  Ironically, I didn’t have to read it in college (but don’t object to it) but I do object to Roger Zemeckis’ obsession with his creepy  computer animation.  Dude, you made Roger Rabbit!
  • Freedom Writers  –  Oh, this one.  It’s a true story about an inspiring teacher and a group of students who overcame hard obstacles.  I won’t write more except to say that Veronica and I worked with one of the students and we were not impressed and it gave me serious doubts about the program, but she could have been an outlier.  I would hardly want my alma mater to be judged on the fact that one our most publicly known alumni is known for abusing his wife before she got elected to Congress.  Hillary Swank is hardly Robin Williams as an inspiring teacher though.
  • 300  –  The graphic novel has style to it but Frank Miller, after working with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City decided to embrace a much less talented director (Zack Snyder) and the result is just ridiculous excess, not the least of which is Gerard Butler’s appalling performance.  His “This is Sparta!” is the most ridiculous thing since Mel Gibson rallying the Scots.  Plus, I hate the muddy look of the film.  Shit like this and Watchmen are why Snyder has a pathetic fan-boy following that leads to nonsense like his stupid cut.
  • The Last Mimzy  –  Feature length version of a classic Sci-Fi story, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves.”
  • Wristcutters: A Love Story  –  Strange Black Comedy based on a short story by Etgar Keret.
  • Oopsy Does It  –  We hit ** with this Care Bears film.
  • The Last Sin Eater  –  Based on a novel by Francine Rivers.
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks  –  Following on Garfield and continued later with Smurfs, the revisiting of Saturday morning cartoons as mixed live-action / animation crap.  Down to mid ** already.
  • The Seeker  –  Also called The Seeker: The Dark is Rising because the latter is the book title.  Read the book (and the others in the series) and skip the film.
  • Reservation Road  –  With two former Oscar winners, a future Oscar winner and a multiple Oscar nominee, this adaptation of the John Burnham Schwartz novel should be better.
  • The Mist  –  This, however, in spite of being directed by Frank Darabont, who took Stephen King to new film heights with Shawshank, shouldn’t be better because the original novella is not one of the better ones in King’s collection Skeleton Crew.  It also stars Thomas Jane.
  • The Ultimate Gift  –  Low **.  Apparently the book, by Jim Stovall, was a best seller but I worked in bookstores for 15 years and I have no memory of it.
  • No Reservations  –  Former Oscar nominee Scott Hicks remakes the German film Mostly Martha.
  • Martian Child  –  Bad John Cusack movie based on a mid 90’s Sci-Fi novella.
  • Macbeth  –  If you make a modern day gangster version starring Sam Worthington you get what you deserve: utter crap.
  • Happily N’ever After  –  A bunch of fairy tales from Grimm and Anderson get thrown in a blender and out came this animated film.
  • The Last Legion  –  A lot of British stars in an adaptation of an Italian novel about how King Arthur came about.
  • Mr. Bean’s Holiday  –  If you find the character funny you’ll find this second film funny.  I don’t and I didn’t.
  • Day Watch  –  The original novel Night Watch had a sequel called Day Watch but this is actually just based on the last half of the original novel just to confuse everyone.
  • Sydney White  –  Snow White as seen through a tween film.
  • Live Free or Die Hard  –  The #16, 17 and 18 spots on the box office list for the year are all terrible sequels by terrible directors that somehow made over $130 million or, sadly, more than No Country and Atonement, the two best films of the year, put together.  This is #17.  Unnecessary sequel to a franchise that had been good and dead for over a decade.
  • The Invasion  –  Lots of time actors are in a good and bad film in the same year.  It’s strange to have a pair do it together, in this case Kidman and Craig who were the stars of Golden Compass this year as well.  Latest unnecessary version of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer  –  The Incredibles might be the only good film version we’ll ever get of the family of super-heroes that began the Marvel Age.  The first film had fucked up Dr. Doom.  This one fucks up Galactus.  I’m glad Jack Kirby didn’t live to see this.  The #18 film at the box office.
  • Why Did I Get Married?  –  On the plus side, Tyler Perry doesn’t dress up as an annoying woman.  On the minus side, it’s still one of his movies based on one of his plays.
  • Rush Hour 3  –  The #16 film of the year.  Thankfully the franchise hasn’t appeared since.
  • Feast of Love  –  Tying into the long tested theory that movies made in Portland not by Gus Van Sant suck, I have Feast of Love.  Directed by an actual Oscar winner (Robert Benton).  Based on the novel by Charles Baxter and schmaltzy as all get-out.  We’re at *.5.
  • Hostel Part II  –  Eli Roth directs and people are slaughtered.  I would say “repeat ad nauseoum” but I was already nauseous from the first one.
  • Ghost Rider  –  I was never a big fan of Ghost Rider in the comics but I liked him a lot more than I like the films made from the character.  This pile of crap still made over $100 million.
  • P.S. I Love You  –  Gerard Butler in a Romance.  No no no no no.  Based on the novel by Cecelia Ahern.
  • Halloween  –  I remember when Rob Zombie was just a singer I could ignore.  The ninth in the franchise, a remake of the original which of course will get a sequel and then be ignored by a later installment.  Mid *.5.
  • Blood and Chocolate  –  Horror film based on a YA novel.
  • Underdog  –  Note my comment on Alvin but with a real and not animated dog.  Both films also have Jason Lee.  Low *.5.
  • Hannibal Rising  –  Both the book series and film series needed to stop before they got to this point.
  • Shooter  –  Mark Wahlberg in an Action film based on the first in a series of books that thankfully didn’t get a series of films written by a gun nut.  Down to *.
  • The Heartbreak Kid  –  The Farrelly Brothers with Ben Stiller in the lead turn quite a good comedy into an unbearable one.
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters  –  I remember it for the stupid stunt that cost it a multi-million dollar settlement in Boston.  The movie itself doesn’t deserve to be remembered.  Based on the television series.
  • The Ten Commandments  –  The latest cartoon version of the Book of Exodus is very boring.
  • Pathfinder  –  I like Karl Urban but he can’t save this terrible remake of the 1987 Norwegian film.  Mid *.
  • Taxidermia  –  Lots of countries, lots of genres, multiple short stories from Lajos Parti Nagy, this film has too much and is too little.
  • Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem  –  For years people wanted these two races to fight.  They fought.  No one wanted a sequel to that fight.
  • Transformers  –  I can’t complain about box office too much above since this utter shit came within $15 million of being the biggest film of the year.  They finally turned the cartoon into a live action film and it’s just a bunch of noise with no fun to it at all.  Yet, it’s a franchise that just won’t die.  Amazingly, it’s gross to point ratio (on my 100 point scale) is only the third highest of the year thanks to Norbit and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
  • Resident Evil: Extinction  –  Speaking of franchises that just won’t die.  Low *.
  • Are We Done Yet?  –  Both a sequel to Are We There Yet and a remake of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
  • Next  –  Former Bond director Lee Tamahori ruins one of Philip K. Dick’s best stories, “The Golden Man.”
  • Saw IV  –  We reach .5 with another Horror franchise that won’t go away.
  • Bratz  –  A film based on a line of dolls.  Razzie Nominee for Worst Picture.
  • Reno 911!: Miami  –  Stupid film based on a stupid show.
  • The Prince and the Pauper  –  Just about straight to video modern version of the Twain classic with two kids and Danielle Panabaker’s little sister but the old oscars.org listed it which means it played L.A..
  • The Hitcher  –  The original scared the crap out of me when I was young but this remake just fell flat in spite of having Sean Bean.
  • Thr3e  –  Stupid stylized title for a shit Horror film based on a novel by a guy who writes Christian thrillers and mysteries.
  • Daddy Day Camp  –  The sequel to Daddy Day Care, a Razzie nominee and the directorial debut of Fred Savage.
  • The Hills Have Eyes 2  –  Another shit Horror sequel but only the fifth worst movie of the year thanks to Delta Farce, Epic Movie, I Know Who Killed Me and Captivity.

Adaptations of Notable Works I Haven’t Seen

  • none

I have seen every film in the Top 290 at the box office and every film that made over $300,000 domestically.  There are no obvious sequels that I haven’t seen.

I am missing 12 Oscar eligible films, one of which actually is a sequel (The Boy Who Cried Bitch: The Adolescent Years) and another of which is based on a novel so bad that when its author gave a reading of it at a notable book store in San Francisco, the manager was upstairs reading it to the howls of the staff (The Hottest State).  The other 10 are original.

The films with the most votes on the IMDb I haven’t seen are The Man from Earth (over 175,000 votes) and REC (over 167,000 votes), neither of which earned U.S. releases.  REC at least was a Foreign hit but The Man from Earth is mainly known for being shared online; that it has the 48th most votes for the year rather astounds me.  Chronologically, they are the first films with over 100,000 votes I haven’t seen.  In fact, Man from Earth has the 5th most votes of any film I haven’t seen at all.