Thursday, January 15, 2009

Turning Books into Films

For the last few weeks, I've been slowly but surely plowing my way through Robert Ludlum's legendary The Bourne Identity. It's my first Ludlum read, and while I think he's a bit long-winded at points, I'm already a fan.

I'm also a fan of the 2002 film adaptation of the book that stars Matt Damon. While I am also a huge fan of the movie (it's one of my favorites), the film, as is typically the case, has absouletely nothing on the book. In fact, it has very little to do with the book at all. In the film, Bourne is being chased by the CIA, who believe him to have gone rogue after a botched operation, while in the novel, Bourne is being hunted by the infamous assassin Carlos the Jackel, both because he had been posing as a rival to Carlos and because he tried unsuccessfully to prevent one of Carlos' assassination attempts, which ultimately left him with amnesia. The Bourne in the novel is also much harder and violent than the film Bourne, and he recovers his memories by the end of the novel, unlike the film.

So, basically, the three Bourne movies borrow the titles, character names and basic premise from the first novel, and nothing else.

Sadly, this trend is becoming increasingly common in Hollywood today. I'm reminded particuarly of the 2007 film Shooter, which is based (again, loosely) on Stephen Hunter's novel Point of Impact. This film is a bit more faithful than the Bourne films, but it nevertheless has little in common with it's source material. One of the central characters, who in the novel is an experienced FBI sniper, is reduced to a rookie sidekick in the film, and many other major characters are either reduced to bit parts or written out all together. Likewise, all of the character's backgrounds and the plot itself were "modernized" to be believeable in 2007.

Also, look at the James Bond francize. While few of them are still based on books, most of the ones that are (with some exception), have little to do with their sources: in at least two cases (The Spy Who Loved Me and Quantum of Solace) keep only the title and throw everything else away. Now, I understand that the plots need to be updated to keep with the times, but still, would it kill the writers to stay faithful to the original plots?

Now, I understand that cuts have to be made. It would be all but impossible to fit everything from a 500-600 page novel into a two and a half hour film, but I feel that writers, directors, and producers should all do their utmost to remain as faithful as possible to the original work. I know there are some films out there that are supposedly faithful to their source material, but as I have either not seen the movie or not read the book, I can't comment on them.

Regardless, I think that Hollywood should stop doing such a disservice to the world's writers and actually make an effort to stay faithful to the books their films are based on, rather than blatantly disregarding them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Citizen Kane: The Greatest Movie Ever Made?

In a word, no. Sorry, but I just don't see it.

I'll be the first to admit that Citizen Kane is a revolutionary film. It certainly breaks with the established "Hollywood" style of cinematograpy. In fact, the cinematography is something I would expect of a late-20th Century (1970s-1990s) film, not one made in 1941, so it certainly was groundbreaking in that regard.

It is also one of the few (to my knowledge) major Hollywood films to feature an almost completely unknown cast. Sure, Welles and company were famous for doing radio shows, but none had ever done a Hollywood picture before. That and the fact that no-name Orson Welles was given almost complete creative freedom over the picture was all but unheard of at the time, and is in fact a very rare occurrence still today. So it's revolutionary in that regard as well.

Also, there is of course the famous battle over the film's production. Never before or since (again, to the best of my knowledge) has there been such a controversy over a film's release. William Randolf Hearst did everything in his power to ensure that the film would not be finished and then, once production had wrapped, to keep the film from ever being shown. Not even Passion of the Christ caused that kind of uproar. If anything, this served only to make the film more famous and more successful.

So, Citizen Kane was groundbreaking in terms of cinematography, casting and creative control, and in terms of the controversy it caused. These are all great things, to be sure, but they're not enough to make the film "The Best Ever." And, unfortunately, neither is anything else about it. The acting is generic 1940s, as are music, andthe special effects (save for the parakeet). So, yes, it is a great film, but I just don't see how it can really justly be called "The Greatest."


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Citizen Kane (1941) Review

I enjoyed Citizen Kane. I'll say that right upfront. I enjoyed it, but at the same time I do not think it was the best film I've seen in class so far, nor do I think it is/was the best American film ever made.

After class, someone (I cannot for the life of me remember who, sorry. EDIT: It was Andy. ) summed up my feelings almost exactly: "It was the most mediocre 'best film' I ever watched." I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing about the film seemed all that spectacular or groundbreaking. At most, it broke from the traditional "Hollywood Style." cinematography, with the establishing shots, two-shots, back-and-forth-shots, etc. Instead, the film's cinematography seems to be more "modern," more typical of what we'd expect to see in a theater if not today, then perhaps in the latter 20th Century. Aside from that, however, and the phenominal acting by Orson Welles and the rest of the Mercury Theater cast, the film seems to be a typical product of Hollywood in the late 30s and early 40s.

What struck me most about the film was the sympathy I wound up feeling for Kane himself. He is by no means a nice man. Far from it, he ends up being a control-obsessed tyrant. Still, Kane had enough money so that he could snap his fingers and have nearly anything he wanted, but the only time in his life when he was truly happy was when he was a young boy with nothing, nothing but his imagination and his sled, his Rosebud.

I enjoyed Citizen Kane. I really did. However, while I do think it is a must-watch film, I don't consider it to be the best film ever made. It just doesn't stand out enough to me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Film Noir: An American Style?

Film noir is unique in that it is genre/style of film (whichever you prefer) that is almost wholly unique to American cinema. Other genres like action, romance, suspense, and even comedy, span every country and every culture in the world because they are, by their very nature, universal and understood by virtually everyone. Film noir lacks this universality because it is a distinctly American style born of distinctly American roots and causes.

What really gave birth to the film noir genre was the fear and uncertainty surrounding America in the late 1930s. Fear of the war that everyone could see was brewing in Europe and uncertainty over the lingering effects of the Great Depression, combined with the lingering memories of the gangster era and the corruption it exposed gave rise to a blend of filmmaking techniques and plotline that were virtually exclusive to Hollywood during the late 30s to the early 50s.

The dark, shadowy urban settings, the reluctant, burned-out, sometimes drunk anti-heroes, the questionable moralities of all the central characters in film noir were previously unheard of anywhere in cinema, buthe their dark, ambiguous nature perfectly represented the pessemistic confusion that was permeating through the nation at that time. Because this confusion was not as prevalent eslwhere in the world - if existant at all - the resultant films were utterly unique to America.

While elements of film noir have slowly made their way into other countries cinemas, and even into other genres, the core of film noir remains firmly rooted in America due to the unique conditions and circumstances surrounding its origin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Film Noir Journal


I've just finished watching Blade Runner and The Maltese Falcon, so I now have a pretty good idea of what film noir really is. It's not a genre, per se, of film making, but a style. It can cross genres easily, from the classic whodunits of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, to the futuristic science fiction of Blade Runner. After careful analysis, here's my list of what makes a movie film noir:

Required (or at least highly desirable):
  • Very dark (lighting), with lots of shadows
  • Very dark and somber mood or feel
  • The hero or protagonist is either a cop, ex-cop, or private investigator
  • The hero usually becomes involved in the situation against his will or better judgement
  • The hero narrating the film in a flashback voiceover
  • Murder, or some other sort of crime
  • Some sort of plot twist
  • All nonessential dialogue is very short and to the point
  • The characters (or at least the protagonists) all smoke and/or drink rather frequently
Optional (but preferable)
  • All the men wear fedoras and trench coats
  • Corny dialogue (between characters in love, anyway)
  • Liberal use of the words "dame" and "baby"

In my opinion, out of the four films I've watched, only Double Indemnity is a true example of film noir because it meets the most of my requirements, and not just that the film feature a flashback narration by the hero (The original cut of Blade Runner had such a narration). Granted, the other three films all featured characteristics of film noir, but only Indemnity seemed (to me) to fully embody and embrace the style of film noir.


Two films down, and I'm getting a better idea of what film noir is. It's beginning to seem less like a genre to me and more like a style of filming. Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity are both gritty detective films, but only Indemnity seems (IMO) to be noir-ish: Touch is just too bright and "happy" at times.

With that in mind, here's my updated list of what makes a film noir movie:

Required (or at least highly desirable):
  • Very dark (lighting), with lots of shadows
  • Very dark and somber mood or feel
  • The hero narrating the film in a flashback voiceover
  • Murder, or some other sort of crime
  • Some sort of plot twist
  • All nonessential dialogue is very short and to the point
Optional (but preferable)
  • All the men wear fedoras and trench coats
  • Corny dialogue (between characters in love, anyway)
  • Liberal use of the words "dame" and "baby"


So, yesterday was my first real exposure to film noir. I was right: I like this genre. However, my exposure is (as I said) extremely limited, so I'm still trying to figure out what makes a film into film noir . Here's what I've got so far:

  • Very dark (lighting), with lots of shadows
  • The hero narrating the film in a flashback voiceover
  • Murder
  • All the men wear fedoras
  • All nonessential dialogue is very short and to the point
  • Corny dialogue (between characters in love, anyway)
  • Liberal use of the words "dame" and "baby"
It's not much so far, I know, but I've still got 3 more (and hopefully) different films to watch, possibly along with some outside research, so I'll definitely be able to expand my knowledge of film noir over the coming weeks.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) Review

I enjoyed The Maltese Falcon. While there was nothing really special about the film (aside from Humphrey Bogart, of course), like Casablanca, it's just one of those films that pulls the viewer in and doesn't let go until the end.

Honestly, I think the reason I enjoyed the film so much is because I love a good who-done-it. Problem is, I usually have them figured out by at least the halfway point, and while I did have most of the plot figured out by about 2/3 of the way through the film, I didn't figure out everything until it was explained at the end. That's what I really loved about this film: it kept me guessing.

Artistically, as I said, there really isn't anything that sets this film apart. The cinematography, mise-en-scene, and editing are all typical of the classic 1930s-1950s era of Hollywood. As I said, nothing special, but the acting is where the film shines. Bogart is, as usual, superb, as are Mary Astor, Syndey Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Personally, I thought it was excellent to see those last two in full-fledged roles and not just the bit parts they had in Casablanca.

While it's nothing special, The Maltese Falcon is a true gem. It's worth a watch. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Blade Runner (1982) Review

Frankly, I was disappointed by this film. It was a bit too gory for my tastes, but nowhere near to the level that would make me not like it the way I do.

The cinematography in this film is absolutely amazing. Who would have thought scene after scene of polluted urban sprawl could be so... so... beautiful? Likewise, the random roving spotlights that are omnipresent throughout the film lend it an Orwellian feel, almost as if Big Brother is always watching.

Likewise, the mise-en-scene is fabulous. Everything, and I mean everything, looks like it belongs in the worn, dreary, distopian city that is LA in 2019. From the clothes to the cars to the weapons, to the building-covering jumbotrons, everything looks real - even more stunning once one realizes that there is no GCI in the film whatsoever.

Editing, while not as strong as the cinematography or mise-en-scene, is also very well-done, giving the film a definite noir-is feel to it. It doesn't do quite as good a job of building tension as I would like, but it is adequate nonetheless.

I guess the reason I didn't really like this film is just because it was so hyped, for me anyway, that it had reached a standard that no film could realistically live up to. I would have like to have watched the cut with Harrison Ford's narration, though. Maybe that would have made it seem better. But, either way, I have to admit that Blade Runner is an excellent film and should definitely be watched, especially if you're a science-fiction junkie.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Touch of Evil (1958) Review

I hate to admit it, but I really did not enjoy Touch of Evil that much. It wasn't a bad movie by any means; it just didn't draw me in nearly as much as Double Indemnity did. I guess part of the reason was that I had read about the film long before I watched it, so I knew most of the major twists. Even so, I knew Psycho's twist before I saw that, and that film still drew me in...

Honestly, this movie just doesn't strike me as being very film noir. It's just a bit too bright, and the characters at times seem just a bit too happy. There also isn't very much use of shadow in the film, and the overall ambiance is just too bright.

Regardless, it's still a very well-done movie. Charlton Heston and Orson Welles are brilliant in their respective rolls as Vargas and Quinlan, while Janet Leigh (who still doesn't have good luck with motels) does a good job as Vargas' new (and somewhat clueless) wife. Similarly the plot is very well-developed and should keep people (at least ones who don't know it beforehand) entertained.

Overall, I think that Touch of Evil is a good movie by itself and is definitely worth a watch. However, I don't think it fits into the category of Film Noir very well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Double Indemnity (1944) Review

Double Indemnity was my first genuine exposure to the genre/style of film noir, and I have to say that I genuinely enjoyed it.

As far as the noir-aspect of the film goes -
murder, the hero narrating portions of the film via a flashback voiceover, very dark locations with a lot of shadows, corny dialogue that made liberal use of the words "dame" and "baby" - it was about what I expected. Granted, the closest I've come to film noir before this is Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Tracer Bullet strips in Calvin and Hobbes, but nevertheless the film struck me to be typical (or possibly even stereotypical) film noir. And I enjoyed it anyway.

Film noir aside, I thought the film was excellent. I especially enjoyed the acting. Barbara Stanwyck genuinely struck me as a murderous black widow of a wife, while Fred MacMurry does an excellent job as Walter Neff. I especially liked Edward G. Robinson's near-obsessive portrayal of Keyes.

Billy Wilder did an excellent job of building the tension up throughout the film. My favortie scene has to be where the car stalls out while MacMurry and Stanwyck are about to make their getaway.

Overall, I thougholy enjoyed Double Indemnity. It's a great introduction to film noir, and if you're interested in the genre (and even if you're not), you should definitely watch it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Makes a Movie Great?

Hmm... good question. Not an easy one to answer, either. The problem is that there are just so many different aspects to a film that it's impossible to peg down which one makes a movie great. Actually, in my opinion, for a movie to be truly great, it must fulfill several of the following requirements:

QUALITY ACTING. No, I'm not talking about having A-list celebrities in the film (although that can help). What I mean is that whoever is in the starring roles, or any role for that matter, must put on a good, believable performance. For example, Casablanca wasn't supposed to be a great film, but the quality of acting by the leads and the interaction between them is what took the film from being another mediocre Hollywood churn-out to one of the greatest films of all time.

CHARACTERS THE AUDIENCE CAN IDENTIFY WITH. The best acting in the world doesn't mean squat if the audience doesn't care about the characters they portray. That's another reason why Casablanca is so great; the audience feels for Rick, they understand how Ilsa broke his heart and how he is torn between love and hate. It's also why Star Wars (the original, not the **** sequals), for all it's flaws, is so revered: the audience identifies with Luke Skywalker's desire to leave his home and explore the galaxy and learn more about his mysterious father.

GOOD MUSIC. Music can, in some cases, make or break a film. Star Wars is an excellent example of this. If the score had been written by someone else, or if it had been scored using pre-existing music (Lucas' original intent), it would have lacked the same impact that makes it so memorable. Similarly, without its trademark theme, Jaws would not have been nearly as scary as it turned out to be.

A CLEAR STORYLINE. The best acting and the best music and the best characters are all worthless if the audience can't figure out what's going on. Mind you, the story doesn't have to be blatantly obvious, but it has to make enough sense that the audience can clearly understand what is going on. There also has to be a point to the story that the audience can pick up on and understand. An audience should not leave the theater asking themselves "What the heck just happened?" or "Why should I care?"

CINEMATOGRAPHY, MISE EN SCENE, and EDITING. The reason Akira Kurosawa's and Sergio Leone's films are so well-renowned is that they both expertly employ cinematography. The wide open views of the countryside make the audience feel like they are actually in the film, while the tight close ups in Leone's westerns bring the tension in the film to a fever pitch. Similarly, mise en scene can be very important. Just look at Hitchcock's films. Everything in the shot adds to the overall effect of tension in the film. Remember all the portraits that were stairing at Marion in Psycho? Finally, Editing is crucial to the film. Properly done, transitions between shots become all but invisible, further drawing the audience into the film. In contrast, poor, jerky editing throws the audience out of the film and back in their seats, making it harder for them to become emotionally invested in the film.

"BREAKING THE MOLD". Let's be honest, here. All The Matrix really is is just a bunch of cardboard acting and gratuitous voilence, with a bit of hokey Zen philosophy thrown in for good measure. Yet the film was a runaway hit. Why? Because no one had ever seen anything like it before. No one had ever attempted special effects like that before, and they blew the audience away. Basically, a film has to be unique, or at least contain something that has never been seen before if they are to be truly great (which is why sequels usually suck).