Friday, July 31, 2009

Slinking Off to Read a Book

Having let the previous week slip easily by without writing anything, I felt it was time to take a moment and honestly evaluate how I’ve been spending my free time. I haven’t been watching my daily film diet nor have I been in much of a mood to write. This month has been my least prolific month in a long time (well, ever). I think it best to announce that I’m taking a break for awhile, and free myself up until I’m ready to plunge back in.

As my last post alluded, I’ve been overwhelmed by a rival hobby: books. I’ve always been a reader to one extent or another, but the last few months my excitement about literature has been at an all time high. For one thing, I’ve been struck full-on with the realization that there are a lot more major works of literature than film that I have yet to experience. My current personal project is to try and read at least one work by every author I’ve ever been curious about, famous or obscure, and with the breadth of my interest it’s no small task. I truly wish I was better at moderation and could control my all-consuming manias, but they seem to run me ragged through no premeditation of my own. Then, too, I can’t deny that they’re a lot of fun along the way!

I doubt if I’ll ever stray very far from my core cinephilia nature. I’ve had other wave of obsessive interest in areas like cryptography and videogames, not to mention programming projects and disc golf, but film has been an enduring passion throughout. I’m confident that I’ll return to blogging as before and when I get back I should even have read the origins for several adaptation I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, I’ll be running a bi-monthly film night here in St. Louis. I also intend to post whenever the whim strikes me even on break, but I make no promise of regular updates for at least a few months.

The Film Walrus has never had a very large audience, but that’s all the more reason for me to thank the readers and commentators that have shared my love of film, read my digital scrawl and made me confident that there will always be an audience for great cinema.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Upcoming SciFi Adaptations of Note

I’ve been doing a lot more reading lately than in the past few years and indulging two of my literary loves: science fiction and great classics. Inevitably, I’ve been borrowing the free time from my movie-watching fund and that’s led me, in turn, to fewer posts of late. I plan to maintain the slower-than-previous rate of about once weekly for the near future, and I apologize if there’s anyone out there disappointed.

I tend towards prolonged binges (I cite my peak obsession periods with gialli, Czech New Wave, animations as examples) and my reading habits are no exception. During high school I read for leisure voraciously, while in college almost not at all (recreational reading had little appeal with all the assigned reading to deal with) and I can feel myself entering a renewed upswing. I blame my friend and fellow literature-lover Josh for enabling my born-again bookworm habits.

So I thought I’d spend some time on something I’ve rarely done on this blog: looking at works I’ve read and participating in the growing buzz surrounding their cinematic adaptations. My specific goal today is to infect a few readers with my enthusiasm for contemporary sci-fi, both in book and (upcoming) film forms.

The most rapidly approaching of what I’ve recently read is “The Road” (written 2006, release date Oct 2009) by Cormac McCarthy. I had to read McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (1992) back when I was in high school and I pretty much hated it, perhaps because of my mild aversion to westerns or my strong distaste for works “exploring issues of masculinity” or the pedantry of my teacher. But a slew of “Year’s Best” awards, followed by a Pulitzer prize (the only science fiction book to yet receive one!) convinced me to give McCarthy another try. I was quickly won over.

“The Road” is the seemingly futile journey of a man and his son, the latter of which was born shortly after an unexplained disaster that has put an end to civilization. A miserable decade or so has passed in the meantime and all plant and animal life has been extinguished. Only a few human survivors are left wandering a nightmarish landscape of desolation, despair, hunger and fear. McCarthy’s prose, blunt and stripped down but endowed with a poetic precision, was born to describe canvases of post-apocalyptic debris and intimations of abhorrent inhumanity. As an enthusiast of the end-of-the-world subgenre, I can acknowledge that “The Road” isn’t particularly original, but Cormac’s writing blesses it with greatness.

I watched the movie trailer shortly after finishing “The Road” and was a bit torn. There is a chance, looking at the grim imagery, that the film could capture the bleak atmosphere, arguably the most important element of the book. Less promising is the role of Charlize Theron. I admire her acting, but I’m skeptical of her character’s implied screen time: in the book, she only appears in a handful of brief flashbacks. Viggo Mortensen has the lead role, and I’m more than a little excited about that, especially given his recent successful collaborations with Cronenberg.

Interestingly, “The Road” wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo award, often considered the premier prize for SF literature. (Incidentally, “Spin,” by the shockingly yet-to-be-adapted Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 prize and would make a fine film.) However, 2008’s Hugo winner “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (which also swept the Nebula and Locus Awards) is slated to be directed by the Coen brothers, perhaps sometime in late 2010. What’s odd about this book winning these particular prizes is that “YPU” isn’t really SF at all. It’s alternative history. Here’s the premise:

In 1940 a proposal was circulated to grant a portion of Alaska to Jewish refugees fleeing WWII and the Nazi genocide. In real life, the idea never came to fruition, but in Michael Chabon’s novel, Sitka, Alaska is now a bustling Jewish metropolis while Israel lacked the manpower to maintain itself. Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out, divorced and drunken detective who wanders the urban milieu of “the Frozen Chosen” trying to find the killer of a junky/chess prodigy/messiah before the city reverts back to US control. The utterance on the lips of every character is apt: “Strange times to be a Jew.” The style is hard-boiled noir, the writing flowery and liberally sprinkled with Yiddish (a glossary is included) and the plot well-laden with cynicism, conspiracies and revelations.

It makes a neat little circle to consider that the Coen brothers recently adapted Cormac McCarthy with “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t also make a cinematic masterpiece out of material as strong as “YPU,” too. My biggest concern is that the plot’s first half is so dense with groundwork and setup that it really tends to drag (though it all becomes important later). The first action scene is about 180 pages into the 400 page book and mystery doesn’t start to reveal itself until well after that, though it’s a pleasure to soak up the charming language and witty metaphors in the meantime. The Coen brothers will likely have to rewrite the complicated story if they want to get a more conventional modern-noir pacing, though they’ve got enough fame, financing and natural iconoclasm to defy Hollywood’s expectations. Whatever they come up with, I’m confident it will be compelling.

Michael Chabon will probably see his works adapted quite often (his “Wonder Boys” (2000) already initiated the trend) given that he’s such a well-regarded contemporary writer of the “serious” vein while simultaneously a pioneer and champion for popular genre literature. He’s also supposed to be at work on the script for the Edgar Rice Burrough’s (“Tarzan”) adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” titled “John Carter of Mars.” If it meets its 2012 release date, it will hit the centennial of the 1912 planetary romance novel, which was a major inspiration to the golden age SF writers and several NASA members, but which is a thoroughly awful book by contemporary literary and scientific standards. I’m encouraged only by the prospects of a major rewrite and the selection of Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) as director.

But coming back to more recent (anything after 2000 being recent on my scale) SF novels, I noticed that Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (written 2005) is being set for a 2010 adaptation. The premise involves children being raised at an isolated boarding school where mysterious incidents hint at a disturbing purpose. I read it after Time magazine included it amongst the top 100 novels written since 1923 (it was one of the most recent to make the list) and, despite a twist that may intentionally elude no one, it is quite stirring and strangely satisfying. Ishiguro is a stellar writer who has already gotten acquainted with adaptations: “The Remains of the Day” and “The Saddest Music in the World” being brilliant films that emerged from his work.

Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) is in the director’s chair and I’m happy to see the great Charlotte Rampling as one of the teachers. I drew back with fear when I saw that Keira Knightley headlines the cast, especially considering that she doesn’t have the lead role. I don’t consider Knightley to be a particularly strong performer, but I’m willing to cross my fingers and see how the whole thing goes.

All told, I’m pretty excited about the potential SF we could see hit theaters in the near future. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other novels on their way to the screen, but my SF specialty is really more grounded in the 1950’s-1970’s, decades that haven’t been treated particularly kindly by recent adapters. Anyway, please chime in on the comment section if you want to alert me to other SF you’ve been anticipating.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review of A Self Made Hero

“The most beautiful lives are the ones we invent,” reflects an elderly Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz / Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he looks back on the lives he’s led. Dehousse real biography is a mediocre childhood overseen by his mother in a small French town and filled with unrealized dreams of adventure and heroism. The young lad is devastated to learn that his father was not the WWI hero his mother claimed. Worse still, his status as the only son of a war widow exempts him from WWII service. His mother collaborates, his friends never invite him to help the resistance and his time is spent idly observing the war. But he learns to lie, wooing a beautiful local by masquerading as a writer. In reality, he transcribes his favorite novels at night and reads them to her in the afternoon as if they were his own.

One day the war is over. That’s when Albert Dehousse decides to retroactively join the French Resistance and become “A Self Made Hero” (1996).

His turning point comes when he breaks off his former life just after the armistice and heads to Paris. There he meticulously learns everything he might need to rewrite history. He insinuates himself into a veterans society and his encyclopedic knowledge of major and minor resistance figures combined with his non-specific affiliation to any particular political faction makes him a popular consultant with top officials. Soon he’s given a lieutenant-colonel post rooting out former collaborators who’ve assumed false identities in Germany. Unsurprisingly, he’s an ace at his job, but his ever thickening web of lies and the responsibility of executing men not unlike himself begins to fray his psyche.

Dehousse is a fascinating character and the backbone of “A Self Made Hero.” He’s a dreamer, not naturally gifted, and a boy who desperately wants a chance to prove himself. It’s questionable whether Albert is deprived of his chance, or simply lacks the bravery and initiative to create an opportunity. He gradually does become intelligent, cultured, witty, charismatic and inspiring, everything he ever hoped to be, but all in the service of a colossal lie. Because the truth is not on his side, he has to work twice as hard as the honest men who come to respect him. We see Albert endlessly rehearsing facts, quips and anecdotes in front of his mirror, many stolen from men he admires and overhears. In a lovely throwaway shot near the end of the film we see one of Albert’s insecure subordinates imitating him.

Novelist Jean-Francois Deniau, director Jacques Audiard and actor Albert Dehousse all work together to make Albert a relatively sympathetic, yet conniving anti-hero. He’s part pathetic delusional and part mastermind conman, but his face always wears a level of pleasant innocence that makes us want to believe him. We cheer for his rise to fame and power, yet it’s somehow sad, since his ability to fool (almost) everyone, only allows himself to continue fooling himself for long enough to become addicted. When his world starts to fall apart, as inevitably it must, he ends up charged with an ironically lesser crime. The film’s sardonic ending montage gives us a dizzying glimpse of the rest of Dehousse’s life, one even more cynical and still wholly uncured.

Jacques Audiard shows a talent for creating historical atmosphere without drawing attention to it. The audience is invited to get lost in Albert’s opportunistic and frequently nerve-wracking ascent, rather than the period detail. The nostalgic music by Alexandre Desplat and the bright cinematography by Jean-Marc Fabre help create an alluring tone for the film, that recedes easily into the background at the needs of the story and declines to dictate our emotions.

Audiard decides to use a documentary-type framing device, chronicling the real life of Albert Dehousse from a modern perspective. It contrasts nicely with the wartime backdrop and makes the brilliant conclusion possible, but the interspersed contemporary commentary and interviews are a little underdeveloped and don’t really add much information. The wonderful Jean-Louis Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “Death Laid an Egg,” “Red”) is cast as the surviving now-aged Albert , but his acting talent is underexploited and his recognizability compromises any intended illusion that the story is based in fact (a thematic and clever device, nonetheless).

“A Self Made Hero” manages to be strangely funny and yet strangely stirring, thrilling, well-made and well-acted throughout. It’s not quite daring, but it’s still a trenchant examination of the flexibility of history and biography when they’re put in the fallible hands of desires, dreams, memories and assumptions. The film shares with “Mother Night” (1996) and “The Memory Thief” (2007) a lesson about the temptations of fictional identities.

Mathieu Kassovitz likely benefits from having been on both sides of the camera (his work includes directing “Hate” (1995) and appearing in “Amelie” (2001)) and turns in a performance that really should have won something. This was one of Jacques Audiard first films, who is perhaps best known for his Cesar-sweeping “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) (I like “A Self Made Hero” better). His eagerly-anticipated latest film “A Prophet” (2009) won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes this year, and will hopefully get released soon.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mid-Year Updates 2009

It's fourth of July weekend (American Independence Day) and I'm taking it easy; finally catching up on updating some old posts that I promised myself I'd get around to.

First off is my 2008 year-end list. I've seen more than a dozen 2008 films since then (I've had time, what with 2009's output merely sputtering along) and it's been enough for me to upgrade my assessment of the year. There are now excellent films like “Doubt,” “Milk” and “The Dark Knight” that I didn’t even have room for on my new top ten, whereas before I didn’t have a shred of anxiety about what to cut. In retrospect, I think “Synecdoche New York” was easily the best film of the year, and I’ll never doubt Charlie Kaufman again. I missed it in theaters because I’d read some negative reviews, by critics who I will utterly ignore in the future.

Here is the updated 2008 year-end top 10. Scroll to the bottom of it for the new material.

The biggest change has been to my year-by-year list of favorite science fiction films (The Golden Walruses: SF Edition). I’ve added more than 60 new films, bringing the total well over 500, and updated the rankings accordingly. The most noticeable batch is under 2008, which is now officially open. I’m also still [vainly] hoping to get some ballots from readers, so if you’re into SF and want to put together a list, I’m pathetically eager to peruse it!

I’ve also made watching films by female directors my latest obsessive focuses, and I’m looking forward to a potential blogathon on the topic near the end of August (to coincide with the anniversary of the 19th amendment). I’m made a bunch of updates to my list of personal favorite films directed by women, found at the end of this semi-recent post.

Some of the best new-comers include “Take Care of My Cat” (I stupidly missed a chance to see for free during a South Korean film series), “Fat Girl” (which manages to combine a bittersweet realist tone and an in-your-face controversy-courting attitude) and “Madchen in Uniform” (a 1930’s film that’s at least 40 years ahead of its time and gorgeous looking even on the scrappy transfers that survive). I also put “After the Wedding” on the list, as even though it might not be a masterpiece, Susanne Bier definitely strikes me as a director to watch. I’ve had a few disappointments: I was absolutely sure I would like Marguerite Dumas’s well-regarded but rarely-seen “India Song” (1975) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s brave “Blackboards” (2000), but neither really connected with me.

Lastly, for those who tolerate my sense of humor, I wrote a Grump Factory post a while back on one of the worst (or best?) videogames ever made.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s year is going well. And for those American readers out there, enjoy the holiday!