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Quantum entanglements

Tuesday, 18 November 2008 — 6:30pm | Film, Full reviews

Watching Casino Royale was like witnessing the restoration of a rejuvenated monarchy. It restored the name of James Bond to a credible position of leadership in espionage cinema when the genre needed a capstone to its brief renaissance, with Munich arriving the year before and The Bourne Ultimatum and Lust, Caution hot on its heels—and while all four are destined to be spy classics, Casino Royale had the further distinction of being an old-fashioned popular action flick when blockbusters as a whole were sorely lacking in grit. It wasn’t merely a great Bond film: it was an admirable piece of cinema by out-of-franchise standards.

I spent most of Quantum of Solace missing Casino Royale.

I missed the absolute clarity of the wide-angle view we had of the action, stitched with a pulsating tandem of escalation and diminuendo that pervaded the showpiece sequences with a shot-to-shot rhythm rivalling the finest fruits of Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaboration with editor Michael Kahn. I missed how Bond was constantly and seriously endangered on all sides. I missed the dutiful preservation of Ian Fleming’s greatest balancing trick: the ability to draft characters that look like comic-book figures on paper and still make them belong in a milieu of hard-boiled, no-nonsense realism.

Nowhere in Quantum of Solace will you find anything to match the tension at the poker table, the tics of Le Chiffre, or the topping of Daniel Craig’s devil-smile when the airplane sabotage sequence finished with its controlled-explosive kerplop.

This isn’t to say that Quantum is a bad time at the cinema. It’s good fun, it’s technically accomplished, and it retains the brains, topicality, and calculated coarseness of its predecessor. There is even a shocking homage to Goldfinger‘s most iconic image that literally drips with the post-9/11 ethos, capturing the essence of the new James Bond in a single frame. And I know it’s a cosmetic trifle, but the locational title cards are superb.

But they borrowed the right Fleming title, for this film is a quantum indeed: discontinuous, and in need of a unified theory.

Continued »

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Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

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Alas, poor Iorek

Saturday, 8 December 2007 — 2:58am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

Pay attention, because I’m about to coin a new word: amberpunk. It refers specifically to the aesthetic of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much of which carries on in the steampunk spirit, but in the absence of steam.

Thanks to the promotional stills and trailers for the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the visualization of amberpunk was the least of my concerns going into the film. The moment I saw that New Line had commissioned a cinematic adaptation, a list of Reasons to Worry flickered into being, and the visual design was the first item I crossed off the list.

Among the other, more pressing items: 1) In the novels, shapeshifting daemons like Pantalaimon retain a coherent identity before the reader because they are identified by name. How might one adapt that visually? 2) Lyra Belacqua is a role so ludicrously challenging that casting her appropriately could make or break the movie. Could Dakota Blue Richards convincingly fill her shoes? 3) Pullman’s writing consistently appeals to non-visual senses—touch, for example, as in the highly tactile experience of using the Subtle Knife. How might this work on film? 4) Will Pullman’s stridently anti-dogmatic message (which is finally poking the church in the eye with as sharp a stick as he intended, albeit twelve years late) survive commercial pressures for the filmmakers to self-censor? 5) Who is Chris Weitz, and should I be as worried as I am about his very limited directorial experience (About a Boy, Down to Earth and a co-credit on American Pie), or will he surprise me like Mike Newell did with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 6) Are the angels in The Amber Spyglass still going to be naked?

Now, I regret to say I’ve only read Pullman’s marvelous trilogy once and therefore don’t know it backwards, forwards and upside down the way I (used to) know The Lord of the Rings, but my initial impression after seeing the film tonight is a very positive one. The adaptation adhered to its source with the utmost respect, but not slavishly or religiously (how ironic would that be?) to a fault. Devoted readers need not worry. In fact, I had myself a jolly old time right up until the credits rolled.

Unfortunately, the end credits are precisely where a very serious problem with the film appears. (Spoilers follow for both the book and the film.)

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Caution: Automatic Lust

Monday, 29 October 2007 — 11:04pm | Film, Full reviews

Or, as they say in the London Underground: mind the gap.

Lust, Caution is now playing in select theatres. I had the opportunity to see it a few weeks ago at the Edmonton International Film Festival, and although my impressions of a film are never wholly reliable after only seeing it once, my initial judgment is that it is the very best film I’ve seen with Ang Lee in the director’s chair. Mind you, I’m far more familiar with his recent films than I am with his works in the early 1990s, but this is still a strong statement of praise on my part when you consider that I’m suggesting comparisons to the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—excellent films both, but not as consistently tight in pacing. Highly recommended.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of a spy cinema renaissance? In the last two years alone, we’ve seen Munich, Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum—and I don’t hesitate to append Lust, Caution to the list. Be it the franchise blockbuster or the historical assassination thriller, the standard of achievement in the espionage genre, with respect to both brains and execution, is now at least comparable to the Hitchcock oeuvre without being completely outclassed.

And Lust, Caution begs to reach for the Hitchcock benchmark anyway, regardless of whether or not it succeeds. Even beyond the explicit allusions to films like Suspicion, it’s a film about the manufacture of a woman into a femme fatale, a theme that occurs time and again in Hitchcock’s best work— Vertigo, North by Northwest, and perhaps my personal favourite, Notorious (to name a few). Like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, the femme fatale put in the position of using her sexuality as a tool of entrapment (Wong Chia Chi, played by Tang Wei) is the heroine who guides us through the plot, and not someone whose side of the story is concealed, as is often the case in classic noir driven by male protagonists of variable moral righteousness.

Naturally, how much of that “sexuality as a tool of entrapment” you can actually show has changed dramatically since 1946, which is why Lust, Caution is rated NC-17 in the United States, and where my discussion of the film becomes a tad more involved.

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Of affairs and hockey clubs infernal

Sunday, 8 October 2006 — 12:50am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

So while I was watching Calgary’s victorious home opener tonight, a few conveniently placed intermissions and commercial breaks permitted me to regale the resident kid brother with storied knickknacks of the franchise’s history.

The exercise demonstrated, once again, that one of the best ways to notice new things about a story is to tell it. Here’s tonight’s curiosity: isn’t it odd that at the team’s inception, they christened it the Atlanta Flames? Were they proud of Union soldiers burning their city to the ground – or did they, frankly, not give a damn?

[Edit: According to these guys, that was a very good guess.]

Insert clever transition here.

It’s a strange experience to watch a cinematic remake immediately after the original film. It is not unlike reading a book right before you see its adaptation. When it comes to books, I know that for some people, it’s hardly ever a pleasant experience: they get all worked up about adaptation issues and never manage to get over them. For me, there is usually something unsettling that results from how the absences and changes are just as visible as what actually ends up on the screen, but this is typically outweighed by my attention to the use of film language in negotiating the inevitable gulfs. See my piece on The Phantom of the Opera for details.

Remakes, however, are a different matter. I think we often have a tendency to think of them as “new versions” of a story rather than “adaptations” in the same sense as books and stage plays. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho aside, our expectations typically extend as far as a reimagining of the holistic story and characters, and not shot-for-shot, plot-for-plot replication.

So it’s delightful when Naomi Watts steals an apple and Adrien Brody carries her down a vine in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and it’s especially entertaining to us film nerds when the original film is hypodiegetically embedded in Jack Black’s film shoot on the ship; and then there’s the spider sequence, which is (oddly enough) a homage to a scene explicitly not in the original; but we see these as luxuries, and we could have done without them just the same.

That brings us to this weekend’s big release, The Departed.

A brief primer for those of you who don’t keep up with such things, and expect me to do it for you: Scorsese’s latest film is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs, which quickly became Hong Kong cinema’s biggest phenomenon this decade not involving the farcical antics of Stephen Chow. The premise is deceptively simple: a police spy embedded in a triad (Tony Leung or, if you prefer, Leonardo DiCaprio) and a triad spy embedded in the police department (Andy Lau or, if you prefer, Matt Damon) attempt to fish each other out in a meticulous demonstration of what game theorists refer to as a simultaneous game of incomplete information.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, I highly recommend that you do. I revisited it last night, heeding a warning from a fellow film buff that it doesn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, only to discover that – while the shock value is gone, and there are two or three leaps of logic that arguably qualify as plot holes – the film is every bit as intricate as I remembered on the levels of direction, editing, performance and general craftsmanship.

A wise choice, then, for Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan to adhere very, very closely to the sequence of actions in the original. Sure, the locales and actors are different, a few supporting characters are split and merged, and I’m told there are elements from the two sequels that emerged within a year of the original’s release. (Mark Wahlberg’s character is allegedly grafted from Infernal Affairs III.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but stack one film atop the other, and they mesh in an alignment I’d even call homomorphic.

But because the two films are so similar, and differ primarily in execution, I do feel compelled to compare them. I think my renewed familiarity with Infernal Affairs tempered my enjoyment of The Departed somewhat, and I suspect the latter deserves a second chance on a clean slate. I highly recommend them both, but neither one is free of imperfections. In that sense, I almost find that one complements the other.

Here’s what The Departed does better: onscreen violence, cinematography, verbal humour, the exchange of contraband, Jack Nicholson, clever visual motifs (I’m thinking of the final shot in particular), the budget, Catholicism, spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to flesh out the motivations so nobody is left questioning why X knows/trusts/kills Y.

Here’s what Infernal Affairs does better: offscreen violence, editing, pacing of the opening act, sting operations, Morse Code, Buddhism, not spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to beat it over the head with clues and motivations until it resonates with the guest appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

Draw: stellar lead performances, use of cellular telephones, plot holes.

On balance, I prefer the original. I’ll concede that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good, just as The Departed is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to trying to explain everything (and still falling short in completely new ways). It doesn’t wave clues in your face like its American sibling, but it does indulge in the occasional redundant flashback to slap you twice with a revelation after it has been made. The two films tell the story from opposite directions, and different problems surface.

What The Departed doesn’t preserve about Infernal Affairs is its acute sense of perspective.

One of the core principles of film language is that while the audience is receiving visual data in a blinking rectangle, that does not mean films inherently work in a third-person objective point of view. Framing, blocking, the sequential ordering and timing of reaction shots – all of these elements contribute to a sense of omniscience and empathy, leading us inside a character’s point of view even as we see her face. Hitchcock played with this to no end. Hell, Scorsese plays with this to no end… just not up to his usual standard here.

It’s almost certainly an editing issue. There’s a big moment in both films that I won’t spoil, but it involves, er, gravity. In Infernal Affairs, it happens behind Tony Leung as he walks towards the camera, and it’s as much a punch in the gut for us as it is for him. (It says something that it still worked the second time through the film, even though I saw it coming.) In The Departed, the audience sees what happens long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s character; the eye level contributes to this, too. Something about it just doesn’t work: the timing and cutting feel off.

The Departed consistently opts for the visceral over what makes the most sense, perspectivally speaking. Mind you, Scorsese is still a master of the visceral; but that doesn’t always fit, especially in a film built on a concept that is all about the limited perspectives of the main characters progressing in blind, meandering baby steps.

Watch them both, though. I can’t think of a better exercise to teach yourself about the differing conventions and values of Hong Kong and American cinema, even if you presume that you’re already familiar with one or the other.

(The likely scenario is that you’ll only manage to see The Departed, which is playing in “theatres everywhere”, while Infernal Affairs is not. In that case, enjoy the element of surprise. I think that may have been missing in my experience, as there is very little in the Gotcha Department that Infernal Affairs doesn’t already do.)

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