Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Reading: Great Expectations (1983) – Australia Gets Its Revenge on Dickens

Oh man...this...this is a special installment here for Summer Reading.

In picking which adaptations of this book I was going to cover this summer, I initially had a hard time making a choice.

One of the big hurdles I encountered was the fact that, well, a lot of these adaptations are pretty long. Several of these were clocking in at three hours and over, Which is great for adaptation's sake, but it makes for a sizable time investment.

One interesting challenge I found in this, both in terms of length and trying something different, was an animated adaptation made for Australian television in 1983. Even more surprising, and somewhat alarming, it was only seventy minutes long. So I decided to bet on the wild card and give it a watch.

In hindsight, that six hour version sounds like it would have been a better bet here.

I've gone through a few drafts trying to nail down the problems with this movie, because there are a LOT of them. Not just as an adaptation, mind you, though that alone is a heaping helping of problems. Beyond that, its just not a well-made movie.

I'll start with the latter just because it's (arguably) the shorter list here. Probably the most damning thing I can say for this as a movie is the fact that, as a film, it's pretty unremarkable on almost every level. I realize that's a pretty broad stroke to make, but it's not really off base. Just about everything on this movie runs between mediocre or outright bad. The music, for example, is really only notable when it's being repetitive, and even that's not exactly high praise for the parts being repeated. The voice casting is largely forgettable – a feeling that's sadly reflected in the fact the casting call doesn't even identify who played what role, simply dumping all the voice actors on you in one list – with the only performance remotely notable being whoever played Pumblechook, simply because it sounded like he was trying for an honest-to-God parody. The animation, meanwhile, has a look and feel that evokes those low budget days of Hanna-Barbera. I was actually even surprised this didn't default to the old 'loop the background' trick at any point. On top of this, the art just seems really limited in terms of conveying emotions. Magwitch occasionally manages a convincingly angry face, but everyone else just seems placid in almost every circumstance. Probably the highest point of this being in the film's opening scenes – despite being dwarfed by an angry convict who is threatening him with murder and cannibalism, the expression on Pip's face suggests less mortal terror, and more the sense that he came out to his parents' grave to light a joint in peace.

"Yeah, my heart and liver, I get ya man..."

On top of all of this, the movie's brisk running time means a lot of it just rolls off the audience without leaving any sort of impact. Characters make leaps in their development without any sort of path to why they reached that point. I mean, I know Dickens was himself prone to the unexpected shifts for the sake of dramatic twists, but even he would look at this and have a hard time buying some of the shifts this version makes. In the end, the movie doesn't really have anything commendable to it to make the seventy minutes worthwhile- And that's just as a movie.

As an adaptation – hoo boy.

"This wasn't part of the plan!

As I said above, this movie gave me a whole new respect for the lengthy adaptations of this novel. Mainly because as I looked at this as an adaptation, the more it helped drive home the themes and ideas of Great Expectations, as well as what sit wrong with this version for me: this is an adaptation that's focused solely on the narrative of Pip's rise and fall in fortunes.

This is a big piece of the novel, don't get me wrong. The problem is, it's only one piece of the larger whole. Taken on its own, it's a pretty sparse little narrative and really not that impressive to tell just as is. This is a story that's a textbook case of the phrase 'it's the journey, not the destination.' Yes, Pip's circumstances set things in motion, but it's the people he meets and interacts with that really help him grow and mature – whether it's his increasingly complicated feelings for Estella, his dealings with Jaggers, or his friendship with Herbert Pocket, Joe, and Wemmick, Pip's story is built not so much by his fortunes as those he encounters because of them. Which is really one of the big points of the story – as much as Magwitch believes the money and social climbing will "make" Pip, he's actually made more by the people he meets than the money he gets. So having this story focus on the arc of his fortune feels like a huge miss in this capacity.

Said miss is even more egregious when it's done at the expense of the many characters. The first section, admittedly, isn't too bad here-Rushed, but not too bad. The problems arise when we first meet Miss Havisham. She is really only a rendition of Havisham in the very loosest sense. Thanks to the sparse art style, she doesn't really give the impression of a shut-in recluse as much as she does just an older woman in an off-white dress. Besides that, she lacks the bitterness and later remorse that made Havisham so memorable. Likewise-and one that actually really frustrated me- this version of Jaggers lacks the character's signature hyper-legal mindset. When Pip finally comes to him after learning who his benefactor is, having Jaggers talk about it plainly instead of circumventing things by discussing the matter with Pip in vague legalese felt like the character was Jaggers in name only. Herbert makes a game attempt at capturing his incredibly friendly and easy going personality, but given how little he gets to accomplish in the greater story, it ultimately goes nowhere. It's particularly frustrating – for a book whose biggest strength is its cast of characters, this adaptation really falls hardest in that territory.

Besides missing the character element, this version has a few rather perplexing changes to the events that I'm still trying to work out the logic on. One of the first of these we get very early on, when the film decides to have Pip express interest in being a gentleman before he's even been sent to Havisham. This is the adaptation equivalent of putting the cart before the horse: Pip's drive to be a gentleman is ultimately born of his love for Estella and the realization of himself as common that he'd never been aware of before. Having him desire this before he's ever really realized his standing feels like a fumble in the editing room that could have been quickly fixed. The other notably annoying events here – this movie seems to love having characters fall to their deaths. I can accept the interest in a shortened version of the death of Mrs. Joe, given it's a story the book plays out a while, but having Pip and Joe come in to find her dead, concluding she fell down the stairs – but still had time to pen a quick letter begging their pardon – is just a really clumsy move. For them to then choose to have Havisham fall out a window when her dress catches on fire, rather than burn as she initially does, feels like an odd way to get around having to animate a burn victim. Of course, the fact the scene unintentionally implies Pip just leaves her corpse in Satis House opens up to a whole other disturbing element.

"It says 'Not Me.' That invisible bastard's killed again!"

I can't rightly call this the worst movie I've ever seen – cause I have stared into the eye of some awful, AWFUL films compared to this. But this is honestly the weakest offering I've encountered so far for Summer Reading. It makes a bare minimum effort to try, but ultimately remains a lackluster production that, by virtue of either lack of time or budget, only seems to go through the very basic motions of the book while not really seeing why they happen. I find myself comparing this to last year's review of the animated version of The Hobbit – except where that also suffered from lack of time and budget limits, it still made up for it with a distinct style and an effort to at least stay spiritually true to the story – by comparison, this is a rather bland affair that tells the story in much the same fashion as a kid writing a book report before a class.

Kind of a shame.
While I didn't have exceedingly high hope for this, I was at least hoping this would be interesting in the attempt.

Can't win 'em all, I guess.

Two weeks to the final entry for Summer Reading, and more work to come in the next few days.

Till then.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer Reading: Great Expectations (2012) - It's Hard Out Here For a Pip

Okay, I promise. This is going to be the last 'Pip-Pimp' pun of the season. To be honest, I almost didn't go with this one either.

Then I saw this.

and the joke wrote itself.

 I'll admit I found this adaptation by accident. I stumbled across this while hunting down another adaptation that I'll be getting to later this month. I had some misgivings, but the cast looked promising, so I gave it the shot.

Well, the cast still is pretty promising. The rest of the movie...we'll get to that.

This particular adaptation is helmed by Mike Newell and scripted by David Nicholls. I can honestly say there's a sort of a history with the director for me. Prior to this, one of Newell's more well known projects was another British adaptation- the film adaptation of the fourth Harry Potter book. Personally, I found that adaptation to be very lacking, as they put more emphasis on wizarding puberty than the things which could, you know, get people killed if they're not careful- the exciting parts of the story. His adaptation here, however, seems to suffer from the exact opposite problem: Too much story. After the opening credits, there are no slow moments. The movie speeds through the events of the novel at an almost infuriating clip. Even the actors seem like they have a hard time keeping up with some of the rushing at times. This is probably the first adaptation since I started this project last year where I can honestly say I was glad I read the book first, since without it, parts of this version would be utterly confusing in how quickly they jump from point a to point b. This hit home for me near the end of the movie, as a fever stricken Pip finds his fortunes fading around him. I'll concede it's a point that is a bit tricky to do on film - even in the book Pip acknowledges it hits him pretty fast since he's so concerned with Magwitch that he never pays any mind to his own health. The problem is, other versions, when they include the fever, at least let you see him as it hits, so you know there's health issues catching up to him. This version is in such a hurry to get Magwitch sentenced and hanged that by the time he's out of the picture, we just cut to Pip bed-ridden and going destitute with no explanation as to why he's suddenly sick as a dog.

"Really now Newell, I know I wasn't the nicest role in our last film, but your rushing to kill me here is a LITTLE much..."

This is just one example, but it's a problem that runs throughout the entire movie. Events happen with such a rush that it makes even Dickens' occasional tendency to overdo coincidences feel quaint compared to the mechanical way everything clicks together here. In fact, the story all gets forced along in such a clear path and at such speed that I can almost hear Newell yelling "All abooooard!" as a train whistle sounds in the distance. Things happen not because they're built up to, but because they were in the book and the book says they have to. It's that unfortunate level of arbitrary faithfulness- you can't rightly say the movie does it wrong, but at the same time you're hard pressed to say they did it well either.

Also, while I'm starting this off with the filmmakers and nitpicking, I do have to call a partial foul on the film's editing. For the most part, it's actually not too bad. There's even one or two bits I liked the work on. Then there are parts where Tariq Anwar makes the confusing decision to have certain scenes where characters are repeating or listing things done in a series of rapid, different cuts. I can see what he's trying to convey with it, except it's a choice that feels out of place with the rest of the movie's more relaxed style and seems like someone decided the film needed a dash of French New Wave for color.

The sad thing is, for as many issues as this film has in how its made, it has some good components going into it. The cast is generally pretty good. In the lead role, brothers Toby and Jeremy Irvine (as young and older Pip respectively) are well suited to the part. I also have to give Jeremy some points for one difference in this version with regards to how Pip's attitude towards Joe changes. The agitation he puts into the scenes where he is being embarrassed by Joe's simple ways does a good job of making the moment appropriately uncomfortable. Herbert actually puts it best in movie when he gets that "I think I left the oven on" look on his face as he shows himself out. Opposite Irvine, Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger as Estella are  mixed. The former gets her aloof and haughty side down pretty well, even if some of her line reads are a bit flat. The latter, while she again gets the aloof side right, really doesn't seem to gel well with Irvine, which makes the whole love story between her and Pip fumble. Some minor occasional slips aside, most of the casting is pretty satisfactory here. The one surprise standout actually going to Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers, playing the character's brisk legalese well with a definite sense of a man who's learned to suppress his emotions in the better interests of his profession.

"You think I'm going to WHAT? ... and no, I never promised you candy either!"

Overall though, the only casting choice I can say I was fully disappointed in was Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. I had my misgivings with this one on paper, but I really wanted to give her a fair chance here. I know she's capable of some range with the right role, so I wanted to see if this role could show that. Unfortunately, this feels like a return to the 'crazy' typecast she's been getting repeatedly dealt by Tim Burton and the Harry Potter movies. Now, I'm not gonna deny Havisham is a bit crazy-that's kind of the point, really. The thing is, Havisham is meant to be crazy in the sense of having been twisted and bitter from having her heart broken. She's supposed to be this very withdrawn, with a creepy personality. Carter, meanwhile, is using that same style of crazy she's done before- it works for some roles, but in this case, that extra crazy energy feels really out of place. It really could have been a good casting call with a director that was willing to push and perhaps reign her in more, but as it is, it feels like Carter autopiloted this one.

"Eh...Burton's on set. Still counts."

Alongside the casting, this movie looks very good. John Mathieson's cinematography is not wasted, and even when it's rushing along, it's very easy on the eyes. Between the withered remains of Satis House, the crowded streets of London, and the opening scenes in the churchyard, he has a good feel for the look of the story and captures it well in this movie.

All in all, this movie gives me flashes of Zack Snyder's Watchmen. It has a largely strong cast and consistently looks good, so it has that going for it as a film. At the same time, it's an adaptation that feels like, in its rush to hit all the appropriate plot points it misses the point and feel of the story. So it feels less like an adaptation and more like a pure re-enactment: the moves are all carried out, but with none of the heart. Which is a shame since I would have liked to see many of these cast get a chance to do their characters proper justice in a more fleshed out adaptation. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

This is something I've actually been pondering more lately, actually- is it better to be an adaptation that hits all the marks though it loses the core of the story, or one that takes a lot of liberties with the source but still maintains the core themes?

That may be a discussion for another time.

"and I come into money later too? Man, these spoilers are AWESOME!"

Sorry for the delay on this one. Next SR entry coming soon.

Till then.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Two More Cents in the Hat

As film writeups go, this one seemed an inevitability. Like much of the rest of the country, and parts of the world depending on release schedule, I spent two hours of this past weekend checking out Marvel's latest offering: James Gunn's opener to the pantheon of Cosmic Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy.

I will admit before I begin-I'm not entirely up to speed with Guardians as a comic. Prior to this point, my introduction to much of the cast was care of Marvel's Annihilation miniseries. Anyone who's read that will agree that its take on the characters are different enough that it can't really be used as an adaptation primer here.

So, this one's just taking the film as it comes.

A lot's been made of this movie in the months leading up to its release. Besides the general hype it's gained -because hey, it's Marvel- it's also a pretty wild card to play. Granted, this wouldn't be the first lesser known Marvel's jumped up to the big leagues with a big budget movie- just ask Iron Man. Still, a whole new setting, with heroes that most non-comic readers have NEVER heard of before, with a team of characters that includes a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree? Yeah, Marvel was showing some serious stones on this gamble.

Who are you kidding? Chances are, you're still gonna pay to see 'em.

Well, relatively serious. Let's face it, by this point they've built in enough hype that even if this movie just turned into two hours of Stan Lee dancing on Jack Kirby's grave, it would have still made bank.

...okay, that was a little TOO cynical and dark, even for me. Especially since, for as much as I will argue that Marvel's reputation has made this movie pretty fool-proof at the box office, I still genuinely liked it.

Moving away from the mess left behind at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this movie takes us in the plane of Cosmic Marvel. There are still some shout-outs to past movies -such as return appearances of Thanos and The Collector (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro respectively)-but for the most part, this is currently its own playing field away from the Avengers circle of interest.

"You don't remember me? Welp, not my fault you can't be bothered to stay through the credits."

At the forefront of this is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, continuing his career rise in top form) a human who was taken from Earth early on in life by a space pirate- a Ravager named Yondu (Michael Rooker in a sadly underrated performance from the sound of other reviews.) Yondu raised Peter, and Peter took on the self-styled nickname of Starlord to follow in his footsteps. We see early on when he steals a mysterious orb that puts him on the hitlist of infamous fanatic Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace.)

Confused? Sorry about that. The film's not really gonna help you any more than this summary. It's really a movie that you just learn to take in stride.

Anyway, Peter decides to cut Yondu out of the deal and pawn the orb for himself. This idea goes about as well as can be expected, as Yondu puts out a bounty on him that puts him in the crosshairs of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon and Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.)

I'm gonna be honest. I'm just gonna stop trying to summarize the plot here, because otherwise I'm going to wind up taking you through the full plot. It's one that's kind of tricky to summarize. At this point all you need to know is that Quill, Rocket, Groot, and their other companions-the assassin Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and vengeful warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) all find themselves caught up in a galaxy-wide manhunt for this orb, and must band together to protect it from those who would use it for destructive purposes.

One thing I will give this film, as both a strength and a weakness, is that it really never stops. On the one hand, this means it maintains an energy that really does help those two hours fly by. It keeps the action sequences moving and really makes the whole thing pretty entertaining. The tradeoff being it makes the first part of the movie feel incredibly rushed. After a pretty well done intro, with an amusing opening credits sequence in which Quill dances through an abandoned city in search of the orb, the movie stumbles over itself in its hurry to get all the main cast together. For some characters, it actually kind of works out: Gamora, Rocket and Groot do have their reasons for trying to find Quill established, even if their tracking him down DOES feel a little too quickly convenient. It does lead to a rather amusing sequence that plays like a bizarre game of keep-away as Quill tries to escape both groups before all parties involved get arrested. By comparison, Drax's initial entry into the movie has him just sort of show up and then he's part of the story. Which is a shame since Bautista's definitely trying to make this role work, but the writing really doesn't do him any favors. Especially since he's playing a character, who, by design, takes everything literally. This makes for some nice exchanges humor-wise, but it also means the writers have made him into a character that's prone to exposition dumps.

Their greatest weapon is the sheer disbelief that fills their foes on realizing that this will be what kills them.

Fortunately, most of the problems in terms of pacing and rather clumsy exposition are mainly limited to the first half of the movie. By the time they get the team all together and everyone's on board, the writing improves considerably. It's still not without some later flaws, mostly more in embracing narrative tropes, but it's still not a bad story overall-Just one with a weak delivery at points. Of course, the script also makes up for that with a quick sense of humor . With the hit and miss nature of how comedy can be played in Marvel movies, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman manage to avoid having the jokes fall flat, and also avoid overdoing them to the point where they overrun the more serious moments of movie.

Plot aside, the movie is still a very enjoyable blockbuster. The cast are easily this movie's high point. For a team without prior intros a la The Avengers, this cast introduce themselves and their dynamics fairly well in the space allotted. Even more impressive considering two of them are really mostly just vocal performances. While the whole team delivers, the two standouts here are probably Pratt and Diesel. Pratt gives Peter a very easygoing likable air that really helps audiences warm up to the character. On top of that, he plays that off of the other members of the team well, with a mix of outgoing nature and sarcasm that has earned him a spot in the 'lovable rogues' gallery hall of fame. As for Diesel, it's appropriate to note that this movie comes out fifteen years after Diesel's appearance in the animated movie The Iron Giant. Once again, he has taken a character who has an ultimately limited vocabulary and managed to make them into the heart of the film purely through his delivery. Paired with an almost unrecognizable Cooper as the perpetually angry Rocket, the two make a good demonstration of why voice acting isn't as simple as so many write it off to be.

"Getting ready to start attack ru--wait. Wait. Cancel that. Disney's still working on building the Death Star. Not this time, guys!"

The supporting cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. There's a lot of talent going in this feature. Besides Pace and Rooker, we also have Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, and Peter Serafinowicz all turn in satisfactory to strong performances, though the script doesn't do all of them favors. I went into this movie uncertain of how to feel about the casting of Brolin, and based on this film I'm still not sure. He doesn't come across too badly, but he barely gets to do anything. So we're stuck waiting until Marvel decides to bring him back up to the front again. Likewise, Close, Gillan, and Reilly are all offering pretty good performances on characters that the script really doesn't do much with and this really hurts in Gillan's case. The movie talks up Thanos's reputation as a powerful person who isn't one to be crossed easily, but no one ever really seems to act like it, much less his two adoptive daughters (this is also a problem for Gamora, but since she gets a bit more beyond that role anyway, Saldana is getting the better deal of the two.) As for Pace…Pace in this movie gave me flashbacks of Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World. They are both talented actors who are essentially reduced to looking intimidating and not much else. Pace has the presence to do that well, but it's hard not to feel frustrated because he can do so much more.
Of the entire supporting cast, Rooker is easily the one to beat. I'll concede that his take on Yondu isn't that far from his stint as good old boy Merle from The Walking Dead, he makes it work well with the character. His quasi-murderous father-son bond with Quill is one of those areas where it really manages to work for him: on the one hand, Yondu is justifiably angry at being cut out of the deal, but he also shows moments- particularly at the end - of even being proud at seeing how Quill's turned out under his tutelage.

Similar background, similar personality, similar second in command, even a similar plot for revenge.
...he prettymuch IS just Malekith Jr.

Besides the colorful cast of characters, I should mention that this movie's set design as another standout. From the intergalactic prison known as the Kyln, to the Collector's offices, to Ronan's crypt-like warship, the filmmakers clearly had a field day coming up with the varying different locales for this movie. It's a big part of what helps this film maintain its space opera flare and has invited a lot of Star Wars comparisons. The scenes in the Kyln are particularly worth noting here, if only for the number of little actions one can pick out throughout the inmates in each scene. The cast are fun, but there's also fun to be had in the various worlds they get to have their adventure in.

Helming all of this, Gunn's direction makes for an interesting guide. As a card-carrying Troma veteran, he proved a very unexpected choice for this job when he first got announced. To his credit, he proves game enough to handle the challenges presented in putting this together. Probably some of the best touches are those involving Quill's 'Awesome Mix Tape', a collection of songs from the 70s and 80s that make a good balance of plot relevance and tone for many scenes. Amusingly, for as much as the ads have emphasized the use of the song Hooked on a Feeling, its one scene in the movie is arranged in a way that almost mocks the heavy use in marketing (rather than be used for a key moment, the song plays as we see Quill repeatedly tazed by prison guards before he and the others are processed for imprisonment.) The use of the tape, as well as Gunn's credentials in general, help give the movie a fairly distinct flavor among Marvel's fare - it's a space-faring adventure movie and a comedy rather than a traditional cape and mask superhero film. Even their group name is first appointed in jest, as though to say this isn't what you'd expect of a Marvel movie.

All in all, Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty damn fun movie for the latter days of summer. I can't rightly say I agree with the assessment of it as the best Marvel movie to date, or even the best of the year (I'd still argue Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the overall better made of the two films.) For what it is, it's still a very fun first step into a new playing field for Marvel. It has things to improve upon, but it's a very enjoyable start for the new chapter.

So yeah...well spent ticket price. Now my summer is mainly just down to seeing if any theaters around here will be picking up The Zero Theorem or not.

In the meantime, next entry of Summer Reading coming soon.

Till then!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Attention Students – It's Time For the Day's Announcements.

First of all, I will ask you all to consult your lunch menus for the week.

I can't say much for details, as to do so would implicate myself in the whole matter, but I will just say Friday's menu is no longer accurate. Due to a recent news expose at the local orphanage, we will no longer be serving mystery veal on Johnathan Swift Day. I apologize if this is going to be an inconvenience to anyone.

Now onto more pressing, less incriminating matters.

So, this year's Connecticon was an interesting adventure for me. Several panels, meeting some interesting guests, and trying to figure out the mystery of who in the chain of command at the nearby movie theater pulled the plug on their plan to screen the Star Wars trilogy within twenty four hours of its expected start time. But it also got me in touch with more people in the chain of command at the website Moar Powah! I spoke with them,  learned that they were apparently looking for new writers, and they offered to take a look at some of my work.

Flashforward to the next week, I put together a packet and sent it over their way.

Long story short, I'm now working with the team over at Moar Powah!

For those of you now wondering 'Great, congrats, why does this effect us?' it will lead to some changes here.

I'm not shutting this place down entirely – I still plan to continue with the long term projects here as planned,and for a big reason. The fact that, as film goes, they're pretty well covered. In the future, the bulk of my writing there will be for their television department, which is currently where new staff is needed. I will be chipping in with other areas of media as well, but on recognizing the need, TV will take the bulk of the focus.

As such, the film work stays largely here with a few exceptions (there's one film I have lined up there as follow-up to a recently approved project.)

Also, as you can guess, this means subsequent writeups for The Strain will be hosted on their site, starting with this week's episode.

That said, as part of that announcement, this week's may be a little late. This is due to some technical setup, but I promise you, it will be up as soon as I can possibly get it there, and subsequent episodes will resume their Monday follow-up.

Otherwise, there may be some modifications to this site in the interests of cross-promotion, which is to be expected, and this will still  continue on as normal.

So yeah. I've got more work, kids!

Anyone following me via the various social media formats (if you feel so inclined to use Twitter, I post updates there as @guyinthe3rdrow ) will be able to keep tabs on links easy enough there. Anyone who is somehow just on this site anyway, be sure to keep an eye on Moar Powah! (on top of future writeups, they've got a good staff there and the other material they have is well worth the read as well.)

In the meantime, got some material going up on this end this week, including Summer Reading (this particular entry I feel kind of conflicted on, but we'll get to that later.)

Till then, you may resume your classwork children.

And remember, that's not a gas leak, the gym just naturally smells that way.