Tag Archives: 2002

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: MIDNIGHT SKATER (2002)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Lucas Campbell

FEATURING: Cory Maidens, Ezra Haidet

PLOT: A killer chops up his fellow students on a college campus while a zombie plague brews.

Still from Midnight Skater (2002)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if this glorified home movie were good—and not only is it not good, it’s perversely proud of its badness—it’s not at all weird (except in the most obvious and derivative sense of the word). Midnight Skater simply apes the ironic grindhouse-throwback aesthetic, without putting its own spin on the genre.

COMMENTS: Why do low-budget filmmakers assume that comedy is easy? Whenever they’re wringing their hands over lack of a production budget, they say, “I know! We’ll make it a comedy! Then we can make fun of our own crap budget, it’ll be hilarious!” To a large extent this phenomenon is the poisonous effect of on the modern horror mentality, but it’s also the fallacy of believing that because Boner Bob’s impression of a gay meth dealer makes all his frat brothers at the Saturday night kegger spit Schlitz through their nostrils, his antics will make sober strangers crack up, too.

Midnight Skater does have one kinda-laugh, when the killer gives an absurdly literal recap of his latest necrophiliac adventure. Far more painful attempts at comedy come from a simpering, anime-and-D&D-obsessed gay nerd with a combination lisp/sneer and attitude of arrogant cowardice. The lame kill puns don’t even rise to the level of groaners (“now that’s what I call good head” quips the killer after crushing a victim’s skull). Mostly, the movie is a painful parade of bad lighting, overacting, audible offscreen noise, surprisingly ugly kids, OK zombie makeup, and crew members spraying people with syringes of tomato soup from just off camcorder.

Midnight Skater has garnered a surprising amount of praise from the few critics who actually condescended to look at it. The explanation is always that the kids look like they had a lot of fun making the movie. And, indeed, if you were part of the gang of college freshmen that made Midnight Skater, you’d be proud of the achievement, and have a great time reliving the film with your buddies over a case of cheap brewskies. On that level, the movie is a success—but a success for the makers, not for the viewers. It is a crime that this glorified home movie somehow got onto Netflix, and might accidentally take up a slot people could use to rent a real film. There’s a big difference between “good for you, you made a movie!” and “you made a good movie.” Encouraging amateurs to go out and make their own movies is one thing, but at some point, you have to stop giving people bonus points just for being inexperienced and enthusiastic. This is the marketplace of ideas, not a third grade soccer league; everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy just for participating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). This is horror and hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, a narrative knowledge derived almost exclusively from issues of Fangoria and untold reams of fan fiction.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Angry Rob,” who said “the acting is bad but the writing is brilliant.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, , Luis Guzman

PLOT: Business owner Barry Egan (Sandler) deals with anger issues, seven abusive sisters, a sex phone con artist, and the appearance of a strange harmonium all while falling in love with a mysterious, yet sympathetic woman (Watson).

Still from Punch-drunk Love (2002)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With its lead’s compulsive abrupt violent behavior, an uneasy sense of loneliness, abstract color schemes by Jeremy Blake, and a wonderfully weird soundtrack by Jon Brion, this film is highly off-kilter for a romantic comedy.

COMMENTS: Paul Thomas Anderson followed up his dramatic masterpiece Magnolia with this small-scale arthouse comedy/drama/character study. Adam Sandler was chosen for the role of troubled lead Barry Egan. Unlike the typical crude humor Sandler is known for, here he uses a restrained, subtle performance to capture Egan’s tantrums, loneliness, and troubled life. Egan is a unhappy business owner balancing work and his seven abusive sisters who taunt him about being gay and continuously call him at work. Barry comes across a harmonium that was sat on the side of the road by a mysterious van following an out of nowhere car crash (foreshadowing a later car crash with Sandler and Watson). Later, we explore Barry’s loneliness and his paranoia when he calls a sex phone operator who later begins to con Barry out of money, threatening and later sending out a group of brothers hired as hitmen to rough Egan up. This blackmail operation is ran by the “Mattress Man” (Philip Seymour Hofffman, in a hilarious role). Egan ends up meeting a mysterious, beautiful young woman, Lena (Watson) through his sister, the same woman earlier in the film he briefly talked to about leaving her car. He begins to fall in love over the course of the film attending a date at a restaurant that ends with them kicked out due to his uncontrollable temper. He then follows her to Hawaii, using frequent flyer miles earned from buying pudding. The hitmen are later defeated after a car crash wounds Lena, who is hospitalized. Barry confront the Mattress Man in a hilarious final showdown. The film ends with Barry running back to Lena, confessing all his problems and promising to never leave  again. Too weird to be a mainstream rom-com, too unpredictable and arthouse to please everyone, Paul Thomas Anderson retains his courage for experimenting with film and pulls an actual performance from Sandler. This is a MUST EXPERIENCE for any film fan looking to step outside the usual boundaries set by mainstream romantic comedy/dramas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weirdly sweet little love story… Anderson also throws in dark complications, including a sinister phone-sex scam, Barry’s strangely surreal sisters, his pudding-purchasing obsession and some very odd pillow talk.”–Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BILL MORRISON’S DECASIA (2002)

Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.

There is a breed of  minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey.  Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator.

As new opera directors rethink old chestnuts, so too does Morrison rethink Walt’s innovative concert program of film imagery wedded to music. How Morrison dances with the preexisting music is as original as that ambitious premiere in 1940. Dancing is an apt description, as Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish. Morrison’s approach to conveying that decay is as startling as ‘s humanizing “Messiah” and as relentless as Guth’s collaboration with Chaya Czernowin in Mozart’s “Zaide.” Morrison’s aesthetic point of entry manages to be paradoxically unsettling and accessible at the same time: no mean feat. Typically, in many postmodern endeavors it is mystery and spirituality that is forefront, usually (and lamentably) at the expense of expressive directness and all traces of humanity. Morrison does not make that mistake, and the unfolding of his vision is hypnotically entertaining.

Still from Decasia (2002)Using silent film footage and stock reels, Morrison’s imagery is akin to cadavers struggling with the effectiveness (or not) of embalming fluid. Nuns with schoolchildren, missionaries baptizing in a river, a boxer, crashing waves, a man reading a newspaper, a caravan of camels, landscapes, a geisha, miners, and volcanoes rise from the blemishes of  a Dorian Gray portrait, once as handsome and muscular as the square jawed  or as prettified as the coquettish . It is a circular, phantasmagoric dance-to-your-death potpourri. The assemblage of primordial imagery, conjoined with Gordon’s aural language, craft an evocative, textured  experience that is probably most effective on the big screen. The sole advantage to home viewing would be lack of interruption due to grumbling patrons walking out.

By taking this unpreserved archival footage, keeping it intact, and wedding it to the atonal composition, Morrison’s contemplative, non-linear narrative serves the nitrate deterioration like a protective skin. Decasia simultaneously celebrates decay and survival with an unbridled enthusiasm found in the most memorable cinematic experiments of the 1960s.