by HELEN GEIB
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AUGUST 24, 2010- DVD WISH LISTS
A byproduct of attending old movie festivals and revival screenings is the ever-expanding wish list. That is, the “I wish that was on DVD so I could see it again” list. Some of the titles on my wish list are sound films, but most are silents. That’s not so much a reflection of a greater interest in silents (although I do love ’em) as it is a comment on how few silents have been released on DVD. Thankfully that situation is slowly changing with the small but steady flow of releases by companies like Image, Flicker Alley, and Criterion and the growing number of silents in the Warner Archives DVD-on-demand catalog. Even better, most of the current crop are high quality transfers with original scores.
In fact, this entry was inspired by today’s Criterion release of Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, The Last Command, and Docks of New York. That strikes two movies off my wish list, and one off the related “if only” list- “if only that was on DVD so I could see it!” It’s surprising to me that it took so long for these to come out on DVD, and especially that it took so long to get a good quality DVD release of Underworld. (There was an adequate small company DVD-R release; the other two were only available, if you could track down a copy, in out of print VHS.)
Put aside for a moment that it’s incredibly entertaining and artistically significant. We’re talking about the original gangster movie here! The template! The starting point of a hugely popular genre that remains popular today!
I often wonder in the same way about other movies that aren’t on DVD, like the ones with big stars and big directors and still famous titles. Now I recognize that silent films can present restoration challenges, but that doesn’t explain all of them. Someone is sitting on these movies. Don’t these people want to make money? Maybe it wouldn’t be a lot, but money in the bank is money in the bank. There’s a commercial opportunity going unexploited here.
AUGUST 17, 2010- NEW POLLS AND THE BEST OF THE DECADE PROJECT
New polls! Vote now for the best film of 2000 and best film of 2001!
These polls are part of the Commentary Track “best of the decade” project- look for the introductory posts in the next few days.
AUGUST 12, 2010- CATEGORICAL DISLIKES
I have an animal-lover friend who refuses to watch movies in which animals die or are mistreated, even the inspirational true story kind. I know a few people who stay away from certain stars like the plague. For me, it’s serial killer movies. I’ve seen some in the past, which is why I know I don’t like them, and now I resolutely avoid the genre. (I’m glad I didn’t know going in that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a serial killer movie, since the avoidance principle would probably have trumped my policy of supporting foreign cinema at the local arthouse, and I would have missed a really good movie.)
What category of films do you dislike?
AUGUST 1, 2010- SOMETIMES YOU JUST WANT TO STAY HOME AND WATCH MOVIES ALL DAY
Yesterday I really should have been running errands and doing housework after my week out of town. Instead I made brownies and settled in to watch four Hong Kong movies: The Five Deadly Venoms, Heavenly Mission, Sharp Guns, and Seven Swords. Seven Swords is a favorite, and no, it isn’t a remake of Seven Samurai like you’re probably thinking, but rather is an adaptation of a wuxia novel by Liang Yusheng. A marvelous film in my favorite genre. The other three I hadn’t seen before. Five Deadly Venoms was the best of that group, a Shaw Brothers classic with great real kung fu spiced with some wall-walking.
JULY 23, 2010- MOST PEOPLE DON’T WATCH A LOT OF MOVIES
A couple of nights ago I attended a panel at the Indianapolis International Film Festival called “Critics vs. Filmmakers Cage Match.” It was far too amicable to live up to its name, but there was some good cross-talk discussion. The first movie thrown into the ring was Avatar. The panelists were generally in agreement with the prevailing critical verdict that the film is a technological marvel hamstrung by a story that’s poorly realized and highly derivative. One of the critics suggested that the film’s monumental popular success challenges critics and filmmakers alike to examine why.
Why does a bad movie not only sell so many tickets, but generate so much genuine enthusiasm? The 3D effects are the obvious answer, but not the whole story. I think the rest of the story lies in the title of this post. I can sum up Avatar as a misshapen hybrid child of Run of the Arrow (1957) and Princess Mononoke (1997), but those references mean absolutely nothing to the casual moviegoer. Most people haven’t seen A Man Called Horse (1970) or Ferngully (1992) either. Avatar played well to teens and twentysomethings. Today’s 23 year old was born in 1987. Dances With Wolves (1990) is a cinematic relic to someone born in 1987.
My larger point: Avatar re-works an archetypal story that has been told many times before, and in many instances much better told. But what if you hadn’t seen any of those other movies? Suddenly Avatar no longer suffers by comparison or feels like a re-tread… because in your moviegoing experience it’s fresh and original.
JULY 18, 2010- DO YOU READ THE BOOK FIRST OR WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST?
A reader brought up a good point in the comments: Whether you see the movie first or read the book first can have a big impact on your judgment of which is better. The inherent massive spoiler can be fatal to a mystery, a favorite character or scene could be MIA, or the characters may not match the image we’ve already formed of them. Sometimes just having certain expectations, and seeing them not met, can make it difficult to make a fair evaluation.
I have friends who refuse to see a movie before they’ve read the book because they say it ruins the book for them. My personal rule is to not put them too close together; whichever comes first, I have to let some time go by before the next go-round. What do you think- is it important to you to read the book first?
JULY 5, 2010- MOVIES THAT ARE BETTER THAN THE BOOKS THEY’RE BASED ON, PART 3
As promised, two more examples of movies that are better than the good books they’re based on:
I really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), but there’s no getting around the fact that by all rights the other young woman really should have been the heroine and gotten the guy in the end. In the 1948 movie, she is and she does! I love that about it, and it’s why the movie is better than the book. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sidney Greenstreet plays Count Fosco….
The Claim (2000) is an inspired re-imagining of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). As a case study in adaptation it would fill a monograph. It departs radically from its source in some very meaningful ways, yet it also locates and foregrounds the novel’s deeply buried, pulsing emotional core.
Are these idiosyncratic choices? Yes. Will everyone agree that these particular movies are better than the book? No. But the argument can be made, and that’s my argument here. (Readers have brought up some other good examples in the comments.) Let’s set aside for a moment the great books that no adaptation could ever possibly improve on. Most books are imperfect, and that includes the good ones. Therefore, the movie necessarily has the potential to be better than the book and sometimes is, even if most of the time it isn’t.
JULY 2, 2010- MOVIES THAT ARE BETTER THAN THE BOOKS THEY’RE BASED ON, PART 2
Part 1 covered movies that are better than the books they’re based on because the movie is good and the book isn’t very. The next group’s not such an easily identifiable category. It’s made up of movies that for different reasons and in different ways are better than the good (not great) books they adapt.
I’ve been citing Enchanted April for years in this debate. The 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Armin has been adapted twice, in 1935 and 1992. The 1935 black and white version is okay but not better than the book. I stress the B&W because color is the key to the 1992 film’s superiority. It’s an all-around well-made movie; among other things, it has a notably fine cast and a very good script. But the single attribute that sets it above the book is the the color photography.
The castle, the garden, and the Italian spring are abstractions on the page. On the screen, they’re real. Color transforms the work as the place transforms the heroines’ lives.
Next time: Two more films that improve on the good books they’re based on.
JULY 1, 2010- MOVIES THAT ARE BETTER THAN THE BOOKS THEY’RE BASED ON, PART 1
The declaration that the original is always better when it comes to movies based on books has been repeated so many times and in so many places that many people actually believe it. In fact, while it’s true that a lot of movie adaptations don’t measure up to the original, it’s equally true that a lot of movie adaptations are just as good in their own way or even outright better than the book.
To begin with, a lot of popular fiction of this and every age and country has plenty of room for improvement. The Hunt for Red October kept what was good about Tom Clancy’s novel and vastly improved on the rest. Jurassic Park is no filmmaking masterpiece, but it is highly watchable, in contrast to Michael Crichton’s nearly unreadable novel. George Du Maurier’s Trilby, the unsurpassed literary sensation of its day, is literally unreadable (I tried once); yet the villain’s part gave John Barrymore one of his best roles in Svengali. I could go on (and please do comment with your own examples), but you get the idea.
So, one strategy for producing a movie that’s better than the original is to start with a book with a decent plot and good characters, but low literary merit. Next entry I’ll write on some movies that improve on books that are actually good.
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