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Archive for December, 2010

Q&A

“My book is in a genre of its own.  It has the pace of thriller, yet it has a social commentary which you will find in literary work.  It’s a perfect marriage of both.” – Vikas Swarup, author of Q & A

“I have been arrested.  For winning a quiz show.” – opening lines of Q & A

Q & A was the debut novel by career Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who has said  “I am a professional diplomat.  I am an accidental writer.”  The book was adapted into the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (directed by Danny Boyle, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy).  The film was both a critical and commercial success (more on this and the many liberties taken with the book in the future posting on the film), giving the novel a second life as a tie-in with the film.  The novel’s story is a universally recognizable underdog success story.

“It all started with a report I read in some newspaper about children living in slums using mobile phones and the Internet.  It was quite a revelation.  It showed that old class barriers were melting away and anyone can achieve anything.” – Vikas Swarup

The book is the story of 18-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas (he has a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian name because he’s an orphan and thus his parents’ heritage is unknown).  Ram appears on an Indian spin-off version of the UK game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and ends up the unlikely winner of a billion Rupees by answering all the questions correctly.  The show’s producers were not prepared for a winner.  Ram is taken into custody by the police and told to explain how he cheated on the show.  The story unfolds as Ram tells his lawyer his tale, explaining how an uneducated, orphan, slum boy could know all the answers to the game.  All of his life experiences have led him to this point.  By the end of the book, we know Ram’s life story, from his birth to the present.  The book operates on two strands: Ram’s life story (told in a non-linear fashion) and Ram’s appearance on the show.  Each chapter of the book is based around a question from the show and the life experience that taught Ram the answer.  Each chapter is a short story in and of itself – but what ties the stories together is the quiz show format and Ram’s life experience that, at that moment, translates into the right answer answer.

“It’s a success for India and the story of India.” – Vikas Swarup

Not all agree.  Famed Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie has been a vocal critic of both Q & A and Slumdog Millionaire: “The movie piles impossibility on impossibility.”  He continued, “The problem with this adaptation begins with the work being adapted.”  And Rushdie is not alone in his distaste for the book and film.

“What business did a penniless waiter have participating in a brain quiz?  The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use.” – Q & A

“A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.” – Q & A

Despite some negative commentary, the book has now been translated into more than 40 languages and has received many awards.  Q & A, like Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize winning novel,  The White Tiger, shows us that stories of heroes making it out of the Indian slums are popular with critics and audiences alike.  Pushed onto the best seller list when the film was released, Q & A is a perfect example of what can happen to a book when it is adapted into a successful film.

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Now Playing: Black Swan

“We weren’t really paying homage to anything specific, but Matty [Libatique, Cinematographer] and I definitely drew on a lot of our influences: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant, David Cronenberg, the Dardennes for the camera style, and, of course, The Red Shoes [pictured left].” – Darren Aronofsky, Director of Black Swan

Black Swan, a ballet horror/thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky, is being compared to more films, and the work of more filmmakers, than any other recent film I can think of.  In addition to the influences cited in the quote above, the works listed in write-ups and reviews are a veritable who’s who of filmmaking.  There’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria.  And how about Brian DePalma’s Carrie?  I even read comparisons to backstage dramas like All About Eve, on the positive side, and Showgirls, as a dig.  And then come the inevitable comparisons to the filmmakers’ own past work.  Maybe the funniest was from J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, who wrote: “This epic actualization myth parallels The Wrestler‘s [Aronofsky’s last film] blood-soaked, self-mutilating histrionics so closely that it could be described as ‘Mickey Rourke in a tutu.'”  Do all these comparisons aid in giving weight to what is ultimately a genre film?  Or are they being used to dismiss the film as a flashy copy of better work?  I think, in the end, the comparisons do both.

“I was trying to fuse something highly stylistic with something I was doing in The Wrestler, which was more documentary.” – Darren Aronofsky (pictured left, with actor Vincent Cassel)

Before the Black Swan project came to be, Aronofsky was working on a film adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double (I think at that point it was an Andres Heinz script called The Understudy and it took place in the theatre world).  Then Aronofsky went to see a production of Swan Lake and the ideas melded.  Aronofsky saw Black Swan as a companion piece to his last film, The Wrestler. As Aronofsky has said, “They both have these performers who use their bodies in extremely intense physical ways, the entire performance is based on their physicality.”  Black Swan centers around a ballet dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman) and her journey in a production of Swan Lake.  It is not as much a dance film, as it is a film about a person striving for success.

“We knew we’d be shooting her from the chest up most of the time, but we knew we’d be in great shape, performance wise, as long as we could see her face and arms.  For wider shots, we could just use her dance double.  Darren wanted Natalie doing as much of the performance as possible, so he would often stay on her face or torso instead of going to those wider shots.  It was important to capture Nina’s internal struggle, and Natalie definitely nails those emotions.” – Matthew Libatique, Cinematographer of Black Swan

Natalie Portman danced until she was thirteen (that happens to also be the age when she made her film debut as Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Leon (aka The Professional).  For Black Swan she spent almost a year in training and she is very game in the dance sequences – give her an A for effort.  It is unfair to compare her dancing to Moira Shearer’s dancing in The Red Shoes. Shearer, who played Vicki Page, was a real, working professional ballet dancer at the time The Red Shoes was made.  Portman is all ticks and twitches as the ballerina who “just wants to be perfect.”    Vincent Cassel as Thomas nails the George Balanchine inspired, euro-chic ballet director/Svengali.  But no scene in Black Swan matches the moment in The Red Shoes when Shearer is allowed to dance Swan Lake in a tiny theatre she had danced for before joining the major ballet company Ballet Lermontov (this is also the moment Anton Walbrook as the ballet director Lermontov discovers her potential to be a lead dancer).  As a side note, Portman just announced that she is engaged and is expecting a child with Black Swan choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied.

After all is said and done, what we are left with a high-art horror film.  Aronofsky is concerned with style.  He reunited much of his previous production team (Matthew Libatique as cinematographer, Clint Mansell as composer (with a major assist from Tchaikovsky), Andrew Weisblum as editor).  The costumes were designed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the pair behind Rodarte (they actually partially based one of their previous collections on the film Suspiria).

There are a lot of concepts at work in Black Swan.  We have scenes that play with mirrors.  There is also strong color coding in play throughout the film.  The scenes with Nina in the subway feel like they are straight out of an Elmer Rice play.  And the look for the ballet scenes took some inspiration from Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project installation at the Tate Modern.  But even after being a fan of many of the works and ideas that inspired Black Swan, the film feels more like an accumilation of ideas.  A film should be more than just a sum of its parts, no matter how interesting its parts are.  Or maybe it should just be viewed as an interesting but flawed genre piece.  That is fine too.  Better to try and fail than to not try at all.

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On Deck: Suspiria

Seen Black Swan already?  Make sure to also check out Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

Available to watch instantly on Netflix (I believe it is the edited version available for streaming)

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“People overestimate the law.  They figure that once they’re on you, you can’t do anything.  But that’s not true.  It’s not that they’re so great at what they do, it’s just that the criminals can be lazy at what they do.  And if a criminal makes one mistake, he’s gone.  Most criminals don’t put enough effort into not being caught.” – Brutal by Kevin Weeks (co-authored by Phyllis Karas)

A quick recap: James “Whitey” Bulger was a South Boston crime boss who has been linked to the killings of at least nineteen people and who has been on the run from federal charges since 1995 (since he disappeared he was outed as a FBI informant).  For a full list of Boston Globe articles on the many aspects of Whitey’s story, see this special on-line section  called The Search for Whitey Bulger.  Whitey’s notoriety extended beyond Boston.  For example, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, although an adaptation of the Hong Kong film  Infernal Affairs, was set in Boston, allowing screenwriter William Monahan to use aspects of Bulger’s story for the Frank Costello character played by Jack Nicholson.  And then there was the Showtime show Brotherhood (which was originally titled Southie).  Although based in Providence, R.I., the show’s premise bears more than a slight resemblance to the story of Whitey and his politician brother William Bulger.  As far as I remember, Whitey does not feature into Good Hill Hunting, but I would need to revisit the film to be sure.

In addition to Hollywood’s love of the criminals of Southie, there have been more than a few books on the subject as well.  There are at least three books by Boston reporters who covered the Bulger story over the years.  In addition, Phyllis Karas  co-authored two Bulger mob books that took a more “insider” approach.  She first worked with Edward MacKenzie Jr. on Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Irish Mob (2003).  Later she published Brutal (2006) with gangster Kevin Weeks.  While many have questioned MacKenzie’s role in the Bulger organization (including Weeks who said MacKenzie was “not involved with us at all”), Weeks’ position as an insider and tough in the Bulger organization has never been in question.

Brutal is brutally straightforward.  Essentially, it is a laundry-list of people met and crimes committed.  The book’s style is all in its bluntness.  We follow Weeks from his childhood in South Boston to his years as Whitey’s fearless and loyal compatriot to his arrest to his deal with the Feds (Weeks’ position on flipping – “You can’t rat on a rat”).  Weeks goes into great detail about some events, but glosses over others.  He perpetuates Whitey’s image as a Robin Hood-like figure; keeping crime and hard drugs out of the neighborhood.  And when Whitey was violent, it was just business.

Of all the stories recounted in Brutal, the one that seemed to get the most attention involved Boston Herald reporter Howie Carr, whom Weeks characterized as a cowardly “piece of shit reporter.”  It certainly seemed to be what most interested Ed Bradley in his 60 Minutes feature on Weeks, following the publication of Brutal.  In the book, Weeks tells of how he had Carr in the cross-hairs of his rifle scope, ready to shoot, except that Carr came out of his house with his young daughter.  In an interview for the 60 Minutes story, Carr dismissed Weeks’ claim, saying “It doesn’t seem like Kevin would have the stones to do it.”  Did I mention that Carr also has a book to sell?  It’s called The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century.

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Not quite based on the Bulger brothers of South Boston, but . . .

Buy a copy of all three season on DVD – click Here

Go to the Brotherhood site at Showtime

Season One and Two available on Instant at Netflix

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“He saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer.  He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.” – Elmore Leonard on George V. Higgins, author of the book The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“With The Friends of Eddie Coyle, he’s given us the most penetrating glimpse yet into what seems the world of crime – a world of stale beer smells and pale unnourishing winter sun, and pale unnourished little men who do what they have to do to get along.” – Joe McGuinniss’ 1972 New York Times book review

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1971.  Two years later it was made into a movie that would become the granddad of the Boston crime movie and a stark counterpoint to other gangster fare of the period, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (based on the book by Mario Puzo).   The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is an  unsentimental story of Eddie Coyle, a small-time criminal.  There is no blood in the film, and very little violence–and, only one (failed) car chase which takes place in a parking lot, which is surprising  in a film from the director of Bullitt.  It does not glamorize crime or criminals; instead we see them as real people.  The book and the film both work off of an almost drab realism–we’re just being told a story.  One of the film’s most famous qualities is its location filming (filming never occurred in a studio).  Boston is one of the stars of this ensemble film.

“What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.” – Norman Mailer on The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“The characters are telling you the story.  I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it.  If I do it right, you will get the whole story.” – George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was Higgins’ first published novel.  At the time of its publication, Higgins was an assistant US attorney.  At the time, Boston was being torn apart by the gang wars.  As an assistant US attorney, Higgins had unique insight into that world and was able to translate it onto the page.  The story is written the way people talk–the dialogue is all realistic.  In fact, most dialogue in the film was taken directly from the book.  The book (and film) tells us the story through dialogue.  And not just Eddie’s; we are treated to multiple narratives.  This is a character driven story, similar to what one sees in the work of Elmore Leonard (who is a Higgins fan).  The plot seems to come from characters, as opposed to characters existing simply to fill-out the plot.  Over time, Higgins’ characters have achieved iconic cult status.  For example, Quintin Tarantino’s adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch changed the title character’s name from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown (the name of the gun runner in The Friends of Eddie Coyle).

“I was impressed by his book largely because I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality.  I know a little something about the criminal mentality.” – Robert Mitchum on Higgins and The Friends of Eddie Coyle

At the center of the film is Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Eddie Coyle.  Mitchum is one of those actors who does more with less.  This marked the resurgence of Mitchum’s career from the former A-list leading man to an everyman who could be embraced by the new Hollywood of the 1970’s (Mitchum followed Eddie Coyle with The Yakuza and two turns as Phillip Marlowe).  While preparing for his role as Eddie Coyle, Mitchum supposedly hung around with James “Whitey”  Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang.  Mitchum did not act alone, however, as Eddie Coyle gives us a great ensemble cast.  The film is populated with characters actors, including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Joe Santos, and Alex Rocco (who is reported to have been a low level Boston gangster before heading to Los Angeles to become an actor – he is best known for his portrayal of Moe Green in The Godfather).

Recently, the film world has been overrun with Boston crime dramas.  Most recently, we’ve had The Town. And not long before that, there was The Departed and Mystic River.  But it is impossible to talk about about Boston crime dramas without recognizing their roots.  The Friends of Eddie Coyle laid the ground for all the Boston crime dramas to come.  And there have been many, and undoubtedly there will be many more.  But no film serves up more reality than Eddie Coyle.

For more on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, check out this excellent Film Comment essay by Geoffrey O’Brien (author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century).

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Robert Mitchum spent time with Whitey Bulger while working on The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed is supposed to have been partially based on Bulger.  Read about Bulger from someone who knew him…

To buy a copy of Brutal – click HERE

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