March to Disney: Expanding Alexander’s Day

If there’s one critique I could never get behind in the realm of book-to-film adaptation it’s the kind I hear a great deal surrounding the transition of Where the Wild Things Are from beloved children’s classic to film property. Many found it odd, confounding even, that a 20-page book with scarcely any prose and mostly illustrations would be suitable for film treatment. I personally like the possibilities of expansion over contraction more times than not.

Stephen King when discussing rewriting in On Writing confesses to being more of a putter-inner than a taker-outer, which is to say he’d love to expand on a narrative rather than omit any time. The wisdom to know when to edit as opposed to over-embroider makes a skilled writer. However, a literal adaptation of something as sparse as Alexander… would not only be un-artful, but also far too short for a feature film. Therefore, expansion is necessary.

Furthermore, taking a short story and making it a feature is far less embellishment than taking a single volume and making it two or three films. Therefore, in the over-analytical film news cycle of today it’s a far less worrisome leap.

In fact, expanding on the book diminishes the over-analytical complaint that Alexander is whiny. By turning the film into a narrative with many prongs wherein everyone has a calamitous day it allows the protagonist to come to a realization on his own with minimal wallowing in self-pity and maximizing comedic moments.

However, it is another successful adaptation of a children’s tale that is well-liked in the Disney realm. The only truly bothersome moments are the very Disney realm of it all, which is double-edged sword. For example, the Peter Pan musical the daughter rehearses are with songs from the film not the musical; and the principal’s reference to Wreck-It Ralph seem somewhat extraneous. It would also be a bit odd if this family was being created in a supposedly real world that pretended Disney was not a thing. Furthermore, the viral sensation that Dick Van Dyke is involved in creating is a highlight of the film for sure.

A completely appreciated wrinkle was building in a fully healthy obsession for Alexander that rounds out his character (his obsession with all things Australian). It’s happy accident that Ed Oxenbould is also Australian, but it adds good dimension, sets up a great gag and introduces cool animals – and once again shows off the knack actors of all ages have adapting to American dialects.

Ultimately, the warmth and humor of the tale and the talent of the cast win out and deliver on the promise of a well-thought out expansive adaptation.

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2014 Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award: Meryl Streep

This award is named after Bergman because when I was set to establish an award of its type his last film blew me away and was nominated for many awards. The idea then is that it’s not a parting shot but rather recognition of someone still very much at the top after many, many years.

August: Osage County (2013, Weinstein Company)

Meryl Streep

In what is usually something I like to consider a norm, Meryl had quite a year in this one where I decided the time had come to honor her so. Back in January the nationwide release of August: Osage County hit theaters and I went to see that and her performance there nearly earned her a second BAM Award nomination this very year. Then, of course, there is her BAM Award nominated turn in Into the Woods. These three roles broke a long string in her filmography which for one reason or another did not compel me to watch them.

However, what Meryl Streep having a year such as this does remind you of is the many years and many roles prior that stood out for so long.

Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Falling in Love, Heartburn, A Cry in the Dark, Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life, Bridges of Madison County, Before and After, Marvin’s Room, …First Do No Harm, Dancing at Lughansa, Music of the Heart, Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (Yes, she is in that, too! Look it up!), Adaptation., The Hours, The Manchurian Candidate, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and many more.

One thing I’ve had occasion to discuss both this year and in the past is my interludes of revisionism. That impulse is not one I feel any longer, however, this is the one chance at anything like it. Clearly one musn’t sit about feeling the need to award Meryl Streep, but it is the very award culture that at times obscures the nearly unparalleled accomplishments some have made. So take a moment and reminisce on these titles, on the scenes, and wonderful little moments therein, and that should bring on more sincere gratitude. This award, as it is meant to be, is not a salvo. I’m quite sure we’ll see much more of her and for that we should all be thankful.

Book Review- The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary

You never know what you’re going to get when you purchase a book that ties into the release of a film that purports to be a diary or some other kind of making of chronicle. Some I flip through are quite flimsy (like alleged shooting scripts with too many photos and goofy formatting), some are quite great (like the Hugo companion). Usually, the book being written by the author of the adapted book is a good indicator.

Thus, what surprised me most about Jeff Kinney’s book about The Diary of a Wimpy Kid wasn’t that I liked it (though I have not read the books, only saw the films) but how detailed it is, yet also accessible. Kinney describes much of the filmmaking process through all three phases of production simply yet precisely. However, aside from tricks of the trade, he also makes the journey personal discussing both his journey with the character and the books and then the films. He goes on to include a bit about the affinity and coincidences in chronology that exist between Gregg Heffley and Zachary Gordon, the actor who plays the role.

Here again you also have another author discuss why changes were made to the narrative when transcribing it to the screen and being fully in support of them. However, Kinney has perhaps the simplest, most bulletproof fanboy block of them all “If everything that happened in the book happened in the movie why would you want to see it?” He also talks about the difficulty in casting Gregg because he recognized that the character had to start as severely flawed but still likable and I believe that balance was struck.

Aside from the specifics of the productions, which prove that movie-making is always hard work (as if that needed proving) I really liked getting a glimpse into the creative process, which is shown not just on Kinney’s part but the first film’s director and the young cast (Gordon and Robert Capron wrote essays as their characters, which are dead on). Aside from the insight that illustrate how the film came into being I think this really is a great book for kids. If they already like the series and are interested in seeing how movies are made you won’t find the elements of production explained more directly, plus discussing concepts in conjunction with a film they’ve seen make it easier to learn.

This is a quick, enjoyable read that is worth seeking out for fans of the series or if you’re just looking to get your feet wet learning the basics of filmmaking. The edition I read had some Rodrick Rules content added but it wasn’t a significant amount so I wouldn’t hold out for a second update and just get it now if you’re interested.

The Flip Side: Seeing the Movie Then Reading the Book

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (Paramount)

Recently I re-posted a series of articles I wrote on The Site That Shall Not Be Named (no it’s not the Dark Lord’s site) about how to divorce oneself from the source material when you’re watching an adaptation of a beloved book, comic, TV Show or what have you. If you want to read that series start here, otherwise bear with me.

In that series I really tackled a problem many face but mainly it pertained to books and their readers the most. To be more specific people who happened to have read the book prior to watching the film, which is a tough transition.

However, a twitter friend of mine and blogger in his own right, recently posted this intriguing entry:

People who follow me at all know I read a lot.

I read books now more than ever, used to read more newspapers and magazines.

But, I hear all the time, I want to see say “Hunger Games” but I need to read the book/books first. I personally prefer seeing the movie first.

Books are a totally different format, richer, longer, have subtext, a medium of words. Film is a medium of images and sounds, and quite a bit shorter at around 90-120 minutes. The average screenplay is 95-125 pages long, the average book is around 300 pages. It’s simply different.

For me a good example of this is Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. Although the book the “Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick is very cinematic, and the look is in the movie, Scorsese adds scenes, depth of character and a few other things I don’t see in the book. I did see “Hugo” before reading the book, and think if I read the book first I would have used my image of the book to cloud the movie and not loved the movie for what it did well but get trapped in comparisons.

An example of a book I did read first which clouded my judgment of the movie is “Jurassic Park.” I quite enjoyed Micheal Crichton’s novel, and I missed several scenes (especially the river scene) that were in the book in the movie. Although Spielberg does a good job with it, I find actually the monster movie “The Lost World” to be more fun. I think this is partially because my view of the book hurts the movie.

Another example for me from a recent movie is “The Hunger Games.” My wife has read through this series twice already, and I am still around 20% in the first book. I quite enjoyed the movie, and wonder if my judgment of the book would have clouded how I see the film.

Basically movies and books are entirely different mediums. If you try to make the movie just like the book you get boring movies like Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter 1 and 2, which although good and nowhere near as rich to me as Cuaron’s version that shares the vision of the book but doesn’t feel the need to get everything in Harry Potter 3 (still the best of the series to me.
What do you think?

The general points up there I agree with almost without exception. I wanted to quote the post mainly for context and also as shorthand to expound on my observations on this opposite phenomena I didn’t examine.

I completely agree with the assertion that one musn’t read the book before seeing the movie. The book is not Cliff’s Notes to the film. The film has to sink or swim on its own merits. With regards to The Hunger Games, I liked it but I knew innately that there was backstory and subtext from the book only being hinted at on screen, however, it didn’t ruin the film for me.

With regards to subtext allow me to make a minor semantical point: yes, many films are surface only but when you study them you learn to read them (I’m not being poetical, we say that) and seek the subtext. Some films are what they are; vapid or brilliant there’s not much else going on, those are few. There will be more forthcoming dialogue simply because the examples are ones I so closely relate to but I will transition, believe me.

Another thing that even I didn’t really examine in the prior series is that there really isn’t a direct correlation between pages in a book and a screenplay. One can make it, and I have, for a mathematical argument but truly the literal conversion of book to film can have so many more variables. A good example would be Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I stuck with it and finished it and liked, despite it being the most challenging read of my life. Such is the stream of consciousness and transition from reality to memory to fancy to dream that it makes it a very involving and exhaustive experience. Were you to take certain pages out of the book and transcribe them to screenplay form you could have so many changes of time and location that one novel page could be three to four screenplay pages. Again, if you’re a completist and being literal. A good film of the book would have some of those montages implied in the writing but not all of them.

Certain writing styles do imply montage as Eisenstein talks most about in the book of his I’m in the midst of and what can be done in a paragraph of prose may take a page or more in a screenplay depending on how you decide to exploit it cinematically. This is just further food for thought when thinking about taking something that’s purely text and turning it into visuals.

With regards to the example of Hugo above it’s amazing that we both reached virtually the same conclusion about the film having inverted reading schedules. I took The Invention of Hugo Cabret out of the library and devoured it because it was a quick read, liking the story much better than the presentation thereof and then though I knew Scorsese and Logan made certain changes I felt they enhanced the film and made it the best of 2011.

Sam Niell in Jurassic Park (Universal Pictures)

With regards to the Jurassic Park films, I actually tried to read the book and I failed to complete it despite needing to write a book report on it. That did not diminish my desire to see it or affect my view of it. I absolutely adored every second of it. Being a budding cinephile and a kid who at more than one point wanted to be a paleontologist it was, and will remain, one of the most exhilarating movie-watching experiences of my life. It’s magical. On the other hand, I didn’t try and read The Lost World, I disliked it a lot. How much? This much. I was pleased to learn in my Spielberg class that part of the reasoning behind his doing The Lost World was that Universal had been begging him for a sequel since 1982 and he would not hear of it being E.T.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

As for the Harry Potter films: I love them and I love the books. My love for both is separate but equal, to re-appropriate an old phrase. I always read them before I saw them but with the few production delays they had the gap between reading and viewing grew as the films moved on. My favorite is The Half-Blood Prince, it’s the apex of the story cinematically and in the books I feel so much of what was built in the series lead to that point. The Prisoner of Azkaban is great but like many of the films they stumble at the goal line, metaphorically speaking but that one just loses the ball entirely with the very last image and piece of voice over. Only part of the issue with the first two films is Columbus. The other part is that the books steadily grew in size through the course of the series. Slavishness to the novel was easy, and maybe a requisite to establish the franchise at the beginning. As the books grew slavishness became more difficult to accomplish, nearly impossible, thus the films truly came into their own as a separate but equal enterprise.

So having said all that in the interest of piggybacking and elaborating on points I previously made; What about seeing the movie first and then reading? I am very intrigued by the idea but I do not have much practice with it. I have a few candidates in mind to try it with but let’s see what case studies I have (Yes, we are quite literally discovering it together, hence why I wanted to write this post).

Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Warner Bros.)

The Shining

I decided to pick up a Stephen King book because I saw The Shining. I was just into High School and it was the first time I enjoyed being scared. I was averse to horror before then. I learned from King and went on to read many that he read. However, the film and the book are very different beasts. I had no problem with having a cast in my head, King even acknowledges that in a foreword or afterword of one of his books, but like I said it was different. I didn’t dislike it. I don’t disagree with King’s comments about Kubrick either, yet I still enjoy Kubrick’s riff on the story more than the book or the mini-series. Do I skew to the movie for having seen it first? Yes. However, then there’s The Hunger Games. I tried to read it as a library book. Hardly started. I then saw the movie still knowing next to nothing and would likely enjoy the book more.

Pet Sematary

Miko Hughes holding a copy of Pet Sematary

Here’s one where if you make me pick which one I like I’ll kick, scream and refuse. I love them both so, so much.

Storm of the Century

Colm Feore in Storm of the Century (ABC)

Ha, I’m such a cheater because this is a screenplay but regardless I may be in a minority but I really enjoyed it in both incarnations.

Hellraiser/The Hellbound Heart

Doug Bradley in Hellraiser (New World Pictures)

Clive Barker brings such imagination and originality to everything he does it’s hard to be disappointed but it is a somewhat different interpretation of the vision than the one he put on screen I find. Similarly, he’s working on a comics series of Hellraiser now, which is incredibly good.

The Exorcist

Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

With all apologies due William Peter Blatty the movie rips the book to shreds quality-wise. However, the reading experience was just fine.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption/The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

It wasn’t a tainted reading experience in any way and it’s evidence of why Frank Darabont is Stephen King’s best adapter.

The Body/Stand by Me

Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman in Stand by Me (Columbia Pictures)

In a similar way to Stephen King’s reaction to Darabont’s The Mist he also loved this one because of a crucial change Rob Reiner made for the better. Reading it was fine, watching it more lively. In this case it might’ve tainted it in my mind from having seen it so much.

Apt Pupil

This story as written is outstanding. Yes, the cast remained the same but the story delves into the psychology of the situation in ways the film scarcely attempts. You should read it.

The Langoliers

The Langoliers (ABC)

Augmented by having seen it first in part because I love the mini-series up until the very end. It’s like King says, the story just falls into place so smoothly and that translates on to the page and the mini-series is great until one of the worst third act blunders, and effects shots ever.

Misery

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery (Columbia Pictures)

How can having Kathy Bates in your head not make it better?

Cycle of the Werewolf/Silver Bullet

The Cycle of the Werewolf (Signet/Berni Wrightson)

It’s a totally different beast entirely. It’s a short little book with Berni Wrightson working his magic illustrating it, giving you new images to focus on.

Creepshow

Creepshow (Berni Wrightson/Signet)

Quite frankly with the premise of Creepshow being tales in the style of old EC Comics how can it not be a good comic book, seriously?

Burning Secret

Burning Secret (Vestron Pictures)

I’m surprised I had forgotten this one. This tale is quite literally the perfect example of this list. I saw this film by chance on Netflix. I was rather intrigued by it and was curious to read the book. The book was rather short and a quick read. The adaptation is great because it develops cinematic subtext without using any of the inner-monologue inherent in the prose. What this does is create an air of mystery and a questioning of motives, at least to an extent, which never happens in the book. The strength of the book is that you get explicit detail about the thought processes of each character. In short, you get slightly different but very well-realized renditions of the tale. In each version the medium is exploited brilliantly.

These are likely the only examples I can be completely certain of. Having thought on them: Yes, the argument does have merit. It can be better and more enjoyable to watch and then read. This might mean that The Hunger Games and A Song of Fire and Ice are in my future.

Hero Whipped 4: A Question of Form

The Walking Dead (Image Comics/Robert Kirkman)

It’s been a while since I posted one of these and much of the reason is because I usually touch upon a number of properties and I am left to ponder a while as I amass enough new-formed opinion to justify a new entry. However, three very specific things have occurred to me since I last discussed comics and the movies.

First, being a question of form in which the adaptation is made. In my return to reading comics, now more avidly than ever, there is nothing I have read more of than The Walking Dead. It really does play out like a post-apocalyptic soap opera with murder and zombies in the mix. So much so that reading Compendium One or the trades is preferable to monthly for that particular series. Having said that I admit having only seen the pilot of the show but two things I do know are it was meant to be a television show and I applaud Robert Kirkman for giving the show a different direction than the comic based on what I know. It’d be next to impossible to make a motion picture of The Walking Dead as satisfying as the book. The task would be rather herculean especially considering that the comic is still ongoing. Similarly, I have not read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice books, which is an itch I may soon need to scratch, however, one only needs to watch the first season of Game of Thrones to see it was meant for television, more specifically a drama on a cable network where the story will not be censored or interrupted by commercials. In certain ways, the serial treatment makes it more immersible once you get into the extras on the Blu-Ray it has you.

Maisie Williams and Sean Bean in Game of Thrones (HBO)

The moral of the examples above is that again the supremacy of the motion picture as the most desirable vehicle for adaptation is quickly being shown to be a fallacy. Some stories are more conducive to other storytelling modes and fans should take note and think about how, if at all, they want to see their favorite works reinterpreted.

And this kind of leads directly to my next point: one of the most anticipated films of the year is The Avengers. Part of the reason why is that Marvel has had a string of hit films which have featured a member of the superteam and thus though The Avengers may be in theory a new property there is a built-in fanbase. Conversely, not that this is an original notion, but DC is also planning a Justice League film. The main difference being there may be casting incongruities and all the major members of the League haven’t had their own film, or a hit, etc. So how can the Justice League film possibly come close to the The Avengers?

Marvel 1985 (Marvel)

Well, they can’t turn back time and make a Flash movie starring [Insert guaranteed box-office draw] here that makes infinitely more money than The Green Lantern but what they can do is akin to industrial espionage. Allow me to explain, when I was in Orlando recently as I was in Universal Studio’s Comictown I stopped in the Marvel store and found a trade paperback of Marvel 1985, a mini-series that came out just before I returned to comics. I really enjoyed it as a whole but what I really liked about it, and what I noted, was it could serve as a great introduction to the Marvel Universe to someone who knows zero about it based on the story it tells. Now clearly, the story of 1985 makes it such that it can be an introduction but it made me realize that if there is a character, or other device in The Justice League film that acts as a liaison between the film and the neophyte audience member it might just work better than expected.

The Justice League (DC Comics)

In conclusion, the method of adaptation usually can be said to tap in to the spirit of the work being adapted, or it should ideally. For example, after seeing Tintin I felt that motion capture would be a great treatment for other animated properties, especially those given lackluster live action treatments like Asterix, which I was glad to discover has been most recently adapted in a hand-drawn feature called Asterix and the Vikings.

Asterix and the Vikings (M6 Films)

10 Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy: 7. Suspend Disbelief (aka Get Into It)

This series of articles is designed to help you, the fan, try and divorce yourself from your attachment to source material and judge a film on its own merits and not in comparison to another work. These tips come from my own experience. I hope they are helpful.

Many of these topics do overlap one another but attack problems from different angles. This tip really comes into play if you’ve already managed to ignore number four. So here’s how:
You’re sitting in the dark of the matinee and you’ve got your 80 oz. soda and obese-family-size Twizzlers and you’re watching the same lame slides come across the screen repeatedly. The trailers for blockbusters-yet-to-be keep you only mildly amused. All this idle time has got you anticipating the film more than you had been before and you start thinking about how this director will handle the material? Or how such-and-such will do in this part and how the casting of character X will pan out. Boom. All the things you were supposed to ignore are back and suddenly the film starts and it’s distracting you.

This is where you have to grab the bull by the horns and just lose yourself in the story. Remember what it is that drew you to this material in the first place and look for it. If you find great, if not the film failed to an extent. Again this is not an attempt to excuse the film but just setting yourself up to try and judge the film before you and not measuring against another kind of work entirely.

10 Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy: 2. Have a Bad Memory

Ian McKellan in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

This series of articles is designed to help you, the fan, try and divorce yourself from your attachment to source material and judge a film on its own merits and not in comparison to another work. These tips come from my own experience. I hope they are helpful.

I don’t know if it’s possible to train yourself to have a bad memory but you can sure as hell give it the old college try. You may have to be born with it and in that case I have been blessed. At least in this regard, it’s not really as handy as you may think.

How this will help you, though, is that the further you remove yourself from the source material the more you will be able to enjoy the film as a separate entity. An example of my experience with this is the Harry Potter films. Now granted they have gotten better, in my opinion (exponentially so with each installment), however, when I saw The Sorcerer’s Stone my first viewing was marred because I had so recently finished reading the book.

Since then there has been a bit of a gap between my having read the book and seeing each movie. Some were larger than others but that has helped. With each successive film I have spent less and less time and mental energy thinking to myself “Oh, Such-and-Such is coming up.”

Anticipating events and then wanting to see how they are executed cinematically can diminish your enjoyment unnaturally. If you came in as a blank slate you may either be awed or disappointed but it would be all your opinion of what you saw and in no way influenced by your expectation.

An illustration I could give you would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I never read them. I don’t care if I ever do read them. It certainly wouldn’t make my bucket list were I to write one (Finishing War and Peace would), but I did see all three movies. Thus, I had no preset expectations and the reception it got was the reverse of what usually happens. It was hyped, fans wanted it and were typically pleased with what they saw. For the record: I thought part one was pretty good, part two was interminable and part three was brilliant until it decided it would refuse to end. In some parallel dimension of the multiverse I’m sure it never did.

10 Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy: 1. A Book is a Book (A Question of Form)

1. A Book is a Book (A Question of Form)

Star Wars- Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Lucasfilm)

This series of articles is designed to help you, the fan, try and divorce yourself from your attachment to source material and judge a film on its own merits and not in comparison to another work. These tips come from my own experience. I hope they are helpful.

The first and most important thing to keep in mind if you are hoping to have a happy existence as a fanboy is that medium matters. A book is a book, a comic is a comic and so on and so forth. Each medium has its own rules and limitations and conversely benefits. If something achieves perfection within its form it is therefore referred to as a masterpiece.

It is very difficult but not impossible for a story to be that well told in more than one medium. Now how to gauge whether or not a film has achieved such a lofty height cannot and should not be decided based on a comparative analysis.

There is merit to examining the decisions made in adding and omitting and transforming material from other mediums to film but such discussions are typically more adept to academic scenarios and not germane to analyzing the quality of a film.

I will even have occasion to describe a film I saw and cite that I thought it should’ve done X when it does Y, Case 39 is a prime example of that, however, that should not influence one’s overall opinion of a film. You must look at what is presented you and then decide if it works based on what is there not what you wish is there. That should apply to films as well.

Another illustration would be Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I was hoping against hope that amidst the bloodshed would be the headless corpse of Jar Jar Binks, alas it was not to be. Yet that didn’t color my entire view of the film. It still would’ve been bitchin’ though.

Spielberg Sunday: Duel (1971)

Dennis Weaver in Duel (Universal TV)

Owing to the fact that I have decided to honor Steven Spielberg this year with my version of a Lifetime Achievement Award I figured it was an appropriate time to dust off some old reviews I wrote when I took a course on his work. The remarks still hold true, he is an amazing filmmaker.

Duel is a film that is deceptively simple in its narrative. It is simple enough that if you are simply told what it entails you’d wonder “Well, how can that ever make a good movie?” This is the same thought I had when my Uncle told me about it and talked about how great it was. He wasn’t wrong and there are many reasons why this film works so well.

While Spielberg worked many wonders in wielding this tale into an unforgettable motion picture, for which, we cannot forget that Richard Matheson wrote a tremendous screenplay based on his own short story. When we watch this film we get a sense of quiet and inner-monologue along with paranoid, frightened contemplation by our protagonist which is so well laid out that this comes very close to being a novel on film which is why people thought it couldn’t be done.

At the beginning we have a long sequence from the point of view of the protagonist and the only thing we hear besides the car-whipped wind and the hum of the engine is a radio call-in show where a man is talking to a woman and saying that he feels emasculated by his wife. Little do we know it but we are getting information about our protagonist without even knowing about it. I had suspected this for if we weren’t hearing a reflection of our protagonist this background conversation would be most extraneous indeed. The first time we see our protagonist is a shot in the rear view mirror of his car.

Duel takes what is a very real situation and takes it to its most insane and cataclysmic possible conclusions, the quintessence of horror. All we get in most of the beginning is a truck and a little car on a road. One cuts the other off and then they exchange volleys and try and block each other off. It’s a situation people find themselves in quite often, the exchange of ‘being cut-off’ and it is likely that, more than once, someone has wondered ‘Maybe I should stop messing around with this guy I don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ Not only do we see a man pushed to his limits but we only see this man. The trucker appears but once in the whole film. Occasionally, we see an arm sticking out a window but most of the time it’s a mystery. The fear of the unknown is also played upon in this film to a great extent and in what took a lot of courage and was difficult to pull off we never really do get to meet the trucker or understand him.

I don’t often hear people talk about Spielberg’s visual sensitivity this is usually because people often confused good art direction and set design with cinematography this is not the case and ‘Duel’ proves it. We see the wheels bounce and the camera accompanies it. We have two instances in which Spielberg uses a close up on the speedometer to increase the tension just a quick little glimpse and we watch the climb 70, 80, 90, this in tandem with the Hitchcockian and an occasional sampling of vivacious Bluegrass music. We watch our lead talking to his wife through a washing machine lid to show how trapped he feels when talking to his wife. We see shots of the back of the dusty, grimy trucks that read ‘Flammable’ and foreshadow the trucker’s demise and many more. The important thing about all of his camera work in the film is that it all has a purpose it doesn’t just look pretty. There’s a beautiful sequence where Spielberg tracks around the grill of the car and around the back and does the same with the truck moving up and down as he goes. Not only does this get us closer to the battle but it leaves us uneasy as do much of the shots and it works tremendously.

The paranoia of the picture really shows itself when the man is in the diner. At this point and really at any point in the film his name is irrelevant (When speaking to the operator we discover his surname is Mann, that isn’t an accident). He is just any old guy. In the diner we hear his thought process as he jumps through possibilities and then just as any person might. We see him look at the bar and scan all the patrons up from their boots to their faces. In this scene he loses it and confronts the wrong man about the on highway altercation he had. It’s in fact probably a film that has become more relevant as the years have gone on with incidents of “Road Rage” and even the coining of that phrase. We’ve seen this sleeper go from an odd chunk of macabre and mutate into something not so far-fetched.

The tension just doesn’t let down. We see tight shots of the back of the bus with the kids antagonizing an already aggravated man. We later see a great shot of the truck going back into the tunnel. He comes and knocks the bus out so that he and the car can engage in battle. It’s all battle now the trucker has decided to take it to the finish. Our protagonist once tried to avoid it by sitting at the side of the road for an hour but the truck was waiting for him just around the bend. Spielberg returns to the speedometer towards the end as we see the speed decrease because the radiator hose is leaking. This was foreshadowed when he stopped at a gas station and the guy popped his hood and that was noted it was dismissed as mechanic jive.

This is a film that should be noted not just as the first film of a great filmmaker but a great film on its own.

9/10

61 Days of Halloween- Children of the Corn (1984)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Children of the Corn (1984)

John Franklin in Children of the Corn (New World Pictures)

In my opinion this is a great film and here’s why: Even before we see anything we feel that the score will be of great importance in this film. Aside from a slightly electronic new wave 80s score provided by Jonathan Elias the film is also scored by a children’s choir appropriate and both chilling in tandem with the events that occur onscreen and with the theme of the film.

Like in many horror films we begin in flashback to prior event that led to current unusual circumstances with voice over narration of Job (Robbie Kiger) who is the older brother of Sarah (AnneMarie McAoy). Throughout the film these two are involved in simple activities which are banned under the rules but because of Sarah’s gift they generally are allowed to do what they wish.

What separates this film from most in the 80s is that it’s not necessarily into gore. We get dead bodies and the after-affect of the massacres. The obsession of needing to see the blade or bullet, whatever it may be, pierce the skin is absolutely eliminated and the result is even more frightening.

Joseph (Jonas Marlowe), a child displeased with the ways Isaac has placed upon the town of Gatlin, tries to escape but he is caught. All we see when he dies is a few drops of blood falling on a suitcase he was going to take with him on the road.

Film is a medium that is at times binding to the imagination. When any director, Fritz Kiersch, in this instance allows the audience to imagine what may have been done to these people it deserves notice. Another example of this being the massacre three years prior that kicks off the film we hear a mother’s death over the phone and see a father’s blood splatter over a son’s face. A lot of what makes this film great is the mounting tension that is created when we see these two trying to get around this seemingly abandoned town.

One of the most effective techniques Kiersch uses to heighten tension while the film was progressing is the use of shots from an anonymous yet subjective POV after we know the children were already out to get them. There’s a shot through broken glass that’s been stained brown, a shot of someone peering over a garbage can, low-angle shots of the corn when Joseph’s being chased. He also employs time to his advantage because the young couple does not enter the town of Gatlin where all the horrors will occur until the 39th minute of the film and even when there things creep along slowly.

There is a great use of wide-angle shots throughout to demonstrate the emptiness of the town. The audio and visual effects of this film are absolutely breathtaking, except maybe for one notable one at the very end (You know which I mean). There’s a great use of what appears to be time lapse footage coupled with the audio effect of gushing wind to signify the wrath of God. Near the conclusion of the film we hear the greatest demonic voices in the history of film (In my humble opinion). They’re deep, raspy and frightening without going overboard. And just when we think the most psychotic of all the town’s children is going to walk away from this Isaac speaks to him in that voice and delivers a line that helps make that voice: “He wants you too, Malachai. He wants you too.” The escalating horror of the climax continues when there is a gorgeous fiery apparition in the sky and later an obviously processed flame beneath it which we assume is supernatural but to say more would be giving it away.

The end of Children of the Corn is wonderful the very last scene gives you a fright which is conceivable and doesn’t seem fake at all due to some crafty editing. It takes away that artificial happy ending feeling. The happy ending in any horror movie is absolutely false because we know the characters usually have been through a harrowing experience and it’ll be hard for them to walk away smiling. Watch for the sound of the crickets and the return of a choir, this ending will run a chill through you all over again!

This film is also steeped in religious commentary. First, there is Horton and Hamilton in the car listening to a televangelist and mocking him and showing very good comedic interplay. They find a cross made of corn and Horton says in an offhand and stunned way “Jesus Christ” to which Hamilton responds “Not in my book.”

We witness a mass of those who worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows and see the irony of their words screaming at us. All the names of the children in this town Isaac, Malachai (Though spelled differently in the story), Job and Sarah are biblical figures. These are the children of God-fearing people who have twisted the scripture to suit the needs of a few sick souls who are power hungry those who stand against the clan generally have no chance. Vicky is kidnapped and hung from a cross made of corn, biblical passages are written in blood on church walls the same church where a desecrated portrait of Jesus hangs.

There is but one point where the film climbs towards the didactic and even so it’s but a moment and almost necessary because it shows how insane Malachai’s followers have gone. One other thing that make this film is unique is that we get inside the cult and see the way Isaac and Malachi differ. In what makes horror films fun we get to side with one of them over the other because if we were involved with them in any way he’s the one we’d prefer. There is much infighting with these two and it adds to the tension and adds a wallop to the climax.

9/10