Monday, July 26, 2010

Revisiting Shaun of the Dead

The only thing I've seen since Inception was Shaun of the Dead for the third time- but this time with my wife, who is not a zombie movie fan. I promised her she'd like it because it was clever and humorous, and I was right. And I think she was proud of herself for making it through the whole thing.

A few thoughts came to me about it afterwards. I was a little disappointed that some of the shine came off the film after the third time. It still opens brilliantly, but once they all get to the Winchester, the movie seems to lose focus for a little while. It's like Wright got them there and then was as clueless as the characters were about what to do once they were there. There is plenty of humor and drama to finish out the film, but it's not quite as sharp as it is before they get to the pub. It still does not diminish my regard for the film, however, or the primary players (Frost, Pegg, and Wright)- I'm a big fan. If you haven't seen Spaced or Big Train (two British TV series which preceeded their movie-making), please go out and do so immediately. You won't be disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Hot Fuzz and am looking forward to seeing it again with my wife (who has seen Spaced and Big Train and liked them). I also just found out that Wright has written and directed the Scott Pilgrim screen adaptation, which I'm really looking forward to.

Shaun of the Dead
is exceptional because it works a serious zombie movie while seriously parodying zombie movies (it even works a bit as a romantic comedy). In my experience, there are zombie films and there are zombie parodies. Zombieland is more a parody- which doesn't take away from how fun it is, but shows that even a good zombie parody (intentionally good, in contrast to the so-bad-it's-good fare of which Return of the Living Dead is a prime example) has a hard time taking itself seriously ultimately (enter Bill Murray). But Shaun's zombie world is real and terrifying. What makes it so funny is the characters' unconventional responses to this very seriously set zombie reality. There are some moments in the film that are as nerve-wracking as they are funny (when they're posing as zombies to get to the pub or when they're being attacked by the zombie in pajamas), and some that are not funny at all and are very emotionally affecting (when Shaun and Liz have to leave Ed in the basement to escape the Winchester, and even more so, when Shaun's step-father expresses his love for Shaun in a surprisingly effective scene). I have a sense that the British in particular are very good at this kind of storytelling, Edgar Wright especially so (as we saw in Spaced). Americans can be very good at one or the other, and while no example come to mind, my sense is that any American attempt to try to be both usually falls on to one side of the fence or the other. Though now that I'm thinking of it, Wes Anderson can pull off a little of both, but you can't really shake the sense that it's all tongue-in-cheek with him. Would you call that dramatic irony? That's where the audience understands something about the characters that the characters don't themselves, right? I don't completely get irony. You don't get a sense of dramatic irony in Shaun of the Dead. You really believe that Shaun and Ed and the lot would actually behave in the ways that they do, while often Anderson's characters (as endearing and entertaining as they are) can feel a bit like constructs more than real people. I think that I felt that in Darjeeling Limted more than any of his other films to that point. And, to bring it all full circle, I think that's why my wife could make it through a zombie movie- because the focus is on characters rather than gore. But it still delivers on the gore front, too, making it a film that has a little bit for everybody.

Brandon, I liked your twice-through commentary on Shutter Island. Though before you cast your final judgment on Inception, I think it should be allowed to settle before a second viewing as well. It's a different kind of movie and I don't know that it was meant to be taken seriously in some of the ways people are taking it. It's a summer blockbuster with a brain. And that's the last thing I'll say about the film for this discussion.

John, I'm glad you gave Baghead a fair shake. Send it to me, though, before you put it in the resell bin. As far as Netflix is concerned, I've told myself that once I've watched what I've got out from the library and gone through my personal collection, I can sign up. But I can't seem to stop checking movies out from the library that I have no time to see. It's a blessing and a curse. Just today, Extract showed up in the return bin, so into my pile it goes (though I'll likely see it sooner rather than later because I can watch films like that late at night, when I do most of my movie watching, where slower foreign films will put me to sleep, so they get put off even longer. Someday my son will be old enough to watch more of them with me. A few years, perhaps).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Limbo Postscript

The other thought I had about limbo was that it was universal- not specific to any one person. Perhaps it's so vast that Cobb was able to construct his city where he did without bumping into anyone else who might be in limbo. It reminded me a little of What Dreams May Come (connecting it to Matheson, connecting it to The Box- isn't this fun?) in that folks in the afterlife were able to construct their own complex, far-reaching realities that somehow could exist simultaneously). So then Cobb would have to go searching for Saito like Robin Williams did for his wife, and maybe once he'd found him, ride his connection with Saito on the plane back up to that reality. A stretch, perhaps, but one that would fit if you wanted to go that far with it.

A New Hope (for Inception)? Probably Not, if We're Talking About John

Thank you, John, for your dedication to bashing Inception. Your efforts and insights are truly appreciated.

I would like to take issue, sir, with your sense that you and Brandon are more agreed than you and I are. I would say that I see Inception's faults clearly, I'm just more willing to forgive them because I like so much more what is good about it.

As far as the dream levels are concerned, I would agree with you about limbo. I was a little confused as to who precisely was in charge there. My understanding was that because Fischer Jr. was hooked up to Cobb and Ariadne, that was why they were able to extract him from limbo. But that doesn't explain how he got Saito back, unless he actually didn't, and everything that proceeds from that point is because Cobb has become completely lost in his dream world. Which actually could be a good explanation of what's happening. Adrienne is convinced that the final scenes make that really clear. From the time they all wake up on the plane, the film does have a dreamlike quality to it. I think that the presence of Cobb's father indicates to the contrary, as well as a few other details, but I don't think Nolan wants us to think he's saying which is the case one way or another.

Heyyyy, maybe it's a "sideways flash"- that would just explain everything!

I also have a response to your criticism of the relative bumpiness of the various levels, but you noted that you didn't really care, so I won't go into it :).

I don't believe that the ending calls into question anything that's been established because Nolan has been careful not to establish any reality in the film. There are clues strewn about that could give one something to work with if they wanted to decide for themselves what's real in the film and what isn't, but even if we thought he was pinpointing a specific reality as primary, he plants a seed of doubt when (I can't remember who says it to Cobb, unfortunately) someone points out to Cobb that his supposed primary reality (guy on the lam trying to get back to his family, enemies all around, constantly on the move) is a little far-fetched in itself. Sounds a little like a dream or two I've had myself.

I think the difference between Inception and Memento is that Memento relies heavily on "the big reveal"- because it in an instant changes the audience's perception of what's been happening all this time. When you watch it again, knowing this important missing bit of information, it's a completely different film. In Inception, there is no such reveal. Nolan is creating a structure (a dream architect himself, if you will) that he's asking his audience to buy into, and because it's not resting on the success or failure of delivering that crucial plot point, he's taking the chance that some people (John?) will think the whole thing is a bunch of hooey. Which is why I think that Inception will hold up better after repeated viewings than Memento does.

Hey, I also saw The Box recently. You both have seen that, haven't you? Kelly's another guy (like Nolan, like Shyamalan) who will take a chance on tanking a film for an idea- or, in his case, lots of little ideas littered around all over the place. Southland Tales got mixed reviews, but I thought it was a beautiful mess of a film. I also really liked The Box, for which there is also not a clear consensus.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dream Wars, part three: Revenge of the Curmudgeon

Come on, John, where are you?

Just a few more thoughts:

Bedside scene- I liked this scene because it was his own consciousness that was reinterpreting to his own advantage the actual event of his father expressing his disappointment. Apart from how it fits in the film as a whole, I love the psychology behind it. I have experienced in my own life freedom by adding a new truth to old scars. Taken out of context, Fischer Jr.'s epiphany is a beautiful thing. Genesis 50:20- "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good..." I would say that the man is better off in the end, despite the self-serving ends of his dream invaders (there's a good name for a band). Of course, this serves Nolan's purposes perfectly. He's still fixing the sink, but his butt crack is showing. Does he know it? Does he care?

Cillian Murphy- Did either of you see Red Eye? I saw it twice, by accident. What's funny is that I didn't remember that I'd seen it until the very end, but I enjoyed it both times. So what does it say about a film when it's enjoyable but forgettable? No matter. In any event, I think that's my strongest association with Murphy, and even there, as a the villain, it's hard to take your eyes off him. Though now that I'm thinking about it, he was such an asshole in Red Eye, maybe he had it coming to him in Inception. How's that for karma?

Mal's deaths- I think the craziness of spending 50 years in limbo and what the implications of that far overshadowed for me either of Mal's deaths. After all that time, does it even matter? Cobb was right that they did grow old together. Think about it: fifty years! All that aside, despite the presentation and role of the dead wife, the focus is always on Cobb and the effect her presence in his consciousness has on him. I mean, consider Memento for a minute. We're led to believe Leonard's on a mission to avenge his wife, to solve her murder, but in the end it's all about him. There's definitely a connection between Leonard's and Cobb's characters where that's concerned.

I cared about the characters, too. Ironically enough, I felt like the other thieves were more innocent than Cobb because of their one-dimensional motivations for being there. You felt pity for them once you realized what Cobb had gotten them into. Especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's just so adorable! Who'd want anything bad to happen to him? And I'm with you on Whip It, Brandon- it was a great feel-good movie that made its own way. I really like to watch Page act. And I LOVED Juno.

The snow scene just comes down to taste, I think. Again, though, we see a progression and contrast in the different dream settings and they go nicely together. Remember also that Ariadne designed all three of them, and she *is* still a relative beginner. She could be forgiven for falling back on her childhood love of James Bond for inspiration, couldn't she?

Incidentally, I was checking IMDB once again to get character names (I can never remember them- I always just remember the actors' names) and I realized I haven't seen The Prestige. I've seen all of Nolan's films post-Following (I might have seen that in college but it was likely late and night and I was either half asleep or had already seen three or four films that day and have forgotten it)- or I thought I had. The Prestige is going on hold right away.

When specifically are you going to be in the area, Brandon? And where? I'd like to be able to carve out some time, but I'll need plenty of advance notice. We're going on vacation starting next Thursday, so I hope I don't miss you...

Dream Wars, part two: Attack of the (Dream Security) Clones

John, I did get that your post was tongue-in-cheek. But I also got that you hated the film, because, well, you said it outright. Perhaps I should be glad that you hated it, as opposed to being indifferent about it, because at least I know Nolan got under your skin.

As far as your comments regarding "psychic rape"- shock value notwithstanding- I would agree with you that the film doesn't address the moral implications of the extractors' behavior. We do get the sense that they are rogue but en vogue and we are rooting for them. But we were also rooting for Clooney and his gang in Ocean's 11, even though the money they are stealing constitutes the livelihood of many an addicted gambler. There are no Robin Hoods in that bunch to be sure. My point is that sometimes a film needs to be amoral so as not to distract the audience. It's a story, right or wrong, and I don't always want to be preached at. Samson wasn't exactly a good guy, but we love reading about him. The consequences of his actions caught up with him, but we are never told specifically by the narrator that his actions are sinful (I don't think- it's been a while). Besides that, we are not certain by the end of Inception that Cobb isn't stuck in his own unreality, and maybe he never will be either. That's a pretty heavy consequence if you ask me.

I would agree with your notion (though not necessarily the framing of it :)) that we are led to believe that Fischer, Jr. ultimately benefits from being mindbanged. I took issue with this as well- I mean, they're being hired after all to eliminate the competition. Saito goes from being victim to collaborator to martyr, Fischer finds himself and decides to forge his own path out from under his father's shadow, Cobb learns to let go of his dead wife... it's a freakin' after school special! And people are saying it has no heart? Hence my use of the pacemaker analogy- it feels a little forced. Nolan is massaging the heart of the film and is seems a little overwrought. However, we have to relate to Fischer and Cobb and the whole bunch because if we don't, we get distracted from Nolan's Big Idea- what if you could steal something from someone's mind through a dream? How could that work, and how would it screw you up? We'd be too busy worrying about morality and good guys and bad guys- there aren't really good guys and bad guys in this film. The real antihero, the real nemesis, is Reality itself.

I would say that of the big three (idea, character, effects) idea is most important to me. Not that I only can enjoy films with a Big Idea- I'm just more forgiving if I like the Big Idea in a film but other elements are out of place. I need more, however, than just well-developed characters or great special effects to carry me through a film- generally speaking. But I get excited by ideas, and Inception has more than a few exciting ones. This is why I love The Happening. I'll try not to go on a "why does everyone hate M. Night" rant at the present moment, but I love that he had the audacity to try to turn a B-movie sci-fi premise (Nature Strikes Back!) into a serious movie. And I've loved pretty much everything he's put out because of it. He's sticking his middle finger up at the movie industry, and often it's messy, and not all the pieces are in place, but he's getting a reaction out of his audience. Nolan, in a less extreme way, is trying to do something similar. I have often noted that I could watch ten crappy sci-fi/horror films before I'd watch one sappy rom-com, or 5 snobby arthouse films. Give me a good idea to think about and I'll be on it for days.

I appreciate, Brandon, your comment about critics writing off SFX. The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favorite recently made films. Is it because it's got a great plot and well-developed characters? Or even a logically sound central idea? No- it's because I believe that that's what New York City would look like frozen and half underwater. And I think, How awesome would it be to walk around in that? I get a kick out of all those big-budget disaster movies for the same reason. I, too, watch movies to escape sometimes. It's fun to lose myself in an otherworldly setting. Inception gave me that, and I'm not complaining. Maybe my standards are too low :).

Dream Wars, part one: The Phantom (Mal) Menace

Unlike Brandon I *do* have James Bond dreams- where I'm being chased or I'm discovering something or on a mission of some sort- they're really exciting and often a welcome change of pace from my more or less ordinary "real" life. And it's true that my dreams jump around a bit more, but you have to remember that these guys are presumably skilled at manipulating the dream world and using it to their advantage during extractions. So I was on board with the dream world setting right from the start. I also liked the fortress in the snow- it was very different from the other two settings, which I felt effectively kept it visually interesting. The contrast between the relative darkness of the hotel and the brightness of the snow was striking and I enjoyed switching back and forth among all three dream worlds. Again, it was like an amusement park ride. Plus, I love snow action scenes. Snow Job was my first and favorite G.I. Joe figure, after all.

What I consider to be the major flaw in Inception, and what I think opens it up to accusations of not having a heart, is that it tries to play the human interest story card too obviously. And because its heart needs a pacemaker, the assumption is that the whole film is flawed. You both made comparisons to Shutter Island- while I would agree that it was overall a better film, I would perhaps disagree with your reasons. Scorcese is better, as I mentioned, at knowing how much a story can hold; Nolan put too much on his support beams and the whole thing is creaking a little. But the general design is solid. Shutter Island, as I mentioned, had a very straightforward premise- confusion between two realities. It relies heavily on the audience buying "the big reveal" at the end- and because Scorcese is so skillful, we do. But Inception requires the audience to buy the basic premise (a perspective of the very nature of reality itself) throughout the entire film, something that is much more difficult to accomplish. What would Scorcese do with dreams within dreams? With the notion of limbo beneath the deepest levels of consciousness? My guess is that it's not something he cares too much about, given the type of film he's been known for to this point. Conversely, Nolan took some pretty big risks with Inception, and they all didn't pay off. But I have to admire him for taking them. And, unlike Shutter Island, Inception has been giving my imagination a lot to do in the last few days.

I really do wish he had done something different with the dead wife subplot. What it accomplished in adding another level of peril (DiCaprio's character endangering the rest) I liked, but there are a number of different ways Nolan could have done that without having to go the "man who will do anything to get back to his kids including kill his dead wife who's really just a projection of his own consciousness" route. You know, because that's been done before ;).

I had the thought at one point that DiCaprio's character actually had a part of his wife's consciousness trapped in his own mind (I watched Fringe not too long ago, remember)- which would have been an interesting subplot, albeit one that would have confused the film even further.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Such a Shame

I'm so bummed that you didn't like Inception, John. I just saw it last night and am trying to figure out when I can see it again. I didn't swallow the film hook, line, and sinker, but there was enough that I liked to more than make up for what I didn't. Your point about Page's flat performance is well taken, but I think that asking for well-developed characters, a well-developed complex philosophical premise, and exciting and convincing special effects is asking too much of a film. I can't think of any that have all three off the top of my head; if they exist, I would be happy to be proven wrong. But all three elements take time to accomplish in a film, and even the best films are hard pressed to manage to do two of them well. Take Shutter Island, for example. It has well-developed characters and exciting effects. But the philosophical premise is quite straightforward- the guy is in denial because of a staggering loss. This doesn't make it a lesser film- it's just a film that is not trying to be too many things at once. Inception is choosing to sacrifice character development for a complex idea and exciting special effects. The fact that it tried at all to make as much of DiCaprio's character's psychological/emotional situation as it did is one of the few shortcomings of the film. The dead wife subplot was interesting to a degree (comparisons to Shutter Island notwithstanding), but not essential to the success of the story, in my opinion. But it didn't ruin the film, either. It just Hollywoodized it. So, in response to John's post, I will respond with a top ten list of my own. So here are the Top Ten things I liked about Inception (in no particular order):

1) The shifting gravity fight in the hotel. It was so skillfully done- graceful and fluid. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride.

2) The sets in general, but specifically the post-apocalyptic limbo setting.

3) The notion of dreams-within-dreams and how one could use them in an extraction-type scenario. I could probably get a couple points from this one, but I felt that Nolan set up and executed logically and clearly how something like that could work. Which brings me to...

4) The exposition. I knew precisely when certain scenes were written to explain what was going on, and I appreciated them. When a premise is simple, I don't need a film to explain to me what's going on, and it's irritating when it does. But the idea of exploring dreamspace in the way the film does was new to me, so I liked hearing the characters explain what they did. And even though I knew it was exposition, I felt that it was inserted naturally into the course of events. I went to see Inception because I wanted to see a movie that explored the subject of dreams and their relation to reality in an exciting way, and not an action movie that used it as a hook to get me to see an SFX fluff piece. I was not disappointed.

5) The special effects. You can have a movie about the strangeness of dreams without them, but grandiose effects in a dreamworld setting can really engage me in a way that telling me something is a dream and throwing a midget in there to prove it doesn't. I especially liked the scene where Page's character folds the street on top of itself and then they walk around it like an Escher drawing. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is another good example of effective SFX to create a visually compelling dreamworld.

6) The fluid nature of reality throughout the entire film. Nolan throws a dream-within-a-dream scenario in there right from the start that makes you question throughout the entire film whether or not anything that's happening is real. And he doesn't answer that question in any kind of definitive way ever.

7) The discussion potential the film. I felt that Inception contained a number of events around which substantial conversations could be formed. I love and could discuss over again many times the nature of reality and what that means, so the fact that this was a central theme of the movie makes it all the more attractive to me.

8) The cast. Granted, not a lot of time was spent on character development, but the actors did an excellent job within those constraints. Yes, Page was a little flat, but only a little. And I don't blame her for it. Joseph G-L is always fun to watch, and Tom Hardy's solid performance was a nice surprise.

9) The director. I like Nolan's style, and have enjoyed so far everything of his I've seen. It was nice to see that post-Batman (straightforward premise, great SFX, inconsistent character development), he could still tell a compelling story.

10) The ending. When the camera panned towards the spinning top, I knew that Nolan was about to wedge himself between two cliches for the sake of a dramatic ending. That final minute was going to affect in a huge way my perception of the film: a crappy ending will undo for me two hours' worth of enjoyment, and my anxiety at that moment had almost more to do with whether or not the ending Nolan chose was going wreck the whole thing than the question of whether or not what was happening was real. I don't think he could have executed it more deftly. Everything from the timing of the pan, to how long the camera rested on the spinning top, to the slight wobble just before cutting to the credits was just perfect. The response of the audience was wonderful (gasping, chuckling) and, as I found out in a discussion with Adrienne, it wasn't as straightforward as I thought (I thought that it was obvious that it was meant to be "real" and Adrienne was sure that it wasn't).

Finally, John, please tell me you didn't mean it about Jonah Hex. There's no way Jonah Hex could have possibly been better than Inception. Come on, man. You're just being grumpy now.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Conversations 2010, part 5

Our teen librarian recently ordered practically the full run of Brian Wood's DMZ (we had the first volume, which I read a couple of years ago) so I've been working through that lately. I just started volume 6 of 8, and so far it's as good as or better than any movie on a similar subject. For the uninitiated, Manhattan is a demilitarized zone (supposedly) between the Free States of America, barely organized local militias run wild, and the United States, which has essentially been backed into a corner on Brooklyn and Long Island. The overarching premise, however, is much less important than what goes on in Manhattan itself, seen mostly through the eyes of a young journalist who has decided to live there and tell the stories of the people who were left behind in America's second civil war. Read it if you can.

Because of all the comics, I haven't been watching too many movies lately, with the exception of the ones I've written about. I did see Toy Story 3 a few weeks ago, largely due to the glowing reviews from the both of you, Brandon and John. It was a sequel that bettered its forbear, and surpassed even the original in terms of accomplishment. As anyone knows, it's much harder to write a good story with a known quantity, especially one with a property that so many claim ownership of- particular fans all of them, the illiterate ones perhaps even more so. I wondered if it might not have been too intense for the youngest of viewers- as good as the incinerator scene was, it was very traumatic. But, since I don't have any really young kids, I could enjoy it with my twelve-year-old with a clear conscience. Even more so, since it's becoming rarer and rarer to find stuff for him to watch that is appropriate to his life experience and that he truly enjoys.

I'm not even sure it's worth mentioning, but I was so disappointed by Old Dogs that I need to complain publicly even further (Facebook was not enough, apparently, and sorry, John, but I need Facebook so you'll have to be satisfied with my efforts to update this blog more regularly. You're still missing out though, because sometimes my Facebook movie reviews are quite clever and entertaining). The previews were funny- and who can resist actors that I like to watch in a movie I can watch with my whole family? It was so bad I would have quit halfway through if the boy hadn't been enjoying it so much (he's twelve and particularly susceptible to potty humor, as we all were at that age. As, to a degree, I still am). There were a few genuine laughs, and if you can watch the bit where they're camping, do so- Justin Long's performance is the funniest in the film.

Thanks, Brandon, for the reminder about Sunshine- that is a superior example of the sci-fi love story for sure. I bet you could throw The Fountain in there, too, but by "love story" I really mean "chick flick" and The Fountain probably doesn't make that cut.

It's also interesting that you mention The Road. I have purposely avoided watching the film because I want to read the book first. Maybe I make exceptions to my usual rule for Pulitzer-prize-winning novels. That's probably a reasonable concession.

Extract is on my short list. I just keep forgetting about it. I'm probably one of the few people who thought that Idiocracy was political/cultural satire at its most clever. And the real genius of that film is not the plot but the setting and the sets themselves. I almost love that the plot is so inane because it makes the film accessible to a lower common denominator, which means that there are people who would watch Idiocracy and get exposed to some smart commentary who wouldn't be caught dead at Wag the Dog, let's say. Of course, part of the smart commentary involves showcasing the lowest common denominator's obliviousness despite very visible clues to their various dilemmas being right in front of their faces. So, maybe it's a lost cause anyway. Nevertheless, it's a shame that Idiocracy didn't get the promotion it deserved, which sort of proves Judge's point in a semi-tragic twist.

I have Lost and Safe by the Books. It's a very good album; I'm listening to it right now. I've been listening to Dirty Projectors in the car the last few days and enjoying them very much.

I saw Doomsday in the theater with Adrienne. It wasn't at all what I was expecting (a serious zombie movie) so it caught me off guard enough with its campy, over-the-top attitude (which includes the horses and chain mail- bring it on!) that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

John, Peter Conrad recommendation duly noted. If you're into webcomics, have you tried Wondermark or Dr. McNinja?

Lastly, I did finish the first season of Fringe and it didn't let me down. The episode where [SPOILER] they opened the other dimension was as tantalizing an advertisement for season two as one could hope for. It's not a perfect series, but is smart to develop its main characters the way it does. That may be why Dollhouse failed, actually. Though when your main character's personality is changing from episode to episode, maybe you're dooming yourself to failure. Don't get me wrong, I was bummed when they decided to cancel it, but it was work to watch sometimes.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book or Film? The Time Traveler's Wife

I have for a long time been of the opinion that if you're going to see a movie based on a book, and you haven't read the book, that you should watch the movie first. I think there have been relatively few times where I've read both the book and the seen the movie; I tend to be interested in story more than a particular format, and, for good or bad, appreciate formats that give me an engaging narrative in a relatively compact manner. Hence my attraction to visual media like film and comics. It's not, as my friends sometimes tease me, because I can't read, or don't like reading, or have a short attention span. There are simply so many wonderful stories out there, I want to experience as much as I can with the limited time that a lifespan affords.

But I digress.

Last night, my wife and I watched The Time Traveler's Wife together. It was well done and entertaining, and like no other film I've seen perhaps, used science fiction to tell a love story. The film doesn't spend much time at all explaining the why of Henry's condition (it's, um, genetic), but that serves the story well, as it's too easy to ruin a serious movie with ridiculous science. Although it's a major plot point, the time travel aspect is handled delicately and deliberately so as not to distract from the essence of the story. I remarked to my wife at one point, "That must be what it's like to live with someone with a mental illness." The unusual nature of Henry's and Claire's marital stress enables the audience to detach enough from the particulars so that they can think more about the big picture of Henry's and Claire's relationship- and maybe not just theirs, but relationships in general. What it means to love a person when they're young and old, and what it means to have to try to learn to live without them. The Time Traveler's Wife frames those questions in a really unique and compelling way.

If you have access to the DVD, whether you've seen the film or are planning to, make sure you watch the special feature documentary The Time Traveler's Wife: Love Beyond Words. More than a making-of, it's a thought-provoking discussion about the process of turning a novel into a script, one of the best "making-of" documentaries I've seen recently. It really enhanced my experience with the film and made me interested in reading the book as well.

Which brings me back to the beginning. One of the interviewees in the documentary compared film to short stories, in that, unlike novels, they both often center around a single cataclysmic event. This could explain why some of the best film adaptations have been from short stories- Brokeback Mountain immediately comes to mind (as does a book I have perused and will most likely purchase Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films edited by Stephanie Harrison). I have heard many complaints over the years from people who were disappointed in a film because of how much of the book it left out. But I've always considered that kind of dissatisfaction to be a betrayal of a lack of understanding of the nature of visual storytelling. A movie that tries to be a book is often awkward and dry because there are things that words on a page can accomplish that moving pictures can't. And vice versa. Eric Bana, I believe, mentioned that the best film adaptation of a novel is one that is faithful to the intent of the book but tells its own story. I'm inclined to agree wholeheartedly.

I did an experiment a while back to try to answer, at least for myself, whether it was better to read the book or see the movie first. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be that it was better to read the book first, because the movie would mess with your imagination and give away the ending. But then these same people were the ones complaining about how the movie couldn't live up to its textual counterpart because of everything it would leave out. So I went to see Jurassic Park then read the book, and sometime later I read The Client and then watched the movie. I will grant that there is no control in this experiment, and one could easily dismiss my conclusions on the merits (or lack thereof) of either book or film in both cases. Nevertheless, since my initial experiment, the general conclusions I came to have been reinforced by various other book/movie experiences throughout the years.

One the one hand, I enjoyed Jurassic Park immensely. CGI was really starting to hit its stride by then and we believed that being stalked by velociraptors in the kitchen was actually within the realm of possibility. Then I read the book, which had a completely different ending and enjoyed that immensely as well. There were a number of additional scenes in the book, which was like being able to get more of a good thing when you thought it was over, and it was fun noting while I was reading where changes had been made and even speculating why. And, yes, I did picture Sam Neill and Ariana Richards while I was reading, but who cares? I got two excellent experiences from the same basic plot.

On the other hand, the novel by John Grisham was exciting and nerve-wracking and I could hardly put it down. I couldn't wait for the movie to come out because I'd liked the book so much. But you know what? I hated the movie. Do you know why? Because I didn't like the changes they made and what was left out. And, because the movie was the last version of the story I saw, it's what has stayed with me over the years. Not only was my experience with the film disappointing, it superseded my memories of the novel.

I haven't read any of the Lord of the Rings books (I don't want to hear it), but I've seen all the movies. I trust that when I get around to reading Tolkien's masterpieces, I will relish the additional details and adventures involving those time-beloved characters. I read the first four Harry Potter books before watching the films and the films were ho-hum. Been there, done that. I saw The Half-Blood Prince in the theater before reading the book and was transfixed. And the best part is that I know I can get more where that came from if I want it.