Books, Film

Scattered Thoughts on Ender’s Game

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I watched Ender’s Game today. It was adapted for the screen (from Orson Scott Card’s novel) and directed by Gavin Hood, who wrote and directed Tsotsi a few years ago and has directed Rendition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the interim. There’s a lot of potential in the story — in short, a young boy is trained in tactical warfare as humanity’s last hope against a hostile alien force — but a couple of key things keep the film from succeeding: its visual blandness and its weakness as an adaptation.

The visual blandness is apparent early on — everything looks like generic 2010s sci-fi, all blue lights and CGI buttons — but it becomes worse once the story follows Ender to the battle school that’s orbiting Earth. The school’s centerpiece is a massive zero-gravity where squadrons of young trainees engage in battle games using stun pistols and blocky props, and it’s in this room where Ender’s skills as a leader and thinker are supposed to start to shine. Yet Hood never matches his visuals to his characters’ dialogue or experiences. For instance, as a way to make sense of the confusing weightless room, Ender and his team decide to pick one wall as “down,” so they always have a way to orient themselves. That’s a really neat idea, and one with loads of potential for visually showing us a version of space and combat and action that we haven’t seen before. Yet Hood never visually illustrates this, nor does he do anything with the idea beyond letting two characters mention it to each other one time. Most of the sequences in this battle room are as choppy and direction-agnostic as most other modern action movies, despite the fact that the story is all about perspective and control. In other words, Hood never executes on the concept, which makes it kind of pointless to include. The first inkling of his indifference shows up when Ender and some other kids take their initial shuttle from Earth to the station, and Ender points out with a laugh that there’s no real up or down in space, talking with another character about how their ideas of “horizontal” and “vertical” become purely subjective. It’s a neat idea that’s not even borne out a little in Hood’s visuals, and the rest of the film is similarly lackluster.

Even worse, though, is the way the film feels choppy and incomplete, the way the worst adaptations do. Now, every movie adapted from a book must out of necessity compress and alter the literary story. Books are media of introspection, while films are driven by visuals; you have to radically change one to make it work for the other. Yet the adaptation also has to stay faithful enough to the book’s core for it to actually qualify as an adaptation; i.e., you would not turn Ender into a 1940s gumshoe who’s out to solve a mystery. The movie’s going to be the heart of the book, but it also has to be smooth and strong enough to stand on its own. You have to pare down the book’s beats to their emotional core, then build back out to get to the screenplay. And there are so many weird ideas, dead-end characterizations, rushed bits of looped dialogue, and clumsily edited transitions in the film of Ender’s Game that you can’t help but feel Hood is trying to do way too much here. He’s lumbering under the weight of the book, not telling its central story. Great adaptations aren’t impossible, either. One of the best of the modern era is L.A. Confidential, which trims about 500 pages of novel into just over two hours of screen time without ever feeling clipped or insubstantial. That film hewed to the three men at the heart of the story and worked out from there. Ender’s Game, though, feels like Hood tried to shoot everything in the book and found himself suddenly, on page 100 of the script, up against a wall. As a result, it’s a bumpy, almost random little movie that asks us to accept that the main character has become a gifted leader and good friend to his comrades while giving us almost no opportunities for that to play out on screen. It feels like it’s trying to be two or three movies at once — Ender’s emotional journey, Ender’s tactical development, Ender’s place in a galactic conflict — and as a result never feels like a single movie of its own.

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Film

Scattered Thoughts About Milius

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John Milius was an interesting guy, and there’s no denying his talent (dude wrote Apocalypse Now, which by itself is a lifetime achievement) or his place among his contemporaries (Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, etc.). But much of the documentary Milius has a breezy, by-the-numbers approach to biography, with talking heads and film clips laid out pretty much in chronological order, even as interviewees’ stories turn again and again to the ups and downs of working with Milius: he was temperamental, contrary, reactionary, erratic, gifted, passionate, stubborn, dedicated, and so on. In other words, the film’s structure and tone are often at odds with its subject. Co-directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson — who’ve mostly worked as producers and directors for Kevin Smith projects — are clearly enamored of Milius, but their execution also tries to hide him away. Milius’ current medical condition (he had a stroke and is slowly working to regain his speaking abilities) is a matter of public record, but it’s hidden away until the end of the film and delivered almost like a gut-punch, played both for tragedy (gifted raconteur laid low and silent) and obstacle to overcome (Milius was in pre-production on a film about Genghis Khan when he suffered his stroke). It’s only in these final minutes that the film deepens and becomes about a man and his art, instead of just being about a wild guy who had some big times.

By structuring the documentary like this — by delaying Milius’ present state as long as possible and indeed setting it up as a kind of “reveal” — Figueroa and Knutson avoid dealing with Milius as the man they keep claiming he is. They go long on causes but short on effects, and parts of the documentary, while entertaining, are also only about as informative as a basic Wikipedia search. There’s some wonderful history here, and it’s great to see, and having Milius as a subject got them access to some nice interviews (like Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg, Schwarzenegger, etc.). But as neat as the movie is, it’s equally frustrating to be kept so far from its subject. Maybe Figueroa and Knutson wanted to keep Milius a legend, carved in stone and set high on a hill, instead of reckoning with the fact that he’s just a man, and as subject as any of us to self-deception and regret. Then again, for all that Milius is, it’s almost fitting that a film about him would be boastful and sweeping, funny and sad, and ultimately unknowable.

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Books, David Foster Wallace, Film

“Guaranteed Megabuck ROI”

David Foster Wallace’s “F/X Porn” was originally published in 1998, but the problems it addresses in blockbuster filmmaking (namely, the focus on action at the expense of humanity and emotion) are still with us. Some choice quotes:

There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.

And this:

The Inverse Cost and Quality Law … states very simply that the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be.

The essay was collected in the posthumous volume Both Flesh and Not, but it’s also available to read (for now) over at Scribd.

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Film

Talking Like the Comics

I saw Pacific Rim for the first time the other day. I was struck on a few occasions by how bad the dialogue was — clunky, weird, off-putting, as if it had been run back and forth through several translators until it arrived at some approximation of English. More than that, though, I noticed that most of the conversations weren’t actually conversations. That is, the sentences did not flow logically from one to another. Character A would say something, and Character B would say something else. Character B’s statement could not really be considered a response, since most of the time it didn’t actually address what Character A said. It was a little like watching someone assemble magnetic poetry while inebriated. Their heart is in the right place, and they’re clearly excited by what they’re doing, but from the outside looking in, it doesn’t make much sense. Most conversation scenes in Pacific Rim felt like placeholders. They were just things that had to happen to space out the effects sequences, and they were reverse-engineered from a basic (if jumbled) series of beats about a hero getting off the mat after a loss and rising to conquer the enemy.

The dialogue was just plain bad, but then, the dialogue’s bad in a lot of action movies, especially those based on comic books or steeped in the kind of broadly sampled “geek culture” that makes up Pacific Rim. It’s always dopey and weird, and most of the time the people seem to be talking right past each other. Yet I’m starting to realize that this isn’t an accident. It’s baked right into the source material with comic books.

Look at old panels from just about any comic book. There are decades of them, hundreds of thousands of issues, and most of them have really bad dialogue that’s just there to give you a few pages between battle sequences. Comic books took shape in an era of arch styling and breathless hyperbole, with heroes foaming about dastardly villains and villains cackling about fiendish plans. There’s a reason these things captured the hearts and minds of the young: they were direct, uncomplicated, and not that polished.

Does that mean all comic books or graphic novels are worthless? Absolutely not. It’s a medium like any other, and the preponderance of bad writing doesn’t negate the good stuff when you find it. But these big, broad hero titles were born aloft by tin-ear dialogue, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the movies that have followed — even those that are just inspired by them — have so often fallen on bad writing without seeming to notice or care what its effect might be. Indeed, bad dialogue is in a lot of ways the truest honor these movies can pay to their heritage. That doesn’t make it easier to hear, but then, that’s not what the movie wants us to listen to.

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Film

The Wolf of Wall Street: American Psycho

Scorsese’s true crime filmography is all about bad, unrepentant men who pay for their crimes, though they don’t all pay the same amount. Henry Hill is busted and goes into witness protection, and normalcy for him is the worst kind of prison. But he also blasted his way through murder and drugs and corruption and adultery and got a clean slate out of it on the government’s dollar. Ace Rothstein didn’t give a damn who he upset in his pursuit of power, and he came out pretty much where he started: making book, making money, and working in the machine. Jordan Belfort is a natural extension of these guys: he’s awful, proud, unrepentant, evil, and devoted above all to his own pleasure. And in the end, he spends a couple years playing tennis in prison before emerging to become an author and motivational speaker.

In other words, with these movies, Scorsese is telling stories about criminals who become, in a real way, too big to fail. They’re bad guys who do bad things, but because they do *so many* bad things, they can sacrifice some of their own to reduce their own suffering at the hands of the judicial system. This is worse than getting away with it: this is getting caught and then not getting punished. It’s a lot more worrisome.

Yet The Wolf of Wall Street is so toxic and gruesome because it’s not about some subset, some kind of “other” that we can tell ourselves we don’t know. These aren’t old-school guys killing out of some perverted sense of Sicilian honor. This is the system we built to run our country. This is the machine we worship. We can watch Henry Hill rise and fall and get a thrill from both parts of the journey because we know we’re not like him. But Jordan Belfort? That’s who so many of us want to be. He scammed his way into the fortune that we tell ourselves is the American Dream, and the birthright of every citizen hungry enough to claim it. Kids graduate every year and go to law school and business school and medical school because they see dollar signs.

The movie’s incredibly well made: powerful, enervating, nauseating, graphic, ugly, gripping. Everything you’d expect from Scorsese (who is 71 and still throwing serious heat). And it’s as hard to watch as Scorsese seems to have intended it to be. He has the skill to make the characters’ excess come across as morally and spiritually degrading. And he keeps shoving everything in our face. This is a hard three hours, and so many scenes play out in uncomfortable, angry length. The final shot, of a crowd of eager middle-class people attending Belfort’s seminar, is a blatant indictment of our lust for power and the way we worship guys like this, though it’s hard to not wonder if Scorsese isn’t putting himself in that crowd, too. After all, he made the movie. He turned this guy into a character in his filmography. What does it say about us that we hate these guys but still can’t look away?

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