February 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Borders Picks the Oscars

Oh, the Oscars. Oh, the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Always a pleasure. If the Academy Awards' interest in this category was strictly based on faithfulness, we'd have a very different set of nominees -- Sin City would be glowering in the chirascuro corner, while In Her Shoes table-danced with chick-lit delight. Which is why we make allowances for adaptation -- why we honor not the most-adapted, but the best. Not that I have anything against Sin City, but I like my ultraviolence tempered with some humanity. Which the five nominees here have in spades.

Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features)
Screenplay by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Based on the short story by Annie Proulx

Let's be real here. There's very little chance of Brokeback not winning this one. None of the other nominees have the same sort of buzz, none of them have been as successful financially or critically, and none of them have infected the public consciousness with adorable catchphrases.

I've heard some predictions that there might be a strong backlash against Brokeback in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, and that Crash might be able to ride that wave to Best Picture glory. This thought occasionally infects my darkest nightmares, slamming me awake with a scream on my lips. (I really didn't care for Crash.) But then I whisper to myself, no matter what,
Brokeback will be recognized for being the the most faithfully well-adapted script of the year. At least there's that.

With that thought, at last, I rest.

Capote (UA/Sony Pictures Classics)
Screenplay by Dan Futterman
Based upon Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clark

The only traditional biopic of these nominees, focusing on the five years Truman Capote spent writing In Cold Blood, altering the literary landscape even as he confronts the inherent darkness of man's soul. That's what I hear, at any rate. I'm really excited about finally getting to see this film, but I keep wanting to wait until after I've read In Cold Blood, and I barely have time to read my shampoo bottle these days. The fact that it's been nominated for Best Picture gives me hope that it'll be in theaters for at least a few more weeks, though.

Clark's biography is definitely listed as a primary source, but one can't help but suspect that In Cold Blood itself has an equal share of influence. Which is fascinating in its own right: a combination of perspectives, including that of the main character, shaping the narrative, leading to a chilling level of insight into "the inherent darkness of man's soul."

I'm not talking about the killers -- I'm talking about Truman Capote.

The Constant Gardener (Focus Features)
Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine
Based on the novel by John LeCarre

After the last LeCarre wipeout (2001's The Tailor of Panama, which proved that Pierce Brosnan is only believable as a spy if he's wearing a tux), it's nice that there's now a well-made and morally complex LeCarre thriller for all the dads of the world.

That's a gross generalization. I'm sure there are lots of middle-aged men who don't have children but read LeCarre. Maybe even -- gasp! -- women!

I failed miserably at seeing City of God, Fernando Meirelles's last film. But I hear that it's amazing and gritty and well-edited -- exactly what I hear about Constant Gardener. But how to describe Gardener's chances in this particular category? Well. When I went to Borders to flip through a copy of the book, I found it buried in the Mystery/Thriller section, not the Fiction/Literature section -- where, by coincidence, a large display of the Brokeback Mountain story-to-script book dominated an aisle, right below a large print of Jake and Heath, wrapped up in each other.

Ultimately, Gardener is a genre film, but an issue-driven, socially-conscious genre film. Classy. Good. The sort of nomination you feel good about, but not the sort of film that wins. Just ask Borders where it's putting its money.

A History of Violence (New Line)
Screenplay by Josh Olson
Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke

If we maintain the Borders-as-Oscar-predictor metaphor, then there's no better indicator of A History of Violence's chances than than the fact that my particular Borders didn't even have a copy of the original graphic novel. Not that that's at all surprising, given this movie's development history. When David Cronenberg received the script for this movie, after all, he had no idea it was based on a graphic novel -- it was only much later in the rewriting process that he learned its origins. By then, of course, he'd already begun to approach the work on his terms, translating the story into his own aesthetic. Keeping, of course, most of the bloody stuff.

What I like about that little factoid is how it illustrates the growing acceptance of comics as just another medium for storytelling -- comics as a narrative source, rather than a film blueprint. What it results in is a real adaptation, a shift from one medium to another, with the incorporation of another artist's point-of-view along the way -- just like any other movie based on a book. Not all comics are suited to the Sin City approach, after all. Sometimes, it's just a good way to tell a good story.

A History of Violence (or, as I like to call it, Viggo Kills a Whole Bunch of Dudes) treats its source material as more of a jumping-off point, maintaining the set-up but using it as a way of developing and exploring the characters. The major suspense of Cronenberg's film isn't "Will Viggo escape his past?" but "Will his wife and son forgive him for it?" It's a family drama. One in which Dad kills a whole bunch of dudes. And ultimately very satisfying -- an improvement on the original material. Which is all you can ask for, most days of the week.

Munich (Universal and DreamWorks)
Screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Based on Vengeance by George Jonas

George Jonas's book relates interviews with "Avner," who spearheaded Israeli vengeance against the Palestinians potentially responsible for the murder of athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It's a great story, one that would normally be impossible to make in today's political climate -- unless, of course, you're Steven Spielberg. (Turns out there are a few advantages to owning your own movie studio and faithfully documenting the horrors of the Holocaust. If there's one person in the world who could make a movie occasionally critical of Israel, it's Uncle Steve.)

According to the IMDb, "After getting the rights to Vengeance, Steven Spielberg commissioned three scripts: one from David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, one from Charles Randolph, and one from Eric Roth. Roth's script was chosen and subsequently revised by Tony Kushner." Great source material and an amazing pool of talent almost seem unfair; it leads to an intensely powerful work that feels true to its past while shedding light on its future. It helps immensely that Munich was written by a pair of tough writers (sure, Eric Roth wrote Forrest Gump, but in his original version Gump was a jerk), and also that the movie mostly avoids becoming a polemic, instead using the trappings of the thriller genre for structure. It's a near-perfect example of non-fiction narrative transformed into heart-pounding suspense. The only false note, for me, was the climatic intercut between the Munich Olympians's last moments and Avner making love with his wife -- while I understand that he's rejoining metaphorically with the personification of Israel, it just make me try and remember if Spielberg had succeeded at directed anything erotic since Raiders of the Lost Arc.

Munich is a great film in the final analysis, though, and as a result totally typical of this batch of nominees -- each unique and
deserving in its own right.

Only one cowboy can win this particular rodeo, though. Just ask the folks at Borders.