Friday, February 27, 2015

Watch This: Adaptation

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Adaptation (2002)
Written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman
Directed by Spike Jonze

Is there anyone responsible for bringing more dizzyingly original storytelling to the big screen over the past two decades than screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman?  He burst onto the scene in 1999 with the Spike Jonze-directed comedy Being John Malkovich, and followed it up with equally ambitious scripts for Human Nature (2001), Adaptation (2002), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney's underrated 2002 directorial debut), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and his own directorial debut, 2008's Synecdoche, New York.  Kaufman's oeuvre is a wholly original body of work, a group of films that are as dazzlingly inventive as they are insightful in their examination of themes like unhappiness, lovesickness, and artistic struggle.  While all of these films are absolutely worth checking out (and all are available in the Reeves Memorial Library collection), we've been highlighting Oscar winners this month, so this post will focus on Adaptation, which took home a gold statuette for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the work of cast member Chris Cooper.

Adaptation is a fascinating blend of truth and fiction, and it is not always clear which is which.  It is, in part, a film about its own creation.  In the film (and, we assume, in real life) Kaufman has been hired to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, which tells the story of eccentric, obsessive Florida orchid poacher John Laroche.  The book is full of beautiful prose and detailed descriptions of flowers, and although Laroche's story is compelling, Kaufman cannot find enough material for a feature-length film.  He is adamant that the film should avoid the usual Hollywood tropes, like "sex or guns or car chases ... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end."  And so, eventually, he writes himself into the script, and the film Adaptation not only tells the more straightforward stories of Orlean and Laroche, it also follows Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) as he writes the film Adaptation, fails in his varied attempts at romance, and deals with his mooching identical twin brother, Donald (a fictional character, also played by Cage).  Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) is a sophisticated New Yorker, a member of the Big Apple's intellectual elite, but she is fascinated by the scruffy, down-to-earth Laroche (Chris Cooper), whose beguiling mix of intelligence, passion, and vanity stirs a strange attraction in Orlean, who realizes she herself has never really been passionate about anything in the way that Laroche is.

Charlie's running voice-over narration reveals a man crippled by agonizing insecurities about both his abilities as a writer and his own attractiveness ("I'm starting to sweat.  Stop sweating.  I've got to stop sweating.  Can she see it dripping down my forehead?  She looked at my hair line.  She thinks I'm bald").  His lack of confidence stands in marked contrast to his brother Donald, whose own carefree demeanor and improbably successful attempt at a screenwriting career only serve to heighten Charlie's frustrations.  Charlie even goes so far as to attend a seminar given by writing teacher Robert McKee (Brian Cox), whose teachings seemed to work so well for Donald.

I will refrain from revealing any further plot points, as one of the joys of watching Adaptation is to see the wholly unpredictable directions the story takes.  Suffice it to say that, despite Kaufman's early insistence that his adaptation will not contain any of the usual movie tropes, it deftly manages to include many of them in the most delightfully surprising ways.

Despite its skyscraper-high concept and extremely self-referential nature, the film is never confusing, nor does it ever feel simply like a gimmick.  Much of the credit for this can certainly go to director Spike Jonze, who has demonstrated an impressive ability for bringing such singular stories to the screen, but it really all comes down to Kaufman's script.  His writing is supremely clever and funny (Charlie's constant voice-over is at one point interrupted by McKee's stern warning to his seminar students, "God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends"), but also reveals a profound depth of insight and feeling in its look at obsession, beauty, self-discovery, and the creative process.  There is a wonderful scene between Laroche and Orlean in which he discusses the relationship between flowers and the insects that pollinate them, and his beautiful description not only reveals a romantic idealism and passion that attracts Orlean, but also provides one of the loveliest bits of dialogue in recent cinema:

"By simply doing what they're designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live - how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way."

The cast of Adaptation is uniformly terrific.  Chris Cooper's Oscar-winning turn as John Laroche, missing front teeth and all, makes him instantly likable, despite his condescending behavior and off-putting vanity (he refers to himself as the smartest guy he knows).  Streep is a pleasure to watch in a role that lets her have far more fun than most of her films up to that time (more recent films like A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Mamma Mia! (2008), and It's Complicated (2009) have also allowed her to show off her lighter side).  The real treat, however, is watching Nicolas Cage in the dual roles of twin brothers Charlie and Donald (who, despite being entirely fictional, was credited as co-writer of the film's screenplay, and even nominated for an Oscar alongside the real-life Charlie).  Cage is an absolute revelation.  Despite the fact that there is no noticeable difference in hair or makeup between the two brothers, we can always tell them apart due to differences in Cage's body language, posture, and facial expressions.  Cage's career has become somewhat of a punchline in recent years, but Adaptation serves as a reminder of his incredible range and talent.

The film works on multiple levels, and even its title has a double meaning: it not only refers to the biological concept of adaptation, but also to the process of adapting Orlean's book that is the subject of the film.  Clearly Orlean's writing posed a great challenge as source material, but it is a testament to Kaufman's talent that a film about the near impossibility of adapting The Orchid Thief is in fact such a wildly brilliant and successful adaptation of The Orchid Thief.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

John Green says Ooops

John Green has an amusing anecdote that illustrates the crazy digital world of intellectual property, citations, and fact-checking.

Props to him for doing the right thing.

As an aside, it bugs me (Kelly) to no end when people erroneously attribute all sorts of stuff to MY favorite author. Go to Pinterest and type in "mark twain quote" if you want to read a whole lot of "dance in the rain, kiss deeply, reach for the stars" type things that I'm pretty sure Mr. Clemens never wrote.

Of course, there are also a few on there that may be legit. "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest" is one representative example.

Another personal favorite of mine, though it may not be considered very Pin-worthy? "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."

Monday, February 23, 2015

Poll Results

Thank you to everyone who participated in our Very Important Poll.

Results were quite evenly split, with Elsa beating out The White Witch by only one vote (36-35). The write-in candidate, "Coming of the Second Ice Age," also came in for a share of the blame, with seven respondents citing this as the reason for our current tundra-like conditions. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Trial database-- Statista

We have a trial of the Statista database through March 6th! Make sure to take advantage of this opportunity to explore the statistics and the different outputs available through this resource.

To try Statista, visit from a computer on campus.

If you find this tool helpful, PLEASE let a librarian know (emails are best as they're easily counted and tracked). Your feedback and requests are key to acquiring new resources for our collections.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Watch This: West Side Story

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and since Reeves Memorial Library is highlighting past Oscar winners all month long in anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, this is a perfect opportunity to check out one of the Academy's favorite romances, West Side Story, which took home a whopping ten statuettes in 1962, including Best Picture.  One could argue that, in retrospect, it was not the best film nominated that year (The Hustler certainly gives it a run for its money), but there is no doubt that it remains one of the best film musicals of all time.  While musicals of the previous decade like Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) are probably better overall films, the music and superb dancing in West Side Story are really what set it apart.  The choreography by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the film's dance sequences, may be the best ever captured on celluloid.

West Side Story is an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical, a modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.  The film has remained one of the very best of the many cinematic Shakespeare retellings (Akira Kurosawa's excellent Ran (based on King Lear) and Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth) are also notable, as is the underrated 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, a modernized version of The Taming of the Shrew).  In this update, The Bard's feuding families become rival New York City street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the star-crossed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo.  In addition to the normal conflicts over turf, there is racial tension between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, exacerbated by the prejudices of the local authorities, represented by the bigoted policeman Lieutenant Schrank and the inept beat cop Officer Krupke.  Tony and Maria meet and fall in love at a neighborhood dance, and later he serenades her outside of her apartment building.  They plan to see each other in secret, and later to run away together, but their romantic bliss is interrupted by a deadly rumble between the two gangs, an event which leads inevitably toward the film's tragic conclusion.

There are aspects of the film that do not work as well.  Some of the dialogue is cloying and heavy-handed, and a few of the dramatic scenes feel flat, although the fatal rumble and the later scene at the drug store in which Anita is insulted and threatened are both terrifically compelling.  The film's treatment of social issues such as gang violence, juvenile delinquency, racism, and the immigrant experience made it a landmark of its genre, but some of these elements have not aged well (most of the gang members don't look very tough by today's standards).

However, these faults are more than made up for by the film's many strengths.  The Oscar-winning supporting performances by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, as Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, respectively, are passionate and authentic, conveying an array of emotions with subtle facial expressions and body language that stand in marked contrast to the often broad portrayals by their co-stars.  The filmmakers wisely chose to utilize real New York City locations for many of the scenes, and the opening aerial shots of New York City landmarks serve as a reminder that, although the film's story has classic origins, the setting is distinctly contemporary.  The film's vibrant use of color, most apparent in the dazzling neighborhood dance sequence, also deserves much praise.

West Side Story's romantic storyline is very engaging on its own (it is, after all, borrowed from one of the greatest works in all of literature), but it is elevated by swooningly romantic love songs like "Tonight" and "Maria," both of which have become standards.  The incomparable pairing of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim produced one of the most memorable scores in musical history (songs like "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Cool," and "Somewhere" have entered the pop culture lexicon), and the film takes full advantage of their brilliant work, with an opening five-minute overture highlighting the score's numerous classic melodies, and editing and cinematography that sometimes use the rhythm of the music as a marker for cutting and camera movement.

More than anything, though, it is the dancing that makes the film such a standout.  Choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins and cinematographer Daniel Fapp both deserve the highest acclaim for helping the film break free from its stage origins to become a musical that is undeniably cinematic.  One rarely gets the feeling that this is just people dancing in front of a camera.  For example, consider the masterful, nearly wordless ten-minute opening scene, in which the two gangs have a showdown in and around the basketball courts of a neighborhood playground.  There is something distinctly filmic about the way the dancers move through the frame, the way the camera moves to follow them during the ebb and flow of their back-and-forth struggle for territorial dominance, and the way they enter and leave the frame.  There is the terrific shot that begins with the camera panning right to follow the Jets as they toss around a basketball, and ends with a quick pan left to a close-up of the ball unexpectedly in the hands of Bernardo, whose sudden presence is a surprise to both the viewer and the Jets.  (An interesting side note: the film's pairing of a moving camera with in-frame movement has made it an unlikely favorite of current blockbuster action film director Michael Bay, whose influential aesthetic, known as "Bayhem," is characterized by the extreme overuse of this technique).

Although West Side Story ends in tragedy (this should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Romeo and Juliet), its enchanting love story and beautiful music make it a perfect Valentine's Day viewing experience.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Watch This: Casablanca

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Casablanca (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz

A warning: this post does contain spoilers about Casablanca's ending.  However, considering that the final scene is one of the most famous and oft-quoted scenes in all of cinema, I'm willing to risk a few spoilers.

Casablanca is a classic.  In fact, it is probably the classic.

There are certain films that come to mind when one hears certain terms being used in reference to the movies.  For example, when I hear the word "epic," I instantly think of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and my mind fills with the image of Peter O'Toole's sun-bronzed face peering out from the folds of a white keffiyeh.  Likewise, when I hear the word "classic," the film that immediately comes to mind is Casablanca.  It may be the quintessential film of Hollywood's studio era, the film in which the predominant modes of directing, production, acting, musical scoring, screenwriting, costume design, cinematography, casting, and other filmmaking elements of that era all coalesced perfectly, resulting in what is not only one of the most beloved and popular films of all time, but one of the best films ever made.  Although Casablanca's plot is closely tied to a particular time, the film has a timeless quality that has allowed it to age better than most films of its era, and it is one of those rare cinematic works that grows richer and more enjoyable with repeat viewings.

The film is set in Casablanca, Morocco, a key stopping point along the route taken by refugees seeking escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.  The city is swarming with all manner of characters, some seeking only to obtain exit visas to the embarkation point of Lisbon, others seeking to make money off the refugees' desperation.  Many of these people find their way to Rick's Cafe Americain, a popular nightclub run by cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, in what is arguably the role most inextricably tied with his persona).  One of Rick's most frequent customers is the criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who has come to Rick's with two valuable letters of transit that he acquired by murdering a pair of German couriers.  Nazi officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has come to Casablanca to oversee the apprehension of the murderer by the head of the local police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official of the puppet Vichy government.  Ugarte gives the letters to Rick for safekeeping, but his plans to sell them later that night are interrupted when he is arrested.  Ugarte's pleas to Rick for help are met with only dispassion and detachment (Rick's cynical neutrality is epitomized by his repeated credo, "I stick my neck out for nobody").

Rick's carefully constructed veneer of neutral indifference comes crashing down when Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive at the club to purchase the letters.  Laszlo is a Czech resistance leader, seeking to acquire the letters of transit so that he and Ilsa can make their way to America to continue his vital work fighting the Nazis.  We learn that Ilsa and Rick met and fell in love in Paris before he came to Casablanca, but that she left abruptly upon learning that Laszlo, who she thought had been killed, was still alive (we see all of this in a flashback sequence set to the lovely chords of As Time Goes By, played by the club's piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson)).  With her appearance at his club, Rick's feelings of love, bitterness, and betrayal come swarming to the surface, and there is the scene after the club has closed where Rick sits drunk at the bar and utters the immortal line, "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  Laszlo and Ilsa are determined to get ahold of the letters and fly to Lisbon, but Major Strasser is determined to keep Laszlo in Casablanca, and there is the further complication that Ilsa and Rick are still in love with one another.  Rick decides to help Laszlo escape, but he must choose whether to keep Ilsa here with him, or put her on the plane with Laszlo.  Of course, he chooses the selfless act and puts her on the plane.

Much of the dialogue in this final scene has entered the American lexicon, with lines like "We'll always have Paris," "Here's looking at you, kid," and "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" taking on a life of their own far beyond what the film's writers ever likely thought possible.  The script is bursting with wonderful dialogue throughout, and while Rick's words to Ilsa in the final scene are indeed great, some of the earlier lines are equally sublime.  For example, there is the humorous exchange between Rick and Captain Renault early in the film:

     Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
     Rick: My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.
     Renault: The waters?  What waters?  We're in the desert.
     Rick: I was misinformed.

There are some elements of the film that shouldn't work well, but for whatever reason, they still do.  The scene in which Victor Laszlo leads the club's band and patrons in a passionate rendition of La Marseillaise, in order to drown out a group of singing German soldiers, should feel hokey and forced, but instead manages to be stirringly patriotic and surprisingly moving.  There is also the moment in the final scene when Captain Renault tosses the bottle of Vichy water in the trash, a symbolic act that is about as subtle as a gunshot to the chest, but that nevertheless succeeds in making the point without derailing the sentiment of the film's final minutes.

One of the things that makes the film so superb is the impeccable casting.  It is difficult to imagine any role, even the smaller supporting roles like Russian bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) and Rick's sometime lover Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), being played by another actor or actress.  Peter Lorre makes his unscrupulous thief/murderer Ugarte immediately likable, as does Sydney Greenstreet in his role as covetous rival club owner Ferrari, and Claude Rains imbues the corrupt Captain Renault with the perfect amount of mischievous charm.  Ingrid Bergman in particular deserves accolades for creating some complexity out of an underdeveloped character (one of the film's few faults is that the lead female character is essentially relegated to the role of arm candy for either of two great men).

Of course, the most important piece of casting is Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.  The film would not work as well with any other actor in that role.  Bogart's blend of coolness and toughness is undeniably appealing, and this in turn makes Rick's brand of cynicism especially appealing to the viewer.  So when Rick overcomes this cynicism in the film's last act, the change is even more affecting for the viewer.

The enduring popularity of Casablanca is evidence that countless viewers have a deep, personal connection with the film, and this is certainly true in my own case.  Even after many viewings, the film continues to move me in sometimes unexpected ways, especially the ending.  Rick has the chance to spend the rest of his life with a woman he loves, and who loves him in return, but he sacrifices this chance for the greater good (he knows that Victor is a better man and a better leader with Ilsa by his side), and because he wants to shield Ilsa from the inevitable feelings of regret she would experience if she stayed behind.  It is such an exceptionally noble and selfless act, and I find it incredibly inspiring: each time I watch the film's ending, it makes me want to be a better man.

What greater recommendation could I give the film than that?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Learning Commons Open House

Stop in at the Reeves Learning Commons' Open House on 
Wednesday, February 4th from 3:00-5:00 PM. 
We'll have food, fun, and prizes!