We examine the more mature side of the comics book adaptation racket in our latest episode, with a look at American Splendor, Ghost World, From Hell, Road to Perdition, Art School Confidential, and A History of Violence. Check it out!
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One of the more recursive adaptations, as we follow Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar journey through life and the creation of the American Splendor comics, which are, in effect, his ongoing autobiography, an endeavour complicated somewhat by the real Harvey Pekar passing commentary on what’s happening at various points.
Pekar was born and raised on the mean streets of Cleveland, and is about as close to the everyman as you can imagine. In the main, we join him after a couple of failed marriages and a long stint as a file clerk, which might be described as a dead end job in the main because Pekar himself isn’t looking to progress.
He’s a firm believer in the potential of comic books, still seen as kids territory back in the mid seventies, but after pitching an autobiographical work to his old friend Robert Crumb, underground artist behind Fritz the Cat, he starts writing what became a critically acclaimed, if not hugely commercially successful series of comics, which in the fullness of time leads him to his next wife, Hope Davis’ Joyce Brabner.
I’m not sure much more of a recap is required – it’s the self described story of Pekar, and the plucked from real life supporting cast of his comics, and, well, his life. And it’s fascinating, in part because Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are excellent, but ultimately because the cantankerous old man act of Pekar is hugely interesting and captivating. Not that he’s 100% sympathetic – who is – but the unvarnished, rough edges of his character, and his work, is what makes it special, and so also what makes this film special.
Aside from being a terrifically enjoyable film, which is surely enough recommendation by itself, it’s also a really good argument for the medium being appropriate to tell a greater message, and that some real human emotion can be conveyed in the funny papers. I enjoyed this greatly on release and I must admit I’ve not thought about it much in the intervening 17 years, which meant that I pretty much got to rediscover how excellent it was all over again. Y’all should do the same.
Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, adapted from Daniel Clowes’s comic book by Clowes and Zwigoff, whatever else it does, does something rare and special. A film about two friends who have just graduated high school, and who are therefore about 18 years old, are played by actors who were 17 and 19 at the time of release. See? It is possible. It’s a murkle! And no, I’m not going to let go of this bone any time soon because it really bothers me, and that’s because it really matters.
The two friends are Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson), lifelong kindred spirits and self-identified weirdo outsiders who are unimpressed by, and sneer at, almost everything and delight in the odd and unusual, but who are not above the sort of petty prank that one imagines they themselves might have been subject to in high school. One such is calling a number found in the Missed Connections section of their local newspaper, pretending to be the sought-after woman, so that they can see who the poor sap is that turns up to have his day ruined.
Said poor sap is Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, a lovelorn loner with little luck in relationships who bemoans his unpopular passions while being beholden to them (“I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.”). Soon after his failed date the disaffected and lonely Enid befriends Seymour, and as that unlikely friendship blossoms and helps Enid to postpone her move into the “real”, grownup world, Becky slowly becomes more a part of it, and their long-held plans, including finding a flat together, begin to unravel.
Ghost World is a character piece, and doesn’t seem to have a lot to say, on the surface at least (at least setting aside its commentary on popular culture and inauthenticity). But its true story is underneath: the slow, sad but real ending of a friendship. As with the surface level events, there’s no great drama, no inciting incident, no grand betrayal. There’s just the slow drifting apart of two people who have been close for a long time, without malice or rancour, and it’s gently heart-breaking, in large part due to its veracity.
Despite having, naturally, bought it as soon as it was available on DVD, I don’t think I watched Ghost World again after seeing it in the cinema, and I’m rather sad about that now: it’s just as compelling and affecting a film as I remember finding it then, perhaps even more so now with more life behind me. There’s a lot of ennui but also a lot of humour and hope, and while some of Enid and Becky’s words and deeds are unkind and even cruel, they themselves are written and played as naïve and defensive, rather than genuinely nasty.
Much of that character comes from the great central performances, and there’s plenty in evidence here to explain Scarlett Johansson’s career as an actor, but it raises the question of why Thora Birch (who had also starred in Sam Mendes’ multiple award winning American Beauty just two years previously, of which she was the best part) wasn’t similarly successful as she has much the larger role and is fully up to it. She’s particularly good in her scenes with Steve Buscemi, and their chemistry is very much that of two social misfits finding something they need in the other. There’s sexual tension, too, but they manage to make it more like “dude, NOT a good idea” than simply creepy and inappropriate.
Zwigoff endorses Enid’s scathing contempt for the phoniness of those she encounters, ridiculing both the ignorant and the deluded and pretentious, but highlights the dangers of her attitude and behaviours; that despite it being a shield against the world it could leave her painfully lonely or embittered. A ghost, in fact. But there’s hope, not least in her youth, and the film ends on a note of potential for anything, even if it’s mixed in with the grief of the end of her life as was. It’s kinda lovely, really.
This is an adaptation of an Alan Moore joint, who didn’t like it. I am as shocked as you are, although to be fair, he’s on much more defensible ground with that opinion compared to some others.
Death stalks the street of Whitechapel, with Jack the Ripper cutting about cutting people up. Tasked with stopping the chaos is salt of the earth, working class Inspector Abberline, played here by Johnny Depp, assisted by the rest of London’s finest, including Robbie Coltrane’s Sergeant Godley. While investigating the friends of the bebutchered deceased ladies of negotiable affection, he meets Heather Grahman’s Mary Kelly, archetypical feisty hooker with a heart of gold and, naturally, the love interest.
And so it goes, being essentially a police procedural but with a lead detective that occasionally visits opium dens and has weird visions of the future while strung out on horse. The trail leads him to the upper echelons of Victorian London, causing frictions with his Commander as Abberline uncovers evidence of this being part of high level conspiracy, and not some common or garden serial killer.
Ultimately the only remarkable thing about From Hell is how unremarkable it is. Most of the bad is not all that bad, and generally balanced out by the good, which, unfortunately, is also not all that good. For example, there’s a solid and interesting narrative running through it, although it’s ultimately preposterous. The supporting cast is very good indeed, but balanced out by one of those mid-career Depp turns that’s closer to an early career Depp turn, and an accent that’s out of this world, or at least, well outside of the Bow Bells. The same, to a lesser extent, can be said about Graham, the net effect being that I find it a little difficult to take this film’s leads particularly seriously. The supporting cast – Coltrane, and all of the Ians, Holm, McNeice and Richardson – fare better, but they’re sadly not much more than cameos.
It’s by no means an awful film, but aside from a feint at something of a Jekyll and Hyde-esque look at the conflict between someone’s violent and phlegmatic natures in the end-game, which is explored much less, well, stupidly, in two films coming up, it turns out there’s not an awful lot in From Hell to recommend that you dredge it out of the archives.
Certainly the least interesting of the Moore adaptations that I’ve seen – at least The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had the decency to be a flaming car-crash of a film.
Road to Perdition
1931, Chicago. A splendiferous time if you’re a gangster, or want to make a gangster movie. An adaptation, by David Self, of Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s graphic novel, Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition is a story of family, betrayal and vengeance, the Chicago way.
Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, an enforcer for an Irish mafia family, headed by Paul Newman’s John Rooney. Michael is efficient, loyal and trustworthy, unlike Rooney’s own son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a noted fuck-up. Indeed, it seems that Michael, who was raised by Rooney after being orphaned, is more beloved by the old man than his own flesh and blood. This is put to the test, though, when Michael’s own son, Michael Jr., witnesses Connor executing an associate. Despite Sullivan’s vow that his son can keep a secret, the younger Rooney kills Sullivan’s wife and younger son, and the other two only escape by luck. In the end blood wills out, and Mr. Rooney chooses to protect Connor, causing Michael and his son to have to flee.
An unsurprisingly pissed off Sullivan wants revenge, and starts robbing banks, and taking only and specifically the money being held for the Capone organisation, under whose protection Connor is now living, in the hope of trading money for blood. Father and son bond during this time, and Michael Jr. is forced to grow up and put aside childish things at an accelerated rate, but a rate which will be suddenly reduced if Jude Law’s creepy hitman, Harlen Maguire, gets to them first.
While American Splendor, of the films in this episode, is the most overt in trying to evoke its printed origins, Road to Perdition is the strongest in terms of trying to capture the mood and tone of its source, with numerous sumptuous and moody scenes brought to life by storied cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, most famously the rain-soaked night-time street of the film’s climax. It’s a beautiful film, and it’s a shame that there’s not a little more substance underpinning it. Perhaps it’s because of its prose-light origins that it lacks the heft of more literary peers like The Godfather et al, but it certainly sorely misses any introspection by the main character about the life he’s chosen and his complicity in the hurt done unto his family. It’s certainly possible to have an unrepentant, amoral gangster as the heart of your film (witness The Irishman), but that film still showed self-reflection, even if Frank Sheeran stared right into that reflection and thought, “yup, I’m fine with that”. It doesn’t even seem to acknowledge it, and it’s almost as if Tom Hanks was cast so as to shortcut it and lead the audience directly to “relatable family man at heart”.
Paul Newman, in one of his final roles, is magnificent. Electrifying. And I’d love if there were much, much more of him in this film. It’s not his character’s story, but he’s just so damn good. And while I like Tom Hanks, and think he’s often very watchable, in Road to Perdition he’s just too… Tom Hanks. He’s not bad, but I just struggle to buy him as the cold, aloof father, and absolutely don’t buy him as the hard as nails mob enforcer. Simple ability and competence mean that he’s considerably better than many might be in the role, but Hanks is woefully miscast, and it undermines the film. It requires someone more like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (a film with which it shares a few notes), not Forrest Gump.
I’ll mention Hall’s cinematography again, as it really is lovely, and Sam Mendes’ shot compositions are well-considered and often striking: visually he’s generally on the money, but Perdition highlights a certain lacking in emotion and character. It’s a good, but far from great, film that is still very watchable, so if you haven’t seen it you could do worse than so do.
It also really, really doesn’t need the narration. Go away, lazy device. You’re not welcome round here.
Art School Confidential
The second of our Terry Zwigoff / Daniel Clowes joints, Art School Confidential sees Max Minghella’s Jerome go to – where else – an art school, Strathmore, with a self stated aim of becoming the worlds greatest artist. His game plan is thrown off when he falls for Sophia Myles’s Audrey, an art model, and by his fellow students not appreciating his classical depictions as much as the more experimental works, such as from Matt Keeslar’s Jonah, who soon becomes a professional and romantic rival. Oh, and all this plays against a sub plot of an ongoing series of on-campus murders, that, inevitably, will be intersect with Jerome’s life.
It shares more than a few strands of DNA with Ghost World, to be sure – a less than entirely sympathetic protagonist, and a black, tending towards cruel sense of humour, and it certainly has moments where it’s almost as good as Zwigoff’s previous film. However, not all that many of those moments, and the points in-between are, well, not bad, perhaps, but not all that remarkable.
Primarily the difference is in our protagonist. I find Ghost World’s Thora rather more relatably confused – whereas Jerome seems to confuse John Malkovich’s Professor Sandiford’s advice to be his authentic self with just being a prick for little reason, which while set up at the start of the film with advice from Adam Scott’s douchbag art world celeb, is still just being a prick, for little reason.
I’m sure his initial very narrow definition of what constitutes proper art will hit a chord with many, and this is intended in part as a satire of the art world. But Jerome has same mindset for the artist as well as the art, and seems incapable of showing empathy for others, so, in turn we’re not minded to show him any empathy.
But this isn’t dealt with enough for it to be a feature rather than a bug – it’s diet Brechtian, just one calorie, not Bechtian enough. A familiar flavour but none of the sugar rush. The same is true, to an extent, of Ghost World, but it’s somehow less of a concern there – probably because it had better lead actors.
As such, it’s tough to care about the central character’s emotional struggles, which cuts out the heart of the film. There is, however, enough going on around the edges such that this isn’t a complete washout. The supporting cast is pretty good, from the established hands like Malkovich, Angelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi, and also the younger cast like Ethan Suplee and Joel Moore. The slasher sub-plot is not exactly high on the believably index, but makes for a handful of fun scenes towards the end of things which do a bit of papering over the failure of the film’s central thrust.
But, ultimately, it’s not all that remarkable. While planning out this episode I did wonder how this had sailed by me completely, given that I rather like Ghost World, but I now see why. It’s nothing like as awful as its metatomato ratings or its box office flop status would portent, but even with as much generosity as I can muster this isn’t really a film I’d recommend, with the possible exception of those either in or having escaped from art school.
A History of Violence
A History of Violence, based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name, by John Wagner and Vince Locke, adapted for the screen by Josh Olson and directed by David Cronenberg, begins with a couple of drifters (Greg Bryk and the wonderfully-bevoiced Stephen McHattie) committing an act of gratuitous violence at a small Midwestern motel. This bellicose duo will soon find their way to the small, sleepy town of Millbrook, Indiana, where we find Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), living the idyllic small-town life with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and his two children.
Each day after a family breakfast Tom makes his way into work, a small diner on the town’s main street, a place where everything seems to be as you imagine it has been for the last fifty years. One day will be radically different, though. Into his diner after closing time come the duo from the opening scene, like a latter-day Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as eager to hurt people as they are to rob the business. Despite Tom readily offering up all of the money he has, the duo intend to murder one of his employees to demonstrate just how repugnant they are. But using a coffee pot as a weapon, Tom incapacitates one, before a brief scuffle in which the two robbers are dead and the minorly-injured diner-owner is a national hero, at least for the length of the news cycle.
His heroics have brought him unexpected attention, though, and Ed Harris’s Carl Fogarty, a made man in the Irish mafia in Philadelphia, visits the restaurant, claiming to know that Tom is, in fact, not Tom, but a mobster named Joey Cusack. Tom swears this to be a case of mistaken identity, but when Fogarty’s brief campaign of intimidation ends in gore and death, the truth is revealed, and Tom/Joey… Toey… must go to Philadelphia to deal with his history of violence, and possibly lose everything dear to him as a result.
The violence depicted is almost matter of fact; feral, brutal, grotesque, but over in moments. There’s no slow-motion, no stylistic shooting, no lingering shots of the “hero” roundhouse kicking an opponent or emptying a magazine, though we’re brought into it, complicit in it, as we, the audience, want to see these villains punished. The shots that linger, though briefly, are on the results: the dead bodies, the changed, or ended, lives, the effects of the violence.
While there certainly is gore, and A History of Violence is very much an adult film, there’s a perhaps surprising lack of damaged bodies from one of the progenitors of the body horror genre. Indeed, David Cronenberg’s direction and stylings are quite subtle and light of hand, and those play a large part in making it unclear for a long time if Tom is Joey, or if it truly is a case of mistaken identity. The charisma and likeability of Viggo Mortensen help much in this regard, too, of course. He never looks 100% comfortable in the small Indiana town, but is that because he dreamed of something bigger and regrets the small scale of his life and his achievements, or is it because he truly doesn’t belong there? For two thirds of the film it’s ambiguous, but the biggest disappointment I have with the film is that the question is answered too early, with a final act in Philadelphia that feels quite generic, and a frankly less than stellar performance from William Hurt, notably lacking in the menace that Harris brought to the film’s middle portion.
That final act also takes Mortensen away from the similarly excellent Bello (aside from Prisoners I think the only time I’ve seen her in the past decade is the risible The 5th Wave, and that’s criminal), though the film at least reunites them and finishes on uncertainty, and an ambiguous meeting of eyes between the two, leaving us with the question of whether or not his history of violence is, indeed, history, or whether it will cost him all that he fought for.
There’s fun to be had here with Howard Shore’s score, which begins in Millbrook with strains that call to mind the carefree days of the Hobbits in The Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, before transitioning into something broodier and darker as Tom’s life begins to fall apart.
Mortensen and Cronenberg would go on to even greater things in their next collaboration, Eastern Promises, but A History of Violence is a taut and rewarding thriller, let down only by its need to resolve the mystery. How much more satisfying would it have been to never answer the question of Tom’s identity?
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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