> Volume 5 > Number 02

Volume 5, Number 02

This Week's Reviews:  Adaptation., Narc.

This Week's Omissions:  The Crime of Father Amaro, In Praise of Love, Just Married.

Capsule Reviews:  The Hot Chick, They.

Spike Jonze

Nicolas Cage
Meryl Streep
Chris Cooper
Tilda Swinton
Cara Seymour
Brian Cox
Maggie Gyllenhaal

Release: 6 Dec. 02



Characters in 1999's Being John Malkovich paid $50 to spend 15 minutes inside the head of the actor. Three years later, the author of Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman, is giving audiences the ability do something similar but getting a much better deal: now you can spend 2 hours in the head Kaufman for a $10 movie ticket.

Adaptation., Kaufman's -style attempt to create some form of screenplay adaptation out of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, comes with the complete acknowledgment that nothing in the film is free from his extremely active imagination. From beginning to end, the film is wrought with Kaufmanisms that are more than simply a screenwriter brushing up source material, but is actually the deconstruction of one author's work through the psyche of another.

As it turns out, Adaptation. isn't really about Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but instead Kaufman's inability to successfully adapt it (the fact that he does somewhat do this inadvertently is a minor miracle). Struggling to make a cinematic vision out of the metaphorical prose found in Orlean's nonfiction work, Kaufman finds it easier to write about himself (Cage) and his relationship to everyone dealing with the book, including Orlean (Streep) and the book's quasi-subject John LaRoche (Cooper). And, thus, Adaptation. becomes a screenplay about adapting a screenplay in a self-referential, metafilmic vacuum of art and metaphor.

One of the central interests of Orlean in The Orchid Thief is the mystery of the ghost orchid, a rare flower that is said to have immense emotional weight for those who finally see it. Adaptation. the film is Kaufman's ghost orchid, not so much that he may or may not feel satisfied with his work, but in the fact that he actually found it. At many points while watching Adaptation., even though we are privy to the very film he's writing about, it looks doubtful that he'll be able to make sense out of everything.

Perhaps the strongest conceit Kaufman makes is in playing with the reality of his realism -- turning his autobiographical story into the work of clichéd fiction. Like the fact that the John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich was a close facsimile but a different man (the real Malkovich has the middle name Gavin instead of the film's Horatio), the Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation. is close but not quite the same. Not only is Kaufman married and somewhat handsome in reality (unlike his film counterpart), but also he doesn't even have the twin brother Donald who serves as the voice of the populist principals throughout. Though the film is credited to the two men, Donald doesn't exist beyond this film, but his nature seems to be within his supposed sibling.

Reality's Kaufman may be as neurotic as Adaptation.'s Kaufman, but he is surely more stable and controlled than in the film. Donald seems to be the part of Charlie that keeps him from imploding in a rush of second-guessing and self-hatred. Donald is, in many ways, the id of his twin brother, and, by understanding the dynamic to the two characters, it becomes clear why Adaptation. becomes the clichéd thriller script Donald has received immense acclaim for. I found it interesting that, in a film that wanted to embrace the absurdities of life, the most lovable lug on the screen was the imprudent figment who personified the formulaic side of Hollywood.

In one of the film's funniest moments, Robert McKee, the famed screenwriting mogul portrayed here with gusto by Brian Cox, tells a seminar group, "For God's sake, don't use a deus ex machina!" oblivious to the fact that nearly every facet of the film he's inhabiting is one. Donald, McKee, deconstructionist variations of Orlean and LaRoche, the contrivances that can be found in both Donald's The 3 script and in the final act of Adaptation., and even this film's real author are deus ex machina in their own way. Not since Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys has a film so proudly embraced the virtues of fiction and the realities that they can create. It is fitting that Hanson appears momentarily as Orlean's husband even though Orlean isn't really married.

I've spent hours pondering the depth, the nuances, and the utter lies that can be found in Adaptation., and each time I become more enthralled with the achievement that it beholds. Immediately after watching, I was puzzled by the film's acclaim -- though I thought that it was certainly well written and had enjoyed many of its attempts to conventionalize the unconventional by showing just how beautiful the unconventional can really be, I was not enthralled. But each subsequent hour since, I've become more compliant to the film's faults (though he did wonders for Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze's work on Adaptation. isn't quite as seamless) and more appreciative of what it had done.

Adaptation. could be the year's greatest experiment, an exquisite amalgam of fact and fiction, life and film. Rarely has a film succeeded in not only capturing the audience's imagination with its lies, but also made them wonder just how true those fallacies may be. Charlie Kaufman may be the biggest liar in Hollywood, but his bizarre lies are so damn compelling.

©2003, David Perry,, 10 January 2003

Joe Carnahan

Jason Patric
Ray Liotta
Krista Bridges
Chi McBride
Alan Van Sprang
Anne Openshaw

Release: 20 Dec. 02



Joe Carnahan's Narc played at last year's Sundance Film Festival with so little fanfare that most people in attendance probably had no idea it was there. This is no surprise, though, when you consider that the genre work found in the film hasn't been en vogue at Park City since Quentin Tarantino came into the place with Reservoir Dogs in 1992.

The stark heist film that Tarantino made is not terribly unlike the stark police film Carnahan has made, though their levels of success are certainly unalike. What they share, though, is an uncommon adoration/emulation of the cinema past. They both revel in the noir of Kiss Me Deadly and the grit of The French Connection, though their respective relationships to their precursors help to establish the tenacity of these two men and the perfection within their films: Tarantino seems to giddily rejoice in every homage he can include while Carnahan tries to hide the associations.

If Narc is a success -- which it is, to a point -- it's because of the films that it brings to mind more than the film itself. While the blood, guts, and bullets (add 'octane' and you unsurprisingly have the title of Carnahan's previous film) of Narc have their own Detroit harshness that comes gracefully to the director, the storyline brings so many elements from Serpico, The French Connection, and even L.A. Confidential that the entire film seems to be headed in the same predictable direction that has hampered any especially overused genre.

The reason that these police films have become old hat is that the video industry, for better or worse, has been an ever-present opening for small, independent ventures. The fact that most of these films are deservedly sent straight to video helps to establish the uneasiness these films bring to the cinema community. Everyone wants to be Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, and their subjects always seem to be cops or gangsters.

Narc tries its best to overcome these obstacles by blurring the lines between cop and criminal, drama and camp. Carnahan's achievement, then, is the overall impression created: that he is finding something new in the decrepit frame he's working in. Narc, for all its misgivings, is astonishingly engrossing even when dealing with the same issues and scenarios that we've seen dozens of times in the last decade.

Take for example the opening of the film, as Carnahan sends a handheld camera in a chaotic chase between narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Patric) and a dealer escaping with two syringes filled with a drug of some sort. We've seen this type of hectic chase before in better films -- especially Popeye Doyle's car chase in The French Connection -- but Carnahan and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy create the atmosphere of innovation, as if they preceded Thomas Vinterberg, Eduardo Sanchez, and Daniel Myrick in the handheld monopoly of the foot pursuit.

The rest of the film continues this hectic photography, though Carnahan does have the sense to slow things down for the occasional moment of character development. This could have become a bore -- sound and fury signifying nothing -- but the relationship between Carnahan's characters are so commanding that the audience cannot take their eyes off the two. No matter how much I complain about the film's lackings in reference to The French Connection, Narc can take solace in the fact that both of the film's protagonist and his partner are memorable, unlike Popeye Doyle's partner Cloudy Russo.

The secret, though, is not in Patric's work as Tellis since that role is specially written to command most of the screen time. Unlike his partner Henry Oak (Liotta), Tellis is given every chance to come to life on the screen, ranging from the film's opening scene to the tender moments of him holding his infant son in the shower. Thus it is more estimable that Liotta, who put on weight that turns him from pretty boy into heavy instantaneously, becomes the most memorable thing about the film.

Liotta's work in Narc could be the actor's finest moment, which is quite notable considering his incredible performances in such films as GoodFellas, Corrina, Corrina, and Blow. Though this is the type of bloated supporting roles that merits such work, Liotta spends much of the film chewing the scenery and every other character in his constant tirades. Even when the storyline goes into coincidental and uninteresting tangents, Liotta continues to fill the screen with his presence, one of the most engulfing presences in recent years.

Narc may not be the grand reviver of a dying genre (à la Chicago), but it is, like Liotta, an engulfing presence. Not for a moment does the film lapse into boredom (trivialness yes, tedium no) and its impact for nearly 2 hours is one of grit, sweat, and pain. All this sounds awfully like The French Connection, even if it never meets those levels of accomplishment.

©2003, David Perry,, 10 January 2003


The Hot Chick

The potty humor is in full force in Tom Brady's The Hot Chick.  Instead of saving a football franchise, though, this Brady is more interested in trying to prove just how uncomfortable it is to be living in the wrong body -- a possible comment on transgenderism, though touching on a subject that heavy is certainly a by-product of Rob Schneider's stupifying actions.  Most of the cast play the game happily and their involvement helps the film to remain watchable even if the antics become a bore.

Tom Brady

Rob Schneider
Rachel McAdams
Anna Faris
Matthew Lawrence
Alexandra Holden

Release: 13 Dec. 02

©2003, David Perry,, 10 January 2003

The fearful symmetry of childhood nightmares and adult waking life makes for a compelling little horror film in Robert Harmon's They.  Though the film begins to wrinkle around the edges as Harmon tries desperately to find the suspense willowing in the visuals of his horrible creatures, the suspense that comes in the interim -- filled with darkness and an eerie Elia Cmiral score -- are genuinely frightening..

Robert Harmon

Laura Regan
Ethan Embry
Dagmara Dominczyk
Marc Blucas
Jon Abrahams

Release: 28 Nov. 02

©2003, David Perry,, 10 January 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry