Category: Books

BASED ON: The Coen Brothers Re-Imagine the West in Oscar-Nominated ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film anthology written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen based on short stories written by the Coen brothers, a short story: The Gal Who Got Rattled, by Stewart Edward White and a short story: All Gold Canyon, by Jack London.

Joel and Ethan Coen mostly flew under the radar this awards season. It’s a shame, because their latest project, the Western-themed film anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stands to be the most groundbreaking of the Oscar-nominated films. To the best of my knowledge, I believe this is the first English-language anthology of short films to be nominated for Oscars: best adapted screenplay, best costume design and best original song. Wild Tales from a few years back, was also an anthology film and competed in the foreign-language category as Argentina’s submission.

As one of my complaints with Oscar-baiting films lies in the often overly long running times, Buster Scruggs arrives as the perfect antidote. That the anthology plays on the streaming service Netflix, also shows that short film content has a place: watch one of the shorts ranging from 17 to 37 minutes over a lunch break, and over a week’s time, a viewer consumes some top-flight entertainment.

I can also say that with an octogenarian father in the early stages of dementia, the anthology format serves an overlooked demographic that would otherwise get lost in the storytelling of the longer feature format.

Four of the six short films were originally short stories written by the Coen brothers over the course of nearly two decades. As I couldn’t find the originals anywhere, I’ll presume the writer-directors were faithful to their own material. Every story entertains for sure, yet, as I’ve often claimed, the Coen brothers operating as the most (albeit subtly) religiously alert filmmakers, each tale offers some critique of the American experiment that transcends hobbyhorse political stances.

Questioning the obsession with firearms in the opening, titular short segment challenges right-wing America. Leftists likewise may feel needled with the points made in some of the intermediate stories. Indians were indeed as brutal to the white settlers (and other tribes) as these others were to them. A multiple-amputee character in the anthology’s best story is depicted with dignity and value, even with the underlying tension of his friend considering administering some Old West version of euthanasia.

The Coens adapt two other tales from turn-of-the-last century authors. They examine the limitations on individual liberty in Stewart Edward White’s The Gal Who Got Rattled, originally published in The Century Magazine (1901). A pioneer woman, after a week’s worth of wagon train travel, desires only a moment of solitude in the vast plains. Leaving the security of the circled wagons brings about its perils — her short-lived emancipation is interrupted with unsympathetic Sioux warriors appearing on the horizon. The Coens remain faithful to the story, while fleshing out the characterization of the Indian tribes. In the culminating battle scene, the Sioux appear better coordinated and bolder than the bumbling men Edward White originally depicted.

The two filmmaking brothers stay even truer to Jack London’s All Gold Canyon (1906). London writes the landscapes of the West with a heavily detailed style reminiscent of a Frederick Remington painting. The film’s cinematography captures these panoramas beautifully, leaving me wishing I had watched this on IMAX and not my laptop. Amidst this beauty, however, resides a dark tale of unbridled capitalism: a tragic gold rush between two competitors. The six stories intermix both glory and adventure with sorrow and brutality, lying bare, the good, the bad and the ugly of our nation’s untamed beginnings.

Image: Netflix

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: Life on the Cross in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

If Beale Street Could Talk, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), based on a James Baldwin novel of the same title. (Warning: rated R. Even more graphic content in the novel.)

The works of James Baldwin have seen a resurgence in recent years. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary told solely through the words of Baldwin: his essays, interviews, lectures and other non-fiction works. Both the film and the primary sources pack a great deal of political power.

I was unaware of his fictional writings until the release of the critically claimed and awards nominated film, If Beale Street Could Talk. Upon reading the book, I realized the story was unique in that it was essentially a story devoid of a structure. By non-structure, I mean that it did not follow typical Western literature rules such as act structure and character arcs.

In the briefest of summaries, the first half of the book deals with a young African-American couple falling in love … much to the chagrin of the young man’s devout mother. What follows is a graphic description of the consummation of that lust. The second half of the novel commences after a corrupt policeman frames the young man for a sexual assault. The families attempt to exact some justice, hiring a well-intentioned lawyer, and going so far as taking an out-of-country trip to find the alleged female victim, but they’re ultimately trapped in limbo. The young woman and her son long for a husband and father unjustly separated from them. A third act never materializes.

A novelist, essayist, activist and playwright, Baldwin’s words posses more of a stark and objective reality. Barry Jenkins’ big screen adaptation provides more artful fine strokes. His cinematography captures some of the more beautiful compositions in a film from last year. The principal characters, after all are themselves beautiful. Even in the prison scenes that conclude the film, the young man is shown weary, but his good looks are retained, only assuming a more rugged quality.

The editing as well, reinforces the non-story structure. The incident of police corruption and brutality fractures the two families’ worlds. The resulting non-linear flashback style, then serves its dramatic purpose. Jenkins improves upon the Baldwin work, a novel written almost exclusively in temporal order.

Thematically, the book and film achieve their greatest feat. Beale Street avoids the path (pun intended) that another period film, The Favourite, unfortunately takes. Even if ahistorical, the three female characters in The Favourite behave badly in their ruling of Great Britain, given license, I suppose because men did the same in the dynasties prior. Women acting like men, I would venture, hardly constitutes a feminist story ,as nothing really pertaining to womanhood is depicted.

Jenkins’ story and its underlying lack of traditional structure however, capture the minority experience of America. In many cases, the director posits, African-Americans are deprived the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The key lies in the title, Beale Street, a familiar cultural marker in the black community. Jenkins phrases the title as a question: “If” blacks didn’t have the system rigged against them, maybe the “talking” of the stories could display complete, three-act, happily-ever-afters.

Alas, for now, it seems such stories will remain akin to something a wise priest once told me in seminary. Especially, in the developing world, some people don’t experience a resurrection in this lifetime. They’re born suffering and die in suffering. Perhaps, too with Jenkins’ sobering film, we see a  birth of the two-act structure: stories that begin and end on the cross.

Image: Annapurna Pictures

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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Based On: HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Throws a Brutal Italian Twist on a Female Coming-of-Age Story

The latest in a series from Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions.

My Brilliant Friend, an HBO series (Italian with English subtitles) directed by Saverio Costanzo, based on the first novel, “My Brilliant Friend,” of the Neapolitan Quartet written by Elena Ferrante; translated from the original Italian by Ann Goldstein. (TV-MA violence, some language, one scene of naturalistic nudity)

Imagine if one of Jane Austen’s female-coming-of-age works was relocated from genteel, well-appointed England and landed flat in the middle of brutal, poverty-ridden southern Italy, and you would have some inkling of the ferocity of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.

Best friends Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenu” Greco meet in primary school and navigate the mean streets of 1950s Naples. The two are the smartest of their class and often singled out by their maestros as exemplary students. Despite the ubiquitous crucifixes that adorn every private business, public-school room and home, Neapolitans take most their social and moral cues, it seems, from the unofficial rulers of the day — black market mob bosses, embodied in this story by the aptly named Don Achille Carracci.

Violence marks many a public business transaction and informs the private dysfunction of the families who bear witness to it, day after miserable day. In the novel, a reader might almost miss the violence, the narrator; Lenu refers to it in fleeting, haunting prose. Adapting the material to the small screen, however, we see the brutality as the characters did, unflinching and in-your-face. HBO’s TV series (which recently ended its weekly run; and is now available On Demand and on HBO GO/HBO NOW) does not glorify it, but provides context for how scarred (and in some cases, inured) the townspeople become.

The childhood chapter ends with the murder of Don Achille. Some relief then is provided to the main characters by episode three, where we meet Lenu as she prepares to begin secondary school. Lila, the smarter of the two, can’t convince her parents to pay for her continued schooling and instead cobbles in their shoe-store, while voraciously reading books as an autodidact.

The story lost a layer of complexity when they changed Lenu’s course of studies from theology in the novel to Latin and Greek in the television series. Exposed to a world beyond the four-walled village, Lenu begins to question many things, the insularity of her hometown and the faith handed off to her. I’ve only read one novel, thus far, and hold a cautious optimism that the healthy questioning on her part will lead to greater faith later on.

The best part of both the novel and the TV series (and quite frankly in any TV show since Downton Abbey) are the courtship rituals. This staunchly Catholic neighborhood observes the most conservative of rites. Want to ask out the much fawned after Lila or Lenu? Ask one of their stern fathers, first. The old ways make for the best ways of storytelling. The period setting of the series requires the creative forces behind the series to eek out sexual tension and romance without peddling flesh.

Lenu and Lila arrive at Carracci’s to purchase their family’s Christmas grocery lists only to finds themselves at the end of an interminably long line. Brothers Stefano and Alfonso Carracci notice them and expedite their purchase. The charity does not happen without motive as Alfonso invites their families to the Carracci New Year’s Eve party. Teen crushes provide the setting for reconciliation of families otherwise opposed on the political spectrum and much stratified on the economic ladder.

I don’t speak Italian, but the writing and acting are so impeccably executed that I don’t feel I lose out on the rare humorous moments. Various suitors, including the most handsome of the village, Marcelo Solara, pursue Lila. Again, the social mores of the time demand Marcelo’s best-rehearsed flirt. He states he dreamt of her last night. Unimpressed, Lila responds: What of? That he proposed marriage to her. What was my response? Yes. Then, it really must have been a dream.

Image: HBO

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer’ and the Book That Preceded It

 

Earl Billings as Dr. Kermit Gosnell

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, reviews the new true-crime procedural film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, released Oct. 12, and the book that preceded it, Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer — both were based on grand-jury testimony, news reports and trial transcripts.

Married couple Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney produced the film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, basing it on a book of a similar title. The style of filmmaking follows the book closely, a verbatim account of Philadelphia abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, convicted of grisly murders at his decrepit abortion clinic.

(Note: While the film discusses grisly and horrific crimes, it is not gory or sensationalized. There is no sex or overt violence. Its PG-13 rating refers to adult themes and things more implied than shown. That said, it’s probably not suitable for anyone under its stated age range.)

The book and film rely on police reports, grand-jury testimony, the court stenographer and interviews with Gosnell himself (subsequent to his conviction). The account of Gosnell’s misdeeds left me speechless as the crimes were unraveled in 2010; the movie elicits the same response now. One illustration of the banality: Gosnell felt it appropriate to gleefully play classical music on his grand piano as Feds search his home, following a more recent search of his clinic which uncovered jarred baby parts from previous abortions.

The verbatim approach follows a rarely utilized adaptation style most famously realized in The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this silent film’s source material was based entirely on St. Joan of Arc’s heresy trial transcript. The stark, silent format that 1920s technology demanded actually worked to the film’s advantage. The back-and-forth interrogation between the saint and her inquisitors needed no embellishment from a screenwriter. The story speaks for itself. An innocent young woman dies at the hands of an overweening religious tribunal. The viewer, then has the opportunity to respond to St. Joan’s witness or not.

Philadelphia and federal law enforcement, city prosecutors, a journalist blogger and later, filmmakers, faced Gosnell’s brutal crimes in their verbatim form. They all played parts in not shirking from this evil, but instead exposed it in all its gruesome literalism and brutality.

Most suspiciously absent from the expose was (ironically enough) the institution most entrusted with uncovering truth and exposing lies … the mainstream media. As documented in the film and book, one journalist blogger snapped a photo of any empty journalist gallery and posted it to social media. A lay Twitter campaign publicly shamed traditional media outlets into sending their journalists to cover the trial. I would posit blame at human knuckleheadedness and typical shying-away from admitting some conspiratorial media blackout, but recent events might prove me wrong.

The book’s release immediately made it a bestseller, but the New York Times initially refused to place it on its list, despite empirical book sales demonstrating otherwise. Perhaps, more jaw-dropping was National Public Radio’s denial of the filmmakers’ attempt to pay for ad spots referring to Gosnell as an abortion doctor, even though the radio station’s own previous scant reporting on the case used the very same title.

I prefer themes subtly massaged into the media I both consume and produce. After all, our own Savior spoke through parables, metaphors and good ole-fashioned stories. When confronted with evil so depraved, there’s something to be said about lifting high the Cross and exposing evil in all its lurid detail. Does one respond with facing evil head on and administering justice, or retreat back into a bed of lies, blanketed by sins of omission?

Image: Courtesy Hat Tip Films

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: Netflix’s ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ and the Book That Inspired It

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, screenplay by Don Roos, directed by Mike Newell based on a novel of the same title written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

The Netflix original movie tells the story of the German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey during WWII and the ways in which the tiny island community copes with their situation. In some ways, they’re creative in their predicament: one small band forms a reading group, of sorts. In other ways, occupation becomes a veritable prison for the inhabitants and boredom ensues, evidenced by the serving of potato-peel pies as the culinary staple of choice.

The novel executes the story by way of written letters between the main characters. After the conclusion of the war, Juliet Ashton (played by the lovely Lily James of Downton Abbey fame) hears of the underground literary society and begins a written dialogue with the former members, in hopes of impressing her publisher in London. The entire novel then, alternates in these back and forth letters between her and the society. When she arrives at the island at novel’s mid-point, correspondence in this same letter form continues between her and her publisher, Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode).

The novel’s chosen medium is essentially personal narration for nearly 300 pages — it’s like reading dialogue the entire time, without there actually existing a line of dialogue. It makes for a tedious read to say the least. To borrow language from the translation field, I’m glad the filmmakers decided not to adapt this using formal equivalence. For had the film told the story entirely through letters, as the novel did, it would have required tremendous amounts of voiceover … a smart choice only if Terrence Malick directs your film.

Don Roos’ best adaptation technique is to write the story more in real time — Juliet interviews the islanders on past events, and her poking and prodding create the effect of an engaging procedural. Juliet soon uncovers the central tension between society members. They provide cover for Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, also from Downton Abbey) who mothered an out-of-wedlock daughter with one of the German officers.

Reading these events in the novel’s letters format produced what I would call a “settled effect.” Since the letters reference a past sin, the only thing left to do on the other side of its committal is to offer forgiveness. With the filmmakers’ adaptation choice to dispense with most of the letter writing, the morality takes on a more immediate effect. When Juliet first learns of Elizabeth cavorting with the Germans, an innkeepers’ judgmental quip on the whole indiscretion takes on a more considerable bite.

A wise screenwriting professor once told me when adapting material, try to answer the question: “What is the one thing the story is about?” The filmmakers accomplished that in capably updating this story of mercy and forgiveness. Discerning the “form” through which the novel tells the story, and determining whether or not that suited the big screen, was an even better question the filmmakers answered.

Image: Courtesy Netflix

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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BASED ON: Our Father Vince Kuna Looks at Spike Lee’s ‘BlackKkKlansman’ and the Book That Inspired It

Editor: First in a new series by our producer-at-large, USC film school grad Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., that looks at a movie based on a book.

He begins with the recent feature film “BlackKkKlansman,” co-written and directed by Spike Lee, based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth by the same title.

It’s R-Rated and definitely NOT for the family audience.

Set against the idyllic mountains of 1970s Colorado Springs, “BlackKkKlansman” tells the real life story of Ron Stallworth, police officer and the Jackie Robinson of his profession. Stallworth put up with a tremendous amount of discrimination in breaking the color barrier for black detectives in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Prior to going onto a long and distinguished career in law enforcement, Stallworth infiltrated the city’s growing chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.

The set piece of both the memoir and film begins when the department quickly promotes Stallworth (played by John David Washington (HBO’s “Ballers”; yes, Denzel’s son) from archival work to the more enviable intelligence division. Upon discovering a promotion for the KKK in the local newspaper, Stallworth leaves a message for the answering machine. To his surprise, the local knight calls him back and invites him to meet some of the other Klansman. His first investigation begins. Stallworth’s colleagues are less impressed and in fact are amused at the phone call … Stallworth accidentally gave his real name. Rookie mistake! As KKK members would never accept someone not of their own skin color, it will be up to Stallworth’s Jewish partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of Stallworth, while the real Stallworth will continue to supply his own voice.

As you probably have gathered by now, Stallworth’s memoir achieves an absurdist, yet comedic vibe. The film’s best attribute lies in Spike Lee’s ability to pull off this very tone. Phone conversations between the real Stallworth and Grand Knight, David Duke (Topher Grace), are guffaw-inducing and would be more hilarious, if not for the racist content serving as a disturbing undertone. Real-life encounters between Zimmeran’s “Stallworth” and Klan members are well-executed by Driver. He quite capably feigns a racist persona for the sake of the investigation. Both characters, in effect, do as Christ did, not fighting ugliness with more ugliness, but absorbing some of the worst parts of their enemies and turning it against them, exposing evil for what it is. “Infiltrate hate,” the tagline goes of the film goes. Not “flee” or “fight” hate as the world often demands.

The biggest addition to the film, not found anywhere in the memoir is the romance between Stallworth and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a fictitious Colorado College student and leader of the school’s Black Student Union. This subplot was to enhance Stallworth’s character: he’s sympathetic to his people’s cause and even smitten with Dumas, but nonetheless doesn’t fall in with the militant means of affecting change that at times, plagued civil rights activism.

The better story lies in reality, however. In his memoir, Stallworth recounts a concurrent episode where a 15-year-old black boy named David Scott Lee murdered a young white male outside a 24-hour diner. Stallworth agreed with the conviction as it was a clear cut, cold-blooded murder. The local predominately black Baptist church took issue with the ruling and, in what Stallworth felt was a desperate plea for self-promotion, invited Dr. Ralph David Abernathy (successor to MLK as Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader) to bring attention to the closed case and thus, their church. Stallworth warned Abernathy of his being co-opted by the local church.

Lee makes no mention of this story. It’s a shame, because the real-life Stallworth rose above partisan politics, living out his profession in terms of right and wrong, the criminals and the innocent, irrespective of whether they wear police blues or not. Lee on the other hand, can’t quite seem to extricate himself from seeing the world solely in black and white, ending the film with an upside down Old Glory drained of its Red, White and Blue. The film ends on a downer, whereas the real-life Ron Stallworth provided hope. The reality of his memoir, it seems, is indeed better than the historical fiction of the movie.

Image: Courtesy Focus Features

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