Wandering with Scissors or Lost in Translation might have been better titles for writer-director Ryan Murphy’s big screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s popular memoir, Running with Scissors. Films based on popular novels can range from dead-on (Mystic River, The Silence of the Lambs), to so-so (The Firm), to downright awful (Bonfire of the Vanities). Running with Scissors falls somewhere between the latter two categories: it’s not an atrocity, just a thorough disappointment.
It’s possible the material itself doesn’t lend itself to film. Burroughs is a funny writer, and the book details his horror-filled childhood (a mentally unstable mother who lets her equally unstable shrink adopt him) with irony and humor. However, the book is episodic and the film falls into the same trap (in many ways, his second novel, Dry, which chronicles Burroughs’s battle with alcohol, would be more easily adaptable). What was so fresh about Running with Scissors as a book seems stale and odd on film.
A large part of the fault lies at Murphy’s feet. To start with, the film really isn’t Augusten’s story. Joseph Cross is very appealing as the young writer, but in Murphy’s hands, he’s an observer to his own life. There are a few moments of perfunctory narration, none of which have the comic bite of Burroughs’s book. Secondly, Murphy cannot find or maintain a consistent tone. Initially, he wants us to laugh at Augusten’s whacked-out mom Deirdre (Annette Bening) with condescension; later, when he tries to play her plight for sympathy, it doesn’t work as well as it should. A keener adaptation would’ve let the irony come from Augusten, not from the performances.
As good a cast as Murphy has assembled here, there is an element of “cute” in some of their acting. Bening’s performance in particular smacks of self-awareness and frequently threatens to head into Mommie Dearest territory. Cox, who’s a wonderful character actor (see L.I.E. or Manhunter) is oddly aloof as the doctor and overly self-satisfied about the comic nature of his character. Evan Rachel Wood is well cast as the psychiatrist’s rebel daughter, but Murphy forces her to enact T.V. movie theatrics that nobody could pull off. The best players, ironically, have some of the smaller parts. Jill Clayburgh and Alec Baldwin (as the psychiatrist’s long-suffering wife and Burroughs’s boozy, absentee father, respectively) underplay their roles to lovely effect. Gwyneth Paltrow is hoot in her tiny role as the psychiatrist’s favorite daughter. Unfortunately, these characters are crowded by a parade of supporting characters (including Kristen Chenoweth, Gabrielle Union, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Patrick Wilson), none of whom add anything to the story.
Perhaps the oddest member of this ensemble is Joseph Fiennes as Burroughs’s mentally unstable first lover, Neil. Fiennes, who was so charming in Shakespeare in Love, is decked out here like Andy Kaufman, with a personality to match. Affecting a nasal, not-totally-convincing American accent, Fiennes yells, screams and all but froths at the mouth—but not at Augusten. A crucial part of the book was Burroughs’s troubled relationship with the 35 year-old Neil. On one hand, Murphy and Fiennes make Neil so weird you can’t imagine Augusten being attracted to him. On the other hand, Neil is just a puppy dog around Augusten, awkward instead of sexually violent.
The errors of Neil’s characterization are in many ways emblematic of Murphy’s failure as a whole. He soft-pedals a lot of the truly shocking material in Burroughs’s book, and when he leaves something in, he can’t seem to stop nudging us in the ribs to see if we get the “joke.” The film has moments where its potential can been seen and his cast couldn’t be better (save for Bening, who I think was a poor choice). Ultimately, Running with Scissors never takes off because the film has a bigger identity crisis than the main character.
By strange coincidence, I went to see Catch a Fire only day after having the great privilege of seeing The Battle of Algiers on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive, something that I wouldn’t mention if not for the thematic similarity of the two films: like Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, Catch a Fire is very much concerned with the questions of whether or not terrorism is ever justified and to what lengths it is acceptable for a government to go to in order to preserve itself. And, until the film’s last few minutes, it is a thought-provokingly complex examination of its subject.
Catch a Fire is set in apartheid South Africa, and opens with a montage of radio voiceovers setting the stage for the film. Shortly, it focuses in on its main character, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a foreman at the Secunda power plant and loving husband and father. Chamusso disapproves strongly of the terrorist actions of the African National Congress, and concentrates his energy on doing his job and providing for his family. One day, however, as Chamusso is driving himself and his young soccer team back into Secunda, there is an explosion at the power plant; by a bizarre set of unfortunate coincidences and circumstances Chamusso is implicated in the plot and arrested. After a long period in which he is kept prisoner and tortured for information, his captor, South African anti-terrorism policeman Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), realizes that he is telling the truth and lets him go. The experience, however, enrages Chamusso, and he goes to become in truth what the police had incorrectly thought him to be: a terrorist and a member of the African National Congress.
Derek Luke as Chamusso gives what is easily his best performance to date – his transformation from affable bystander to enraged revolutionary is absolutely believable, and he brings an intensity to the role that makes Chamusso both sympathetic and charismatic. He is well-complemented by Bonnie Henna as Precious Chamusso, the wife of Patrick Chamusso, who gives a strong but uninspired performance. Tim Robbins, though, seemingly overlooked for Luke’s performance in this, is really the soul of the movie: his performance as Vos creates a character that is alternately despicable and thoroughly sympathetic. Seeing him with his family at times adds greatly to the success of the movie. It would have been easy for director Philip Noyce to turn Catch a Fire into a black-and-white anti-apartheid morality play and turn Vos into nothing but a cardboard villain. Robbins’s superbly subtle performance, though, prevents this from happening, and Vos instead becomes a tragically human character, someone who is trying to do his job well and believes absolutely that what he does is right. This portrayal, in fact, may be what is most chilling about Catch a Fire, which succeeds very well in portraying the moral ambiguity of the situation up until the final five minutes.
Catch a Fire is a good movie, but not a great one, and it is certainly not Friday-evening entertainment, but it is one of the best, most thought-provoking movies that I have seen this year. The ending is weak, yes, but the performances from the two leads are excellent, and the movie gains a great deal by avoiding taking sides. I would recommend going to see The Battle of Algiers first, but Catch a Fire is no poor substitute.
I have been waiting for the release of Saw III since the second Saw II ended. I’ve never been a huge fan of horror movie franchises, mainly because they start to get boring about halfway through the second movie. After being so pleased with Saw II, Saw III had a lot to live up to – and it did.
More disgusting, more painful to watch, and more twisted than the first two, the contraptions and devices in this film are the work of a sick, sick writing team. Each torture scene had me tensing every muscle in my body until it was over and I could breathe a sigh of relief – not that the person survived, necessarily, but just that I didn’t have to watch the pain and suffering anymore.
This film finds Jigsaw on his death bed. Amanda, his protege, kidnaps a talented young doctor to keep him alive to see one last test subject. Dr. Lynn is strapped into one of Amanda’s devices to keep her within parameters and to ensure that if Jigsaw dies, she dies. While Lynn tries desperate measures to prolong Jigsaw’s life, his test subject Jeff is struggling through a maze similar to the house in the second movie. There are several tests for him to complete, with each bringing him closer to escaping from the house.
Several flashback scenes reveal the origins of Amanda and Jigsaw’s relationship, which from the previous two films we knew a little bit about. Flashback sequences also explain what happened to poor Detective Matthews from Saw II, and just how that evil-looking little puppet came to look so creepy.
Shawnee Smith was perfect reprising her role as Amanda for the third time. She’s emotional and on-edge, yet at times eerily calm and sadistic. (Side note: She looks fantastic with the long hair.) Bahar Soomekh (who most will recognize from Crash) is wonderful as Dr. Lynn – a talented doctor who’s made some mistakes in her personal life. Angus Macfayden is Jeff, the test subject who has a grudge to overcome.
Still scary as hell, even on his death bed, is Tobin Bell as Jigsaw/John Kramer. His calm demeanor even in the face of death shows you that no matter how weak he looks, he is always in control.
Overall, I’d say it was an excellent movie. Special effects and makeup were horribly realistic. The actors were fantastic. Even the scene transitions were impressive. After waiting 364 days to see this film, I’m one satisfied horror fan. Leigh Whannell, James Wan, and Darren Lynn Bousman – thank you for making my Halloween weekend awesome once again.