Steve Jobs: A Play in Three Acts

I came out of Steve Jobs, the movie, feeling more like I’d watched a play than a film.

I still feel that way, six days later. This isn’t a complaint. I love theater. And Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, started out as a playwright; it’s something he’s good at. If theatrical structure is what appeals to him in movies, then that’s the kind of movie he should write, but it leaves the movie feeling strangely uncinematic.

Steve Jobs is a movie in three acts. Yes, I know that screenwriting theory says that every movie has three acts: the first to set up the characters, the setting and the problem; the second to show the characters attempting and failing to resolve the problem; the third to show the resolution. But Steve Jobs doesn’t do that. It really has three acts, where you can almost feel the curtain falling on one act and rising on the next. I wanted to stand up, stretch my legs, run to the restroom, get a cup of coffee — you know, the way you do during intermission at the theater. No such luck.

Each act of Steve Jobs follows the same template. Jobs is about to introduce a new product (the Macintosh, the Next workstation, the iMac). The same people (John Sculley, Steve Wozniak, Andy Hertzberg, Joanne Hoffman, Lisa Brennan-Jobs,  and — in the first two acts — Chrisann Brennan) come up to him and complain, usually about the same things they were complaining about in the previous act. (Note that there’s no historical evidence that these people actually made these complaints at, or even attended, these product introductions; Sorkin is exercising dramatic license here, compressing the events and conflicts of a lifetime into a few short scenes.) Then Jobs steps out on stage and the crowd goes wild. Brief news montages are slotted in where the intermissions belong.

Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen as Steves Jobs and Wozniak

Sorkin finds a dramatic arc here not so much in the product introductions as in Jobs’ evolving relationship with his daughter Lisa. In the first act Jobs refuses to acknowledge that he’s her father, though you see a spark between them when she discovers MacPaint, the Mac’s innovatively mouse-driven graphics program. In the second there’s a growing bond between them, as you see Jobs fretting over his daughter’s fraught relationship with her difficult and erratic mother. In the third…well, watch the film. There’s no great revelation at the end, only a sense that Jobs has made a small emotional journey, but it’s an arc. This arc is no more supported by history than the circus of characters at the product launches. Once again, Sorkin is taking dramatic license. He’s allowed to. He’s a dramatist. (I kid, but I love Sorkin. I’ve watched the West Wing pilot at least six times now and I still cry every time.)

Is it a good movie? Well, it’s largely lacking in the signature flashiness that director Danny Boyle brought to movies like Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. I miss that flashiness. I still get a thrill thinking about the moment in 127 Hours when Boyle spins the camera around James Franco, trapped in a cave and enjoying his few minutes of daily sunshine while Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” plays on the soundtrack. But this is more Sorkin’s movie than Boyle’s, auteurism be damned. (Sorkin is one of two screenwriters who in recent years have stolen the auteurist spotlight from the directors of the films they write. The other is Charlie Kaufman, who eventually turned to directing, something that Sorkin seems to have no interest in.)

Flashy or not, Steve Jobs is still immensely watchable. It’s fascinating without being entirely riveting. Sorkin’s dialog is always listenable, even when you find yourself thinking that it’s more the kind of thing Aaron Sorkin would write than the kind of thing these characters would say. And Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t look much like Jobs but manages a near perfect mimicry of his reedy voice, is one of the most watchable actors currently making films. Throw in terrific supporting performances by Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels, each of them worthy of a Best Supporting Oscar, and the film begins to look like a small wonder of pitch-perfect narrative compression, as efficient a machine as the iPhone. It helps if you followed the events that it depicts in the computer press, but it isn’t essential. Everything that you need to know about them is in Sorkin’s script.

I’m waiting for the stage version, though. Seriously, I’d go see it, even at today’s wildly inflated ticket prices, especially if Fassbender was in it. (If you think the price of movie tickets is bad, it’s because you haven’t been to a Broadway show recently. Pay your 18 bucks for the IMAX theater and be grateful.) Steve Jobs would feel more at home under a proscenium arch than it does on the screen. It’s mostly set in three interchangeable green rooms, which would be easy enough to stage. And a live performance would give it an immediacy that it doesn’t have on film.

Don’t wait for the play before you see the movie, though. It’s worth seeing and I’m sure both Sorkin and Boyle would appreciate it if you watched in the theater. Or at least on Netflix.

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Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Age of Multidimensional Media

It wasn’t until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the last six episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I realized just how radical an experiment Marvel Studios is performing with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies and TV shows.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down in flames.

I’m a huge fan of serial TV shows. The broadcast networks have traditionally objected to them because they don’t rerun well and are hard for viewers to catch up with if they haven’t been watching from the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where, if a show doesn’t have a serious serial continuity, I don’t have any interest in watching it. It turns out that the formula developed many decades ago on radio for soap operas is, in fact, ideal for showcasing what makes television in many ways superior to movies — i.e., the long-term ability to develop characters, relationships and situations such that the whole of a television series becomes greater than any of its individual episodes. But what Marvel Studios is doing with the MCU is even better than serial television. They’ve taken the concept of serial content in a series — of movies, of TV shows — and made it three or even four dimensional. They’re effectively doing something that I’ve only seen done before in one medium: comic books.

Let me back up for a moment. Marvel Studios is the Hollywood wing of Marvel Entertainment Group, which also publishes the Marvel line of comics. That’s the line where, back in the early 1960s, writer/editor Stan Lee and a few artists, primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created what have become some of the most popular superheroes ever to don spandex unitards. The difference is that, in the 60s, their popularity was isolated to comic books and a few animated television shows. Today their popularity has expanded to movies and live-action television (though one character, the Incredible Hulk, achieved live-action TV success as far back as the late 1970s).

Marvel Studios was initially created in 1996 as a clearing house for licensing movie and TV rights to those heroes and, though it did a remarkably good job of attracting buyers, those buyers did an even better job of making money from Marvel-owned properties. Sony parlayed the Amazing Spider-Man into an ongoing series of summer blockbusters and Twentieth Century Fox has created what is, if anything, an even more popular series of movies out of the X-Men and their most popular solo member, Wolverine. (The Hulk, who was initially licensed by Universal, has had a somewhat more checkered cinematic history, and The Fantastic Four, while they turned a profit for Fox, generally proved to be a critical embarrassment in movie form. Fox is scheduled to reboot that series in summer 2015.)

In 2004, Marvel Studios realized that if other companies were making this much money off their characters, they could make even more money, or at least keep a larger percentage of the profits, if they made the movies themselves. They would also have more control over what was done with their characters and concepts. Over the next few years they quietly reacquired the rights to superheroes who either hadn’t done well for other studios (the Hulk) or had never even been given their own films (Iron Man). In 2008 Marvel Studios surprised everyone, or at least critics, by releasing a remarkably good film based on the latter character, who had mostly been a second-string superhero in the comic book world, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as alcoholic billionaire and arms merchant Tony Stark, who escapes from Afghan terrorists and a potentially heart-stopping load of shrapnel in his chest by building a supersuit that not only keeps his heart beating but lets him slug bad guys like the Hulk and fly through the air like Superman.

The real surprise, though, comes at the end of the film, mostly after the credits, when Stark is recruited by Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to become part of the Avengers Initiative, a superhero collective being assembled (a pun that old Avengers fans will get) by Marvel’s superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The same basic coda was appended, in one way or another, to the next three films in what Marvel Studios was now calling the MCU: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). (I’ve skipped Iron Man 2 (2010), a film for which this now predictable coda would have been redundant.) While each of these movies was basically standalone or the launching point for a series, it was becoming clear that they were also part of a larger whole. This whole, which eventually became known as Phase One, culminated in Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest-grossing movie of 2012 and the point at which it became clearest that all of these films were taking place in a shared universe, something that had only been hinted at up until then. This shared universe concept is common in superhero comics and has resulted in continuities so tangled that you pretty much need Wikipedia to sort them out, but it has only occasionally been used in films, so occasionally that I’m having trouble thinking of examples. (It’s more common in television, where character crossovers between shows and spinoffs from hit shows were almost a requirement in the 70s and 80s and still occasionally occur, with the interconnections between the Law and Order and CSI shows in the late 2000s probably being the most recent examples, unless the NCIS shows are doing something similar.)

Marvel’s The Avengers took elements and characters, some of them quite minor, from all of the previous films and threw them together into one big superhero soup. Marvel had been doing this in the Avengers comic books since 1963 and comic books in general had been doing this at least since DC Comics launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 back in 1940. Having such a series-jumping chronology in the movies was remarkable but it didn’t become extraordinary until it made the leap to television in the fall of 2013 with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a direct spin-off from Marvel’s The Avengers.

I’ve talked before about how I had great hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also about my frustration that it was taking its sweet time about realizing them. The reason why it was taking so long finally became apparent with the 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn”: The show’s writers had been waiting for the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to come out.

Just as Captain America: The First Avenger had been, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of Phase One, Winter Soldier was the best movie so far of Phase Two and possibly the best MCU movie yet, better even than Marvel’s The Avengers. (To be fair, Joss Whedon was handed a nearly impossible task in writing and directing The Avengers. He had to balance at least half a dozen major characters, four of whom had film series of their own — or maybe three, the underperforming Hulk having apparently been phased out after Phase One — and all of whom had to be given roughly equal screen time and importance to the plot. Not surprisingly, the standout was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, borrowed from the Thor films, who chewed the scenery with charmingly vengeful gusto as the movie’s villain. More surprisingly, the other standout was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who I’m pretty sure first hit the screen in Iron Man 2, with her clever backhanded method of interrogating villains by making them think they’re interrogating her.)

Winter Soldier ends with — stop here if you’re one of the few MCU fans on earth who still don’t know what happens — the near total disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which turns out to have been riddled since World War II with sleeper agents from their sworn enemies, the Nazi carryover organization Hydra. The movie ends with Captain America more or less triumphant but S.H.I.E.L.D. in shambles and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury erroneously believed to be dead. And that’s where it impacted the TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. had become a program without a premise and that suited it beautifully. After floundering all season in search of a theme, it had finally found one: a team of agents without an agency trying to defeat the enemy that had stolen it out from under them.

Turn Turn Turn

Things fall apart and S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes very centered.

For the final seven episodes of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the best thing on television — yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which is straining admirably not to start plodding toward its climax the way George R.R. Martin’s books are doing. Agent Coulson’s team developed personality along with purpose. They fought against one another — Agent Ward turned out to be one of the sleeper agents — as well as against other agencies and ended up as a team of self-described vigilantes. The final episode resolves all this a bit too neatly, or at least too quickly, but it leaves some interesting plot threads dangling and the hint that at least one of those threads is going to generate the premise for the second Avengers film, which will terminate Phase Two in 2015.

It’s the way that the MCU continuity has not only jumped back and forth between movies but the way (and the speed) with which it has jumped between movies and TV (and apparently back again) that makes it revolutionary. (There was only a four-day lag between the opening of Winter Soldier and the introduction of its aftereffects into the show.) It would still be possible for a newcomer to jump into the multidimensional network of the MCU without being completely confused, but that window is rapidly closing and I would expect that, by some point in Phase Three, figuring out not only the plot but the interconnections between films, characters and TV shows (with yet another MCU television series, Agent Carter, debuting during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s midseason hiatus in the 2014-2015 season) might become nearly impossible for a newbie.

This is clearly a studio executive’s nightmare and precisely the reason that broadcast television has fought — in vain, fortunately — against serial TV shows. If the audience doesn’t buy in early, it becomes extremely difficult to buy in late. But the way in which we watch television and movies is changing. We don’t necessarily catch TV shows while they’re on the air, the way we used to in the long-ago 20th century. We DVR them or buy the DVD sets or we get them On Demand or we binge watch them off Netflix or Amazon Prime Streaming. If we’re really desperate we resort to certain Internet back channels, which I’ll leave unnamed, to get our hands on content. The producers of Breaking Bad credited Netflix (and probably some of those back channels) with the show’s abrupt surge of viewership in its two-part final season, with viewers who had finally gotten word about how good the show was rapidly catching up through all-day streaming sessions.

My friend Sean Tucker thinks Marvel Studios is using the MCU to position themselves for a brand new media world and I think he’s right. Now that widescreen TVs with Internet connections have come to dominate the living room, the age of genuine on-demand viewing, which we’ve been promised since at least the 1980s, has arrived at last and I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the cable-TV companies die out altogether. (Unfortunately, they also own much of the Internet infrastructure and until that de facto monopoly is taken away, the true age of multidimensional media is going to be postponed — but I doubt for very long.)

Very soon now, we’ll be watching television and movies in the way people have long read comic books — picking up back issues and reading new ones in whatever order necessary to follow tangled continuities or just indulge sudden whims. To some extent, we’re already there — Amy is downstairs now binge-watching the entire seven years of West Wing on Netflix, something I did a few years ago myself — and I think we’ll need the original thinking of companies like Marvel Studios, which is taking continuity concepts from comic books and repurposing them for higher-budget visual media, to provide content that fits the new way we view what soap opera fans have long referred to as “our stories.” The multidimensional interconnections provided by the MCU may be the perfect model for a world in which TV and movies are only distinguishable by the size of the screens we watch them on — and much of the time not even by that.

I, for one, am thrilled to see the new era arrive. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

 

Oscar Nominations 2013: The Perfect Year

Yes, it’s Oscar time once again. I’ve written my Oscar summation for five years in a row on another Web site, though this is only the second year I’ve written it up in my blog. I’m listing the films below in ascending order of preference (i.e., from weakest to strongest). These opinions are very much my own and I doubt that they reflect anyone else’s, not the critics’ and probably not the Oscar voters’ either. Needless to say, the numbered paragraphs that follow are full of **SPOILERS**.

The 86th Academy Awards

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

First, though, I have to say that the quality of the movies this year was extraordinarily high. There wasn’t a bad movie nominated, just very good ones and stunning ones. For each of the nine films I could check the following off on my mental checklist: terrific performances? (check) intelligent script? (check) beautifully filmed? (check?) emotional impact? (check) Thus, I’ve been left fretting for several weeks over what order I was going to put them in, especially in the upper ranks. Since they all met the above criteria, I had to come up with yet another criterion to judge them by and the one I’ve come up with is one I call grippingness, by which I mean that the movie needed to have held me in an iron grip while I was watching it. I find that this is a surprisingly rare quality in a movie. At some point during a film, I usually find myself glancing at my watch or wondering whether I can gracefully slip out to the men’s room. But there were three movies this year where neither of those things ever happened and I’ve given those movies the top three spots. Others are free to judge using other criteria. That one’s mine (though you can borrow it if you like).

9. Dallas Buyers Club

Although the story was fairly routine, this film deserves its nomination because of impressive performances by Matthew  McConaughey and Jared Leto, either of whom could have pushed their roles over the top but neither ever did. They both found an amazing balance between overplaying and underplaying. Otherwise the movie was the weakest of the lot, but those performances kept it from being truly weak.

8. Nebraska

Alexander Payne continues to be quirky and inventive. He never comes close to making the same movie twice or anywhere in the vicinity of making a movie that looks like anybody else’s. I was touched by the way Payne used Nebraska as a symbol for finding a reason to go on living and by the way he resolves the seemingly unresolvable dilemma the movie sets up. I also liked the relentless honesty with which he portrayed ordinary people, but felt that sometimes it was almost too relentless and too honest. I can only watch people THIS ordinary for so long before I lose interest, which probably explains why I nodded off briefly in the middle of the film.

7. American Hustle

Great cast, clever plot, and probably the most thoroughly honest performance I’ve ever seen from Christian Bale, by which I mean that I never once felt that he was acting. (I almost always feel like Bale is acting. He tries too hard. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this performance felt beautifully effortless and I applaud him for it.) Otherwise, the movie didn’t quite click for me, but it had some great moments and wasn’t boring, even if it was never gripping either.

6. Her

As improbable as its plot is, I found this movie quite charming in the way that it examined how male-female (and probably male-male/female-female) relationships often fall apart because one partner grows and the other doesn’t. That it examined this through the prism of artificial intelligence didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it gave the audience exactly the distance it needed to see human relationships the way they really are — almost always imperfect. And I loved the way Amy Adams left her vanity behind and let herself look like a normal human being for a change instead of the adorable goddess she usually plays. I think I preferred her this way. And both Amy (my Amy) and I loved the film’s depiction of future Los Angeles (where Disney Hall seems to have become Disney Mall).

5. 12 Years a Slave

Slavery is such an important subject that every generation needs to be reminded what an atrocity it was. Roots did that for my generation. 12 Years a Slave does that quite powerfully for another generation. In fact, its depiction of slavery is so powerful that it becomes grueling, which I think may give some of the audience members an excuse to distance themselves from the subject matter. Still, I applaud it for the unflinching way it depicts a shameful era that still leaves its mark on American society and also for bringing back one of my favorite actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, after several years where I never seemed to see him in anything. Michael Fassbender was appropriately hateful as the slave owner.

4. Philomena

I had no idea what this movie was about when it began or even where it was headed as the plot unfolded, but by the end I was startled by the emotional effect it had on me. Even though I’m not a Catholic, this movie’s indictment of the church and what it did to people through much of the 20th Century has the ring of truth to it. When it ended I was actually angry. I think I still am. I’d also mention that Judi Dench gives an amazing performance, but that pretty much goes without saying. She gives amazing performances in James Bond movies, for God’s sake!

3. Captain Phillips

This is where the gripping films start. Within minutes of its opening scenes this movie had its hooks into me. Critics were effusive over Paul Greengrass’s direction of The Bourne Ultimatum a few years ago, but I found that movie not so much gripping as frenetic and disorienting. Here, though, Greengrass gets it precisely right and once this movie is into the action and suspense it doesn’t let up for nearly two thrilling hours. The final hour in particular took my breath away. Tom Hanks’ understated performance, which finally burst into well-earned histrionics at the end, was the perfect complement to the movie’s intensity and I finished watching it wrung almost dry of emotion. But perhaps the movie’s greatest strength was [**SERIOUS SPOILER**] that I wasn’t quite sure who Hanks was sobbing for in his final scene: himself, his family or the men who had taken him hostage, men who were every bit as much victims as he was and whose blood, splattered across his chest during the Navy SEAL assault, was mistaken by the Naval doctor for his own. Honestly, I think it was all of those, and that’s what gave the ending its extreme emotional power.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

I’ve seen complaints that this movie ran too long. Really? It felt like about 90 minutes to me, not three hours. This was Scorsese at his finest and most rivetingly watchable, something I’d given up hope that I’d ever see him be again. (Sorry, folks, because I know a lot of people love it, but I thought that The Departed was meh by Scorsese standards.) This movie was a whirlwind ride through a world of fascinatingly despicable (and excellently cast) characters who were such a freak show of greed-driven amorality and excess that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The storytelling crackled and not one shot was wasted or one scene on screen for too long, for which kudos definitely go not only to Scorsese but to his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. This film could have run an additional three hours and it still wouldn’t have been too long. Honestly, I wish it had. Watching Scorsese work at this level is like watching a master musician at work. The craftsmanship is so seamless that it doesn’t even show; it just is. I’d love to see this win the Oscar.

1. Gravity

I’ve debated for weeks over whether I’d put this at the top of the list and I’m finally giving in, if only because Alfonso Cuarón’s movie was so innovative, such a purely cinematic experience, and so startling to watch that he had to invent new methods of moving the camera just to pull it off, which I don’t think can be said of any other movie this year. At heart I’m a science geek and watching the way this movie’s characters were sucked in by the unforgiving inflexibility of Newtonian physics was one of the finest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, because I felt like I was sucked right in with them (and that wasn’t just because of the 3D and the IMAX). Gripping doesn’t even begin to describe this story. Cuarón made an attempt to give the movie a human element, involving Sandra Bullock’s character’s inability to decide whether life was worth living after the death of her daughter, but in the end that story was lost in the terrifying magnificence of the events she was caught up in. I have to wonder if that wasn’t, perhaps unconsciously, Cuarón’s point: that we are so small and weak compared to the power and immensity of the stars, the earth and, well, gravity that we go on living despite the fact that the universe doesn’t really care if we live or die. In the end, we can only stand in awe of the laws of physics and find the meaning of life inside these tiny specks of matter we call “ourselves” and this tiny lump of rock called Earth.

FOOTNOTE: I think the Best Picture award will go to 12 Years a Slave, because of the importance of the subject matter. And I wouldn’t mind that either. But I think both American Hustle and Gravity have a chance. The first I wouldn’t be so thrilled with; the second I’d be ecstatic over.

To Build a Fire in Space: Gravity

There’s a certain kind of story that I’ve always loved, though you don’t see it very often. It’s usually short, tightly written and breathtakingly intense. It’s the one where someone is doing routine work in an extremely hazardous environment, where if one thing goes wrong it will be an utter catastrophe. But the person doing the work doesn’t worry about this, because the work is routine, they’ve done it many times before, and they know exactly what to do in order to avoid disaster. The only problem would be if the unexpected occurs and it never does.

And then the unexpected occurs.

Gravity poster

Don’t let go. Really. Don’t!

Everything that follows occurs with inexorable and terrifying logic, and the protagonists find themselves fighting desperately against what seems like their inevitable doom, leaving the reader or viewer barely able to breathe because the tension is so great. I first encountered this kind of story when I was in eighth grade and discovered Jack London’s stunning “To Build a Fire,” which you can read at that link. If you’ve never read it before and have an hour on your hands, I advise that you drop everything right now and go read it. (It’s only a short story.) I promise that after the first few pages you won’t be able to stop. The inimical environment London sets the story in is the Yukon, where it’s 50 degrees below zero and your spit turns to solid ice before it can reach the ground. The protagonist is simply taking a walk through the woods to a logging camp. He doesn’t expect anything to go wrong. And when…well, read the story to find out.

You don’t see this kind of story very often because it isn’t easy to create. It has to be worked out by the author with deep knowledge of the details of the environment in which it takes place. The author has to understand the logic, the physics, of the situation and know exactly what will happen if they go awry. But when done well, this is one of the most horrifying stories an author can tell.

The movie Gravity is also that story.

Gravity is “To Build a Fire” in space and proceeds with exactly the kind of terrifying logic that London’s story does, except that the brilliant Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has done London two better: He’s set the story in an even more inimical environment — the orbital space a few hundred miles above earth’s surface — and he’s depicted it visually. This is a story that must have been incredibly difficult to depict visually, as evidenced by the fact that Cuarón and his son Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay) took four and a half years to make it. The film takes place almost entirely in space, starting at the fictional space shuttle Explorer,  and given Cuarón’s penchant for lengthy, unedited tracking shots — the opening scene continues for a full 13 minutes without a single cut but with a lot of camera movement — required the development of brand new filmmaking technologies to make many of its sequences possible. And yet, as you watch it, you never sense the hard work taking place behind the scenes. You feel like you’re really there in space with the characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, with a few briefly glimpsed bit players and the voice of an unseen Ed Harris at Mission Control in Houston), especially if you see it in IMAX 3D (and this is one of the very few films that absolutely begs to be seen in IMAX 3D, though the experience is so intense that it probably works pretty well in normal, flat widescreen mode too if you absolutely have to see it that way).

Gravity is only 91 minutes long, because it has to be short. Stretching it out further than that would have destroyed its intensity and ruined Cuarón’s tight storytelling. It’s a cliche to refer to an exciting movie as a roller coaster ride, but in this case the comparison is remarkably apt. A roller coaster is an almost purely ballistic device — the only mechanical portion is the slow ride up to the top of that first hill — acting precisely according to two physical factors: gravity, which pulls the coaster back down that first hill, and inertia, the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, which keeps the coaster moving once it finishes that first drop. Ironically, given its title, this film is more about inertia than it’s about gravity and much of its horror and excitement comes from watching Bullock and Clooney struggling to escape inertia’s merciless grip, which keeps them in relentless motion just as it keeps a roller coaster in motion. But roller coasters are carefully designed so that inertia keeps you moving to all the right places; the inertia that’s acting on Bullock and Clooney has gone terribly wrong. If you’ve ever been in a car that’s gone into a high-speed skid on wet or icy pavement, you know what inertia feels like when it goes wrong. You can think of this movie as a 91-minute high-speed skid on very slick ice — and if that sounds boring, you’ve never lost control of your car.

The soundtrack for Gravity is on Spotify. Do a search for “Steven Price” (the composer and sound designer for the film) and it will appear in the dropdown list. Listening to it won’t spoil anything about the movie, but it will convey its heart-pounding relentlessness. And yet, as great as this score is, Gravity is also very much about silence — the profound silence of vacuum, where there’s no medium to carry sound. When the film opened with a silent panning shot of the earth’s surface as seen from 220 miles up (where the shuttle astronauts are making modifications to the Hubble telescope) I was afraid even to chew my popcorn because I didn’t want to interrupt that haunting silence. But when the action started and Price’s score kicked in, I completely forgot I had popcorn in my mouth. (I think I swallowed it; it’s hard to remember.)

A few articles have pointed out some technical errors in the film’s scientific premise, but the errors don’t matter, because the Cuaróns, father and son, along with the stunningly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have achieved something far more important than accuracy — realism. The last time I remember a movie about outer space feeling this real was 2001: A Space Odyssey, where director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke also captured that haunting sense of the silence and terror of space. But the Cuarons have an additional 45 years worth of filmmaking technology at their disposal, much of which they’ve invented themselves, and they’re going for a very different sort of film here, much more in the tradition of “To Build a Fire.” (Seriously. You should click on that link and read it.)

There appear to be some major films coming up for the holiday season — Aren’t there always? — but right now Gravity has my vote for Best Movie and it’s hard to imagine anything better coming along. A special nod should go to Sandra Bullock, who is the heart and soul of this film, a woman who brings humanity to the relentless forces of inertia, who fights through the entire film to put the lie to the words Cuarón places on screen at the beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” She brings warmth and humanity to the cold equations of physics and she deserves an Oscar far more for this film than she did for the dreadful 2009 film The Blind Side. Her performance in this film will be remembered much longer than that one will — and this is a movie that’s going to be remembered for a long time indeed.

Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.

Fantastically Popular and Borderline Criminal: Now You See Me

Last week we saw a “sneak” preview of Now You See Me, which opens today. I’ve held back on my review until it opened, but now it’s open so here it is: It has a great cast (Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and James Franco’s brother Dave), gorgeous production values, and one immensely clever, often funny scene after another. If I have a complaint it’s that it never quite coheres into the clockwork thriller that I, and I think it, really wanted it to be, but it comes close. There are a few things that are either never explained (though, as one of the characters points out, they don’t necessarily need to be) or don’t make complete sense, but I’ll watch it again (and enjoy it) when it’s available on DVD or streaming to check the details I’m sure I missed the first time and maybe discover that they make sense after all. There was a “live” streaming talk afterward by the director, Louis Leterrier, co-producer Alex Kurtzman (better known for his TV and movie writing work for J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay), and stars Eisenberg and Fisher, where Leterrier says the film is peppered with clues that you won’t notice until you watch it again and I’m sure he’s right, because I caught at least a few of them the first time. By the way, if we’d managed to get tickets for the screening at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, we could have really seen this talk live, but they were sold out by the time I heard that there was a screening at all.

Now You See Me Poster

Now You See Me Poster

There are really two major plots to the film, though as Amy noted afterward they’re so closely intertwined that they essentially form a single plot. One is about a group of street magicians who are drawn together toward a common goal that is broadly hinted at from the beginning and who put together a fantastically popular and borderline criminal magic show in Vegas, financed by banker Michael Caine, who is surprisingly trusting about the people he loans money to. The other is about an unknown villain who is using the magicians to achieve a second goal, hinted at more subtly but I partly guessed it without guessing all the related twists and details. Morgan Freeman is a magic “debunker” who makes his living by making DVDs explaining how magicians’ tricks really work, which of course makes him hated by other magicians. The real puzzle the audience has to figure out is how these two plots go together and who’s masterminding the whole mechanism and why, but what really makes the movie work is the cast. Woody Harrelson is particularly fun and Jesse Eisenberg’s “smartest guy in the room” routine is really growing on me. I think Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are the two coolest old men on earth. And I didn’t realize that Isla Fisher (who I may never have seen before) had a lovely British accent until I saw the streaming interview afterward.

One thing that both Amy and I really liked was that the film explains how all of the major magic tricks worked and they all make sense, though I’m not sure it’s as easy to do hypnotism as Harrelson’s character makes it look. I guessed how one of the tricks worked instantly, probably because I owned the trick when I was a kid, but also because I don’t think it’s as realistic on screen as it is on stage. I didn’t immediately spot how it was merely a set-up for another, bigger trick, though.

And because it’s not in 3D or IMAX, you can see it at prices that don’t seem ridiculous anymore, though they would have two or three years ago. I think our “sneak” tickets cost $12.50 each. I recommend it.

The Populist Intellectual: Roger Ebert and the Gift of Seeing Deeper

I guess I don’t have to mention that Roger Ebert died. The news is, well, all over the news, as well as Facebook, Twitter and every media newsletter I receive in my email. It had only been a day since he had announced the recurrence of his cancer. He was 70 years old, not so old that I can’t imagine myself being that age and not so old that I couldn’t still think of him as a little bit young to be so ill. What impressed me was how well he took it, reviewing and blogging until the last few days of his life.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

He was involved in online communications earlier than most film critics — hell, maybe earlier than all film critics — and certainly before most people were aware that online communications existed. I was a system moderator on the proprietary online service Compuserve in the early 90s, back when the World Wide Web was a twinkle in CERN’s eye, and I remember seeing Ebert actively contributing to the Film Forum and interacting with fans there on a regular basis. He was congenial, unpretentious, and seemed to enjoy sharing opinions with movie addicts who had no credentials other than their love of film. He seemed to adapt naturally to the online medium and always seemed more at home there than other critics, perhaps fortunately given the limited mobility and speaking ability of the last years of his life. Once the Web became a part of nearly everyone’s life he began blogging there and I waited eagerly for the messages he posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes linking to his own blog or latest review, sometimes linking to his far-flung army of semi-professional critics (who always made me think of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories), sometimes just linking to something that amused him on a blog or YouTube. (His eye for movie-related YouTube videos, especially clever supercuts, was superb and I often stole his links for my own posts.)

Although like most people who didn’t live in Chicago, I discovered Ebert through his At the Movies television program, I really didn’t get to know his writing until he began contributing his collected reviews to Microsoft’s wonderful Cinemania CD-ROMs in the mid-90s. Ebert always seemed to go easier on films than the other critics in Cinemania did and the star ratings he assigned to films were almost invariably one star higher than others. At first glance this made him seem rather less rigorous in his critical abilities, but after I’d read literally hundreds of his reviews I realized that he was more rigorous and perceptive. He simply saw more deeply into movies than other people did. Even when I disagreed with his opinion on a movie, his carefully thought-out and brilliantly persuasive reviews could convince me that his opinion was the right one and mine was wrong. He’d simply noticed things I hadn’t and he elevated the films in my eyes.

I wish I could say something personal, like “Roger, I’ll miss you,” but I didn’t know him personally and only exchanged messages with him on Compuserve once or twice (though to his credit he would respond). I’ll miss his reviews and blogs, though, and his collection of links to deserving Web sites. I don’t know that Ebert was the greatest reviewer who ever lived — there are far too many contenders for that title — and he wasn’t the wittiest, a title that should go to someone like Anthony Lane in The New Yorker who writes the most hysterical takedowns in the business. But if it’s possible to be a populist intellectual, then that was what Ebert was, in the sense that he could write reviews that connected with the ordinary film viewer while never dumbing down his opinions to the much-derided popular level. His was the voice of the intelligent common man who just happened to know a hell of a lot about movies and understood how to help those of us without his piercing intellect see what it was that he could see in films that we quite often could not.