Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Mix-Tape Scores: An Assenting Opinion

A friend of mine announced on Facebook a few years back that he hates mix-tape scores. You know — when a movie or a TV show accompanies the action, often in a montage, with a familiar song, one that the viewer associates with good times or bad, sadness or happiness. It’s a trend that probably started in the movies of the 1970s, most likely after the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (though as far as I can recall the score to Saturday Night Fever was made up entirely of original BeeGees songs). The first mix-tape score I can remember, though, was the blend of old and new Simon & Garfunkel songs that Mike Nichols used in his brilliant 1967 comedy The Graduate.

Nowadays the mix-tape score has become so common, even cliched, that it was parodied in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy by giving the main character an actual mix-tape, which he plays on an aging Walkman throughout the film (and at the end of the film they give him a new mix-tape to play in the sequel). The music choices weren’t necessarily from my all-time favorites list, but I never get tired of watching Chris Pratt kicking alien lizards to the accompaniment of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy: Alien lizards get their kicks with Chris Pratt’s mix.

At some point the trend skipped across media and became common on television, to the point where some shows even give a credit for Music Archivist. (T-Bone Burnett got one on both seasons of True Detective.) Frequently the song is saved for the final scene and often plays right into the credits. You could always tell when an episode of Mad Men had reached its denouement when a thematically and period-appropriate song began to play over Don’s or Peggy’s or Pete’s realization that whatever had just happened amounted to some kind of turning point in their lives.

I don’t hate mix-tape scores. In fact, I kind of like them, at least when they’re done right. Maybe they’re a cheap way for a movie or TV show to project unearned emotions on scenes that would fall flat without some assistance from a singer-songwriter who might well have died before his or her song found new life on a soundtrack. But when the emotion is earned by the story, the burst of familiar music can take a scene right over the top, working with the action to create something that approaches the sublime.

Mad Men was terrific at this. Sometimes the scene where the closing song came in was the only moment in the episode that made me realize it had been worth watching. The one that for some reason sticks in my memory was in an episode where Don Draper holds on to his suave pretensions and talks about his career with a reporter, carefully omitting any mention of his impoverished rural upbringing. But the camera pulled back and the soundtrack told the real story, using the song  “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit by The Nashville Teens (a British-invasion group, despite their name). I’m old enough to remember the song and the smile on my face was almost as wide as our large-screen TV.

Don Draper on Mad Men

Don Draper has an epiphany on Mad Men.

And I don’t know if this will inspire a chorus of groans or cheers, but the Leonard Cohen song (“Nevermind”) that accompanied the opening credits of True Detective‘s second season was the best part of the show. Of course, given how the season turned out, that’s about like saying Josef Stalin was the nicest mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century. But I love Cohen’s work when he’s in a dark mood (which has gotten even darker in the last few months) and the song perfectly fit the dark mood that the show was trying, if generally failing, to achieve. (NOTE: This was written before Cohen died.)

The mix-tape score I want to talk about here was in last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” If you follow the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, you should stop reading here. Spoilers will follow. The Walking Dead is a show that people love to hate, but I hugely admire the skill with which they keep coming up with new ways of pressing old buttons. In “The Cell,” Rick’s gang finds themselves trapped in the nastiest town of survivors yet and the opening number, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” underscored that point. But then the show’s musical archivist found an obscure piece called “Easy Street” (no relation to the song of the same name from the musical Annie) by a one-shot group called The Collapsable Hearts Club and used it as sleep-deprivation torture on poor Daryl, who had made the mistake two episodes earlier of attacking the town’s evil dictator. It’s an extremely happy song, which would seem to contrast ironically with “A Town Called Malice” yet if you listen to the two songs sequentially they have remarkably similar uptempo drum tracks. For a song about evil, “A Town Called Malice” borders on the cheerful.

This uptempo beat recurs throughout the episode and it is indeed an ironic contrast to the horror of the story. (If you follow The Walking Dead at all, you know that the horror very rarely comes from the eponymous zombies. It comes from the people who have managed to survive those zombies.) Yet at the end they switch the tempo entirely, when an unexpected frenemy of Daryl’s does him the kindness of switching his torture song to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the saddest songs ever written and one that never comes even close to being uptempo. Daryl, who has been stoic throughout his torment, finally gives way to the enormous grief that he’s been bottling up and starts sobbing uncontrollably as the show goes to credits.

Daryl tortured on The Walking Dead

Daryl tortured by “Easy Street” on The Walking Dead.

It was a remarkable use of mix-tape music, with “Easy Street,” a song intended to promise Daryl the paradise that could be his if only he’d kiss the evil dictator’s posterior, actually underscoring his own carefully studied emotional denial and Roy Orbison finally blowing it wide open.

It was one of the subtlest, most remarkable, even most moving uses of a mix-tape score I’ve ever heard. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it justified the concept all by itself.

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.

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.

Batman, Lara Croft & Arrow: The Christopher Nolanization of Pop Culture

We all have something in our childhood years that we feel nostalgic about or, if we’re not quite old enough yet to get past the urge to reject our childhood years, a little ashamed of them. (If you’re not even that old yet, it’s okay. You’re still allowed to read this post.)

For me, it’s comic books. For about a decade, until I started college, I was obsessed with comics the way a junkie is obsessed with hypodermic needles. This was in an earlier era when comics weren’t quite as adult-oriented as they’ve become in recent years and Stan Lee was just inventing Marvel’s Silver Age line-up of heroes. In fact, if it weren’t for Lee, I probably would have stopped reading comics by age 12, but Spiderman put the hypodermic back in my vein. He had all the same problems I did. He was a geek, he was out of place with his contemporaries, he had no idea what to do around the opposite sex, and he kept having to deal with erections, by which I mean tall buildings that could only be surmounted by shooting a sticky web-like substance into the air and soaring off through the skyscrapers like Tarzan swinging through the treetops.

Batman Begins

You’ll believe a bat can fly.

We all have to grow up, though, and eventually I outgrew comics. The funny thing is, comic books kept refusing to let me outgrow them. And no one except perhaps the genius at Marvel Studios who figured out how to reassemble the Avengers has had more to do with this than Christopher Nolan. I don’t know whether the credit should go to director Nolan, his writer brother Jonathan, or frequent comic-book-movie scripter David S. Goyer, but when the movie Batman Begins came out in 2005, it made me see comic books in a whole new light. Until then superheroes existed in their own cartoon universe, where a peculiar set of rules insisted that they wear spangly costumes, battle supervillains who actually saw themselves as villains (all writers should make note of this immediately: real people don’t think of themselves as villains) and rely on science fictional tropes for about two-thirds of their plot devices.

Nolan asked a question that, with a couple of exceptions (notably Alan Moore in Watchmen), nobody had really asked before: If there were superheroes in the real world, what would they be like? If they wore costumes, why would they wear them? If they fought villains, what would those villains be like? Nolan tackled perennial favorite Batman, an obvious target because his lack of superpowers made him one of the most realistic of superheroes, and put him in a film noir universe where his bizarre activities made sense, his costume and fancy set of wheels had genuine utility, and the villains rarely bothered to dress up in Halloween costumes before threatening the eternally fragile peace of Gotham City. He even gave the villains realistic motivations: Ra’s al Ghul really believed he was going to save the world from crime — from Ra’s al Ghul’s viewpoint he was the hero and Batman was the villain — and the Scarecrow (who never actually called himself that, at least as far as I recall) was just a clever experimental psychologist on the payroll of a crime boss.

It all made sense and not the loony kind of sense that Tim Burton’s Batman had made. It only took a little suspension of disbelief to accept that Nolan’s world was real. It was dark, it was exciting and Christian Bale’s unexpectedly charismatic performance held it together like the glue in Spiderman’s web spurter. Batman Begins left me gasping in my seat when it was over and Nolan never equaled it in the remaining two movies of his trilogy, which were just bloated and pretentious rehashes of the original. It didn’t matter, though. Nolan had created a new paradigm and it has slowly but surely begun to stick. (Some credit should go to Bryan Singer for his more realistic depiction of the X-Men in the early 2000s, but — let’s face it — those movies just weren’t as good as Nolan’s.)


The hoodie that launched a thousand arrows.

Now we’re beginning to see the Nolan approach take root in other gardens, comic book and otherwise, and until it becomes an overdone cliche I expect to see more of it in the future. The most obvious example is the series Arrow on the CW network, which might as well be called Green Arrow Begins. Even in the late 1950s, the superhero Green Arrow had been DC comics own cut-rate clone of the more successful Batman and he’s proved himself to be an apt candidate for the Nolan treatment. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, zillionaire Oliver Queen disappeared for several years, became tough and expert in exotic methods of fighting, then returned to clean up crime in his home town. (Gotham City is now Starling City, but not much else has changed.) His costume, at least until the most recent episode, is little more than a hoodie with some greasepaint under his eyes to make him unrecognizable even to friends — improbable, but only a little — and his only superpower is those tricked-out arrows, which aren’t much more fantastic than the gadgets Lucius Fox stuffed in Bruce Wayne’s utility belt. And the villains, even the more over-the-top ones, feel noirishly real. The show itself is little more than a slickly executed soap opera, but I’m glad to see superheroes treated realistically on television at all — Smallville, for all its attempts at realism and the brilliant performances of John Glover and Michael Rosenbaum as Lionel Luthor and his prematurely bald son Lex, was still more than a little silly — and I’m even more thrilled to see that the producers are apparently spinning off a second series based on a far greater superhero, the Flash. (I was actually rather stunned to see that their visualization of the Flash’s origin almost exactly matched my memory of the origin of the Silver Age Flash in the 1956 Showcase #4, with the quite reasonable addition of an out-of-control particle accelerator to replace the original lightning bolt.) If they can Nolanize the Flash at least as well as they’ve Nolanized Green Arrow, the producers have my kudos and a permanent setting on my DVR.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

Arrows — for the tomb raider who has everything.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Nolanization is the new version of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider video game series. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones, has never been much more than a Barbie Doll with guns and improbable athletic skills. The games have always been mildly diverting and more than a little frustrating every time Lara fails at her trademark circus act of jumping from vines to ledges and climbing walls while shooting wolves and falling to her screaming death. But the reboot, which takes us back to Lara’s teenage years (which bear a remarkable resemblance to the backstory on Arrow, with Lara shipwrecked on a remote island crawling with AK-47-wielding bad guys), is surprisingly realistic. The carefully rendered graphics make Lara seem real and deeply human, and her sexiness is now just an incidental part of her character, not something for horny teenage boys to stare at while following her curvaceous buttocks down endless cavern hallways.

Tomb Raider 2.0 is a big game and, at last count, I was only about 37 percent of the way through it. (The map screen tracks your progress through the story.) If the rest of the game holds up as well as the first part, though, I look forward to the series that will inevitably follow and seeing Lara grow out of her teenage insecurities into a character realistic enough for someone like Christopher Nolan to make a movie about. (Let’s face it: The Angelina Jolie films weren’t exactly Lucasfilm productions.) I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nolanization of some other classic video game characters, though Super Mario Begins might be carrying things a bit far. Bethesda Softworks has already created their own Nolan-like world in the Elder Scrolls series, where in games like Skyrim the interactive environment seems about as real as a fantasy universe could.

We all need cartoons when we’re kids and sometimes we need them when we’re adults too. They provide a means of depicting the world with the absurdity that it deserves far too much of the time. But cartoons also have to grow up and if Batman, Green Arrow and Lara Croft can do it, I fully expect the Powerpuff Girls one day to star in a Sex in the City reboot. There’s a deep charm in the idea that the fantasies of our childhoods can mature even as we do and that Lara Croft can reinvent herself as a real person.

Well, a real person who can still jump from ledges, swing on vines, and climb walls while shooting at wolves. Some things should never change.

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.

I Do Not Think This Book Means What You Think It Means: The Princess Bride

If you fall into a certain age group — and I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the age group is between the ages of 25 and 40 — chances are that you can quote whole passages of dialog verbatim from the movie The Princess Bride.

Admit it. If you’re in that age group and I say the name Inigo Montoya, you will immediately respond, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” (Extra points if you can mimic Mandy Patinkin’s soft spoken yet intense faux Italian accent.) And if I say the word “Inconceivable,” you will parry by saying, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Here’s my own confession: I’m not in that age group.

When I discovered The Princess Bride, there wasn’t a movie version of it yet. The book that the film was later based on wasn’t even especially popular and had been mostly panned by critics. I first came across it in an extremely difficult-to-find paperback edition from Ballantine Books, an edition so difficult to find that I saw it at precisely one drugstore newsstand — and this was at a point in my life when I practically lived in bookstores and drugstore newsstands looking for new paperbacks to read. The cover was an oddly inappropriate painting of a sultry, mostly naked woman who looked a bit like Kim Novak without her signature blonde hair.

The Princess Bride cover

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”

While she was certainly an eye-catching cover girl, what mainly interested me about the book was that it was written by William Goldman, a writer who had already endeared himself to me by writing the unputdownable thriller Marathon Man, which was turned (with Goldman’s help) into an excellent movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. And I had been aware of Goldman since even before Marathon Man, because he had made his reputation in the 1960s by writing the novel Boys and Girls Together, which tended to get passed around classrooms because, by the standards of the time, it had titillating sex scenes in it. (Another confession: I have never read Boys and Girls Together, though I have a used paperback edition on my shelf and the e-book version on my Nook. I still plan to read it someday.)

Goldman was a writer who intrigued me because he wrote fiction that was both intelligent and utterly gripping, two qualities —  intelligence and grippingness — that aren’t easy to squeeze into a book at the same time, at least judging by all the mindless thrillers that you can find on bestseller lists to this day. I had never heard of The Princess Bride, which also intrigued me, because I thought I was aware of at least the titles of all the books Goldman had written up until that time, even if I hadn’t read most of them.

Naturally, I snatched a copy — possibly the only copy — off the shelf, bought it, and took it home.

I started reading it as soon as I got back to my bedroom, because I didn’t want to lose the excitement I felt at discovering it. And, as with Marathon Man, I couldn’t put it down. But it was better than Marathon Man. It was possibly the most extraordinary book I’d ever read. Goldman did things in it that I’d never seen a writer do and combined elements in the story that I’d never seen a writer combine, mixing satire with breathtaking action while maintaining a mood of both humor and gut-wrenching pathos, all in what amounted to an epic fantasy. I put the book down wrung dry emotionally, a tear in my eye and a sad smile on my lips. I still remember the book’s closing lines, which I’ll quote for you later. (And if you only know The Princess Bride from the movie, you won’t recognize them.)

Eventually the Del Rey Books division of Ballantine, which had been established strictly for publishing science fiction and fantasy, recognized that it had this gem of a novel in its corporate backlist and realized that with the craze (which had actually been started by the editors at Del Rey when they published Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara) for books that essentially cloned the Lord of the Rings, they might be able to repackage The Princess Bride in such a way that they could convince Tolkien fans to buy it. This ploy worked surprisingly well and the book finally became the bestseller it had always deserved to be. I was happy for Goldman, because by then I had read several more books by him and knew that The Princess Bride was no fluke. Goldman was a smart and entertaining writer, though even in the masterful oeuvre he had compiled by the early 1980s, The Princess Bride stood out as the most extraordinary thing he had ever written (and will probably remain so, given that he hasn’t published a novel since 1987).

Then, in 1986 or 1987, a film version of The Princess Bride was announced. Goldman, who had long maintained a highly successful second career as a screenwriter, would write the script and Rob Reiner, who had shown great promise with the adolescent bonding movie Stand by Me (based on Stephen King’s novella “The Body”), would direct it. Although I fell into the camp that felt that The Princess Bride was essentially unfilmable, that much of what made it a great novel would be lost in the translation to screen, I was guardedly hopeful about it, especially with Goldman himself involved in the project. Maybe they could indeed make a great film out of it, a film as great as the book that inspired it. And, though the movie was slow to catch on, it did eventually become a cult sensation with a generation of young moviegoers, beloved for its quirky characters and imminently quotable dialog.

God only knows why. I’m sorry, people, especially if you love the movie, but the naysayers were right. The book was unfilmable. Even with Goldman as screenwriter, it lost most of what made the book so wonderful.

Maybe I should stop at this point and explain what the original book was about. If you know it only through the film, you’re not going to recognize most of it.

It was about a middle-aged screenwriter (named “William Goldman” and referred to throughout the book in the first person, but really a thoroughly fictionalized version of the William Goldman who was writing the book) who, with a failing marriage and thoroughly alienated son, had lost all joy in life and all sense of wonder in the things that had thrilled him when he was young, especially great adventure novels. It was about his attempt to regain these feelings by returning to a book that his father had read to him when he was an adolescent, The Princess Bride by the great Florinese writer S. Morgenstern. (His “father,” also a fictional character, was an immigrant from the imaginary country of Florin.) Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride had been the book that awakened the fictional Goldman’s own sense of wonder and he wanted to share it with his own son as a bonding experience, something that would not only save his marriage and his relationship with his son but that would vicariously reignite his own joy in life.

Yet when he read The Princess Bride himself — up until then it had only been read to him by his father — he discovered that the book had not been what he thought it was, that in fact it had been intended as satire, filled with barbed, very dry jokes aimed, in many cases quite tediously, at the ruling families of Florin, and the exciting adventure novel that he remembered his father reading to him was buried under page after page of cynical social commentary that his father had wisely left out. The fictional William Goldman talked his editor into letting him revise the book, which was long out of print, and publish a “good parts” version, with Goldman’s own annotations explaining (often humorously) why he had excised large amounts of text at several points in the narrative. The resulting abridgment was an absolute wonder, every bit as thrilling to an adult reader as it must have been to “Goldman” as a child. Yet at the same time you could tell from Goldman’s annotations that the “original” book, as the imaginary S. Morgenstern had written it, had been larded with exactly the kind of adult cynicism that Goldman was trying to escape from by sharing the book with his own child.

The fictional Goldman never did repair his relationship with his son and in editing the book he discovered that the original ending his father had pretended to read to him — “And they lived happily ever after” — was not how the book really ended. In fact, it ended with the heroes being defeated, true love failing to triumph, and the villains getting their way as villains so often do in real life. And despite having edited it into the thrilling book that he had always believed it to be, the fictional Goldman ended the book in a deeper depression than he had begun it in, closing with some of the saddest lines in all of popular literature:

“I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

I was young when I read the book, but not so young that I couldn’t feel my childlike sense of wonder already beginning to ebb (and one of these days I still expect it to go away completely). Goldman’s book captured that feeling perfectly, with its brilliant contrast between the genuine, almost hyperbolically thrilling novel that lay buried underneath Morgenstern’s crushing adult cynicism, the same cynicism that was already beginning to crush the soul of the fictional adult Goldman — and maybe, in a somewhat less hyperbolic way, the soul of the real William Goldman too.

The movie went for the thrilling hyperbole of the book as the fictional Goldman had known it as a child, but it was filmed on a fairly meager budget and was unable to find a cinematic equivalent of that hyperbole, what Goldman’s father had described as ““Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.” All of that, as over the top as it sounds, really was in the book and it was as exciting as it sounds like it ought to be, but the movie needed more visual spark and passion to pull it off. Some critics misguidedly praised the movie for playing against expectations by pulling back on the spectacle, but that was a necessity that never really became a virtue. If ever a film needed to be spectacular to stay true to the nature of a book, it was this one. It needed a cinematic equivalent of the hyperbole of the book and it couldn’t afford to create one. Maybe if you were a certain age when you saw the film and hadn’t lost your childlike sense of wonder yet, you found a bit of that in the movie and I envy you that. I was too old by the time it came out and for me it was completely missing.

But where the movie completely failed was in not capturing or even attempting to capture Goldman’s heartbreaking frame story, substituting the lame gimmick of having Fred Savage (appropriately enough of The Wonder Years) read the novel by an immigrant grandfather played by Peter Falk). The more adult portion of the framing story, though, with its failing marriage and sense of a man desperately trying to escape the depression that adulthood was sucking him into, was totally gone and I missed it sorely.

For me, The Princess Bride is about the loss of sense of wonder in adults and one man’s successful attempt to convey that sense of wonder to adult readers while at the same time dismally failing to recapture it in himself. The novel of The Princess Bride is heartbreaking and cynical, immensely thrilling and comical, all at the same time, which is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another book manage to be and something the movie absolutely wasn’t. And I’m sad that an entire generation knows it only as that clever, quotable little film that completely lacked the heartbreak and ambition of the novel.

Oh, I’m quite happy that you can quote dialog from it and that some of those lines, all of which were in the book as well, have found their way onto everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs, but if you’ve never read the book do me a favor and go to a bookstore or to right now and order a copy. I’ll thank you, William Goldman (who is now 82 and, based on a video I saw of him the other day, still sharp as a tack) will thank you and S. Morgenstern will thank you.


And, as the fictional William Goldman says at the end of the book’s prologue, “What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.”

Welcome to the Planet: Man of Steel

The movie Man of Steel has been getting a lot of bad press. It receives a 55 on Metacritic, which at the very least is unimpressive. Three of my friends told me they hated it — one said it gave him a headache — and only one told me he liked it. I deliberately skipped the weekend showing, suggested to Amy that she wouldn’t want to go with me and waited until I could catch it at a seven dollar bargain evening showing in non-IMAX non-3D.

My bad. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

Man of Steel Poster

Man of Steel, Planet of Clay

I’ve been steeped in the Superman mythos since before I was old enough to read. I’ve watched George Reeves play him, Christopher Reeve play him, Dean Cain play him, Tom Welling sort of play him, Brandon Routh play him and now Henry Cavill play him. They all deserve kudos for a job well done. I’ve read about him in Superman Comics, Action Comics, Superboy Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane comics, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics, Justice League of America comics and watched him team up with Batman in some godawful stories in World’s Finest comics. (Me, I have the world’s finest memory for useless pop trivia.) I’ve seen every Superman movie since the first Christopher Reeve one except Superman 4, which I’m afraid to see. I thought they steadily went downhill. I guess it’s possible that Superman Returns, the last Superman film before this one, was an improvement on Superman 4, but it’s hard to imagine. Bryan Singer, after two rather bland X-Men films, directed Superman Returns like a man who didn’t even understand how movies work. Its rhythms were wrong, its casting was botched (though Routh was pretty decent even if his career died with it), and scene after scene was completely tone deaf. And it had Kate Bosworth as an ultra-bland Lois Lane. Gag me now!

This movie is better than any of the ones listed above.

It’s hard to be better than the first Christopher Reeve one, I’ll admit. It’s dated now, but it holds a special place in my heart for that charming first night in Metropolis sequence (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”) and for Christopher Reeve’s revelatory performance, which he never outdid. This one, though, actually manages to be better. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Krypton sequence is boring and too long and that the climactic battle is exciting and too long. I don’t agree on either count. I remember the same complaint about the Krypton sequence in the first Reeve movie, too, and this one is much better. Yes, overly long climactic battles have been a problem in movies for a while now, because they generally exist only because the producers want audiences to feel they got what they paid their ridiculous ticket prices for and that they, the producers, got what they divvied up the movie’s ridiculous budget for. In this case, though, the movie earns its long climactic battle because the battle is the heart of the movie. It’s not just its climax; it’s what the movie is about.

Director Zack Snyder, who say what else you will about him directs what are probably the most visually stunning popular movies currently being made, along with producer/writer Christopher Nolan and co-writer/comic-book-movie-wizard David Goyer, are going for a true epic here and I can’t think of any other story in all of comic book mythology that deserves the epic treatment more than this one does. Certainly it deserves it more than the second and third Nolan Batman films, which were just bloated rehashes of the pitch-perfect Batman Begins. And even those were modest little art films next to truly fruity epics like DeMille’s technicolor version of The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s 1959 remake of Ben Hur. Now those were movies that really went over the top, so far over the top that at times you couldn’t see them without binoculars.

I don’t have to tell you the Superman backstory, do I? Just in case, it’s about how the planet Krypton is dying, the visionary scientist Jor-El shoots his baby son Kal-El off in a spaceship toward earth just before his whole world literally falls apart, the baby is adopted by a rural Kansas farming couple with the last name Kent who name him Clark, and somehow earth’s yellow sun (Krypton had a red one) gives the child superpowers, allowing him to grow up to be a superhero who takes the secret identity of a newspaper reporter. (Forgive the run-on sentence, but I really wanted to get that out of the way fast.)

Man of Steel is about how Clark Kent/Kal-El — he’s almost never referred to as Superman in the movie — comes to terms with being a man of earth instead of what he was born to be: a man of Krypton. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, that he’s different, that he’s an alien, probably because he is an alien and he is different. And yet he’s also been raised on earth by a really decent pair of earth parents and earth’s ways are the only ways he knows. The movie is about how he learns to accept himself for what he is, a person who belongs here and has a role to play in our planet’s society, which come to think of it is a struggle that a lot of us who were born here have had to go through too.

In a way, the movie is also a remake of the first two Reeve films, with the Krypton and Smallville sequences from the first one and the battle against the three Kryptonian supervillains, led by General Zod, from the second. This time, though, General Zod isn’t merely an evil twit who wants to conquer earth, have the President of the United States kneel before him and — oh, yeah — kill  Kal-El, son of Jor-El. This time he’s a man with an important mission and it’s a mission you kind of understand. You can see why it would mean so much to him. You can even sympathize with it. But you can also see why Super–er, Kal-El absolutely has to stop it!

It’s a meaningful conflict. It’s an incredibly meaningful conflict. And, though I don’t want to spoil anything, on both a literal and symbolic level the climactic battle represents Kal-El’s struggle to finally reject Krypton and fully embrace being a child of earth. That’s what the whole film’s about and why the battle deserves every minute that it gets. It didn’t strike me as being the slightest bit excessive.

And, oh yeah, the movie has what I think may be the most perfect final line I’ve ever heard in a film, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what it is.

The casting is excellent. Amy Adams makes a terrific Lois Lane who gets to do a lot more than Lois usually does, which is swoon over Superman, write newspaper stories about him and try to figure out his secret identity. This Lois is actually involved in the action and gives significant assistance to Kal-El in his battle against Zod and company. She also doesn’t have to figure out his secret identity because she’s in on it from the beginning. This is a brand new Lois who isn’t just there for Superman to save and smooch with (though he manages to do both of those too).

And then there’s Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal-El. It’s hard to top Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman. He not only convinced you that Superman could charm both Lois Lane and the entire planet, but he convinced you that, yes, just putting on those Clark Kent glasses and changing the way he combed his hair really did turn him into a completely different person. But Henry Cavill matches him blow for blow. Reeve played Superman with a wink at the audience; Cavill never winks once. His Clark/Kal-El/that other guy manages an even more amazing feat, one just as good as leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He makes the character seem grounded in reality and that’s exactly what this movie needs. Every time Snyder, Nolan and Goyer seem in danger of taking the film over the top all they have to do is cut to Cavill and he manages to do what needs to be done.

He brings the movie, yes, right back down to earth.

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.