Family movie night.
“Captain Phillips, can you hear me?”
Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thomspon) on the defensive as she squares off against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in negotiations over the film rights to Travers’ novel Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks, a sentimental just-so story New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik calls “The Birth of a Nation of family movies.”
It takes a special breed of literary snob to argue the world would be better off if the movie Mary Poppins had never been made and the only way we knew of the world's most famous nanny was through P.L. Travers’ novels alone and instead.
On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done. The story, if you have missed it, concerns the “Mary Poppins” author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, coming to Hollywood to resist allowing Walt Disney to adapt her books (though, at last, she is persuaded). Emma Thompson is so good as the author, and Tom Hanks is so good as Disney, that it seems surly and ungrateful to point out that the tale the movie tells is a lie, and an ugly one. (Hanks, as Disney, gives the most subtle performance of his career, making the cartoon-meister one of those handsome, dark-souled, mid-century middle-Americans who built amazing empires but were never truly at ease, even in worlds they had wholly made for their own pleasure, while dominating their employees with coercive, first-name intimacy.)
The moral of the movie’s story is not that a poet’s art got betrayed by American schlock—as, actually, it did—but, instead, that a frigid Englishwoman got “humanized” by American schmalz. My sister Alison, who is not given to emotion or excess in her opinions, writes that “Travers realized that the movie was going to be, as it is, an utter and obscene travesty, turning all the points of the books upside-down, and the idea that she was a cranky woman made to realize the value of friendship etc. by Disney is a bit like saying that Bulgakov would have realized that all his problems were due to his father if only he’d talked to Stalin a little more.” There are a couple of nice songs (minor-key waltzes, appropriately) in the movie—but the rest is schlock that betrays Travers’s intention with every frame. The movie is saying, basically, that Disney did P. L. Travers a favor by traducing her books. They didn’t. He didn’t.
That's Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker. And it’s Saving Mr Banks he’s calling schlock there at the end of the second paragraph. Mary Poppins,the movie, he dismisses as schmaltz, although he sometimes seems to be conflating the two, the schlock with the schmaltz, Banks with Poppins. That's his sister calling Mary Poppins an "obscene travesty" but Gopnik seems to agree or at least see her point. Even if he meant it as a hyperbolic joke, The Birth of a Nation crack shows Gopnik is too much of a white guy for his own good. His sister’s comparing Walt Disney to Josef Stalin makes me wonder what she thinks Walt did that was the equivalent of mass murdering millions of people. Walt Disney was far from being an American saint, but Stalin had Isaac Babel shot, Disney made P.L. Travers rich.
Well, more famous.
However good you think Travers’ book is, however much better than the movie you might believe it is, you’ve got to admit, it’s still read by many more people, children and adults, than would be reading it if the movie hadn’t been made or if it had been made the way Travers had wanted it made.
Ok. I suspect Gopnik of trying his hand at some Slate-like trolling. “You all love Mary Poppins, do you? Well, it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down!” I don’t think he out and out wishes the movie hadn’t been made.
He sure doesn’t like it though.
It surprises me he still liked Saving Mr Banks. Seems to have surprised himself on that count, as well.
I enjoyed Saving Mr Banks and for the same reasons Gopnik enjoyed it despite himself. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Especially Thompson who has been repeatedly robbed over the course of this awards season. But I don’t think the movie portrays Travers as a frigid Englishwoman in need of humanizing by the Disney touch. I think the filmmakers are on her side the whole way. They treat her as very much humanized on her own. Maybe a little too human for her own good. But her problem is that she’s taken what the movie---and the audience---can’t help seeing as an indefensible position. She’s out to stop a beloved classic movie from being made.
Of course she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing. She can’t see into the future. And the filmmakers don’t expect her to. Mary Poppins could have been a terrible movie (Believe it or not, more people than the Gopniks think it is.) or at any rate a much less than great one. At the time Mary Poppins was going into production, Disney Studios was concentrating on live-action movies, some of which were pretty good, most of which were so-so, all of which had a Disney look that hasn’t dated well and probably looked a little cheap to audiences back then as well. I’m not sure but I think many of them were actually made to be shown on The Wonderful World of Color and only made the rounds of the theaters to give them some artistic cachet at a time when television was still regarded as a second-rate medium. They included Old Yeller…
Come on. Admit it. Who cried when Old Yeller dies?
Like I said. Some pretty good ones, some somewhat less than pretty good. But all with that Disney look.
Travers couldn’t have predicted that Mary Poppins was going to become a classic, but based on those movies she would have had some compelling clues as to what an adaptation of her book was likely to look like.
We’re not required to be familiar with all those films ourselves. All we need to know is that Travers had an idea of what a Disney movie was and she didn’t care for it. And her idea isn’t treated as ridiculous or wrong.
She also couldn’t have known ahead of her visit to Disney Studios that the movie in the works was going to have a lot more in common, visually and stylistically, with Disney’s great cartoons.
That might not have mattered.
Saving Mr Banks has it that Travers didn’t like cartoons in any form and so wouldn’t have regarded Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the rest as great. I can understand that. I’m not a real fan of any of them. I don’t love any of them, at any rate. I happen to think the Golden Age of Disney animation began with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and continued through the 1990s finishing with Mulan and Tarzan. Sue me. But the last three full-length animated features Disney had turned out before Mary Poppins wrapped were Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone.
Whatever you think of the first one, the second two are not top-notch. But if you want to imagine what an animated Mary Poppins might have looked like, 101 Dalmatians is probably a good model.
Travers arrives in California at the end of her professional rope. She’d rather not sell the rights to her book to anyone let alone Walt Disney but she needs the money. She feels lost and alone in hostile territory. She knows what she’s going up against too. On top of this she’s haunted by memories of her childhood in Australia and her adoration for her lost soul of a father, a drunk and a dreamer who bestowed upon her, his favorite, the mixed blessing of a faith in the power of imagination to get her through life. It’s not clear if these memories and the attendant guilt and self-reproach, have plagued her all her life or if they’ve been triggered by the prospect that she’s about to give away the work that has been her imaginative connection to her long-dead father. It doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s unhappy and in pain and she’s angry and defensive because of it, and we’re meant to sympathize and root for her.
We understand she doesn’t need humanizing or friendship, which she does happen to get, the friendship I mean, but not from Walt Disney. She needs release. And that’s something she has to get and the movie lets her get for herself.
She gets caught up in the spirit of things, thanks to the genius and patience of the composer-songwriter Sherman Brothers, but then she believes she's been lied to by Walt Disney himself and, furious at him and herself for falling for his sales pitch and mistaking it for a sincere offer of artistic collaboration, she takes her book and goes home. She changes her mind again but not because she’s humanized by American schmaltz. The schmaltz hasn’t gotten off the drawing boards yet. Disney apologizes and using the example of his own life with a difficult father, who unlike Travers’ father sounds like a bully and a sadist and not someone who sounds like a candidate for sympathy or forgiveness, persuades her not let someone else’s story, even though you are a character in it, become your story.
She saves herself by letting go of the ghosts who have taken over her stories, her own and Mary Poppins’.
It’s a sentimental just-so story, but hardly a “fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand”.
What it is, though, is not the story Gopnik would have preferred.
He wanted a tragedy about how commerce defeated art, which isn’t what happened. Travers’ book didn’t get removed from the bookstores and libraries. It gained a great new audience (even though it didn’t include me) and Travers followed it up with more Poppins books.
To believe that’s what happened you have to know that a faithful adaptation of the novel would have been a better movie or believe that no adaptation at all would have been the better outcome so that all the generations of children who have come of reading age since 1964 would have only known Travers’ Mary Poppins and they’d have taken her to heart the way J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter’s been taken to heart.
I don’t think I want to know what Gopnik thinks of the Potter movies or of the books.
But that brings me to this:
With that calm verdict in mind, it is at least possible to return again to the original “Mary Poppins” books, which reward grown up re-reading as much as they please kids. They are, outside of the work of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and T. H. White, the most distinguished poetic literature ever written for children.
I dislike Travers’ Mary Poppins. Always have. When I was a kid I outright hated it. But then I read it after seeing the movie. When I got a bit older I realized that was unfair, that books and movies were different and you shouldn’t judge one by the other. So I tried again.
Still didn’t like it. But I just figured I was too old to appreciate a book for children.
But when I was truly older and had children of my own and we were introducing the young Mannion boys to the world beyond picture books, I tried reading them Mary Poppins and they didn’t like it.
Wasn’t because they were picky or lacking in taste either. And they hadn’t seen the movie yet.
There were just too many works of “distinguished poetic literature” they liked better. Because they were better. Much better, in the judgment of this grown-up unrewarded by re-reading Mary Poppins.
Even if you accept that T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King for children and ignore that Tolkien wrote more than The Hobbit and that more has come close to subsuming The Hobbit and is decidedly not for children and let it slide that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is...um...a little weird, if you put those authors' works at the top, between them and Mary Poppins come a shelf-ful of books by (in no particular order except that’s how they’re occurring to me as I’m typing this) Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, C.S.Lewis, L.Frank Baum, Raold Dahl, Norton Juster, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.L. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, J.K. Rowling. and Lemony Snicket.
And,by the way, those few nice songs Gopnik mentions but doesn’t name? Chim Chimney. Feed the Birds. A Spoonful of Sugar. Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
A few nice songs. Sheesh.
Maybe Gopnik was trying to be funny again. Hard to tell. I hope so. I wouldn’t know what to say if he was just being dismissive.
Come to think of it, I know exactly what to say.
It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
Be sure to read Gopnik’s whole column, Behind Two Good Movies, Two Great Books. And for the record? In the first half, Gopnik convinces me I’d rather read The Mayor of MacDougal Street than see Inside Llewyn Davis.
Because everybody loves a post with a reading list.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), lost in another daydream, momentarily escapes from the cold, corporate grayness threatening to swallow him up, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fortunately not very faithful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story.
Not sure what did it. Might have been the look on Ben Stiller’s face as he studies his checkbook and sees he has enough money to cover the deposit on his mother’s new room at the assisted living center and a few of his own immediate expenses but nothing left over for anything else.
The look includes half a smile and it mixes sadness, frustration, satisfaction, relief, and a determined good humor. It’s the perfect look for a man with a lot to be down about resolving not to let it get him down because, hey, things could be worse and, anyway, today is ok, problems are taken care of, at least for now.
It’s the look of someone whose life is circumscribed by responsibilities he has only a limited power to meet on his own. He can only do so much and the rest is up to luck and the charity, mercy, forbearance, and competence of other people, most of whom don’t know or care he’s alive. And the ones who do care have their own worries and problems.
In short, it’s a look that marks Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, right away as an Everyperson.
He’s us. Most of us. The most of us who aren’t rich and extremely lucky but who are lucky enough at the moment not to be poor, sick, miserable, and totally without means to help ourselves. The most of us who can console ourselves with the thought Things really could be worse but then can’t help thinking But they could be a lot better and when we start wishing they were feeling vaguely guilty about that.
That look captures the mixture of wishfulness, frustration, guilt, and mustered faith and good cheer with which most of us live our lives and identifies Mitty as our hero.
But it also warns us not to expect too much of him.
His heroism will be of an ordinary and limited kind. We’ll be rooting for him not to triumph but to just get by on our behalf.
Whatever it was, that look or something else, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Stiller as well as starring him, had me choking up from practically its very first shot.
There have been a few movies that have done that to me, had me on the verge of tears from beginning to end, and all of them have been about the muddling through of ordinary people beset with the usual amounts of sorrow and care contriving to find satisfaction and enjoyment (even joy) in their less than wonderful lives, The Dead chief among them, a movie I insist earned its director, John Huston, a thousand years off in Purgatory.
Of course, even if I hadn’t known it from the trailers, I’d have been fairly sure The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn’t going to continue in this vein. Hollywood isn’t in the habit of lavishing big budgets on movies about the inescapable melancholy of ordinary life. That’s why Hollywood exists---to let us escape from ordinary life. But I was impressed with how long Stiller let the melancholy persist and how deep into his story he allowed it to seep.
Maybe too deep.
When, inevitably, Stiller switches gears in order to have Walter start living the kind of life Hollywood does like to make movies about---adventurous, romantic, heroic, thrilling, funny in a laugh out loud way and not a rueful, shaking of the head, boy, do I know what that’s like way---it feels like he’s cheating himself. And us.
I felt cheated, at any rate.
I felt like a sap for investing real emotion in what come before the adventure begins and then like a cynic for not getting into the spirit of things as the plot takes over and the movie works its way towards a happy and triumphant ending, even though the ending isn’t that happy and triumphant and Walter’s adventure isn’t that Hollywood movie-level implausible. In fact, the middle section of Mitty reminded me a lot The Big Year, an overlooked movie I liked from a couple years back, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three rather ordinary men who manage to have a satisfying adventure chasing a bird-watching record that doesn’t require them to lose their ordinariness. The adventure in The Big Year is realistic because real people undertake the same one every year. Walter’s adventure is not realistic in that way. But ignoring that time has to essentially stand still for him to pull it off in the very few days he manages to do it in, he doesn’t do much more than a real person (with a company credit card and no boss watching) couldn’t do.
So the cheat isn’t in the adventure. It’s in how Stiller begins to push Walter as a hero. Inexorably, it becomes clear that we’re not going to be left to see one of us rising to the occasion in a way we hope we’d rise. We going to be expected to cheer at his triumph, a triumph not on our behalf, but on Walter’s own. A movie that starts off being about how an Everyman manages to muddle through despite the cares and woes wearing him down turns into a movie about how wonderful it is to be Walter Mitty.
I suppose that by extension it’s about how wonderful it is to be the rest of us Mitty-esque Everypersons or at least how wonderful we could be if like Walter we find a way to break free from our ordinarily dull and dulling lives, shake off our inhibitions, unburden ourselves from unnecessary guilt, and put our too restricting senses of obligation aside, at least now and then, and…go for it!
But for the first third, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t just suffused with wishfulness and melancholy. It’s close to heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard of anyone complaining Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t faithful to the James Thurber short story it’s based on, possibly because few people read the story anymore. Which is too bad. It’s one of the great American short stories. But it’s easy to understand why Hollywood wouldn’t wan to ante up for a faithful adaptation.
As funny as it is on the surface, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a very dark, bleak, and depressing story. And its themes are antithetical to everything Hollywood stands for. In the story, ordinary life isn’t melancholy. It’s miserable. For Thurber, as much as for Sartre, hell is other people and there’s no exit. Romance is a fleeting illusion, love is a trap, and marriage is literally the equivalent of death.
And if that isn’t enough, Thurber makes it plain that the kind of escape from dreary reality movies offer is no escape at all. His Mitty’s daydreams are pastiches of movie clichés. The alternative heroic selves Mitty imagines are as ridiculous and empty of meaning and purpose and devoid of true heroic possibility as the self he inhabits. On top of his other problems, Mitty lacks a real imagination that would allow him to see his way out of his predicament or at least put his troubles in perspective. His ability to think for himself or about himself has been supplanted by bad movies. Hollywood does his dreaming for him.
Stiller’s Walter can think for himself. He has an imagination and he dreams real dreams. That’s one of the reasons he’s so sympathetic and why his situation is saddening. He’s self-aware. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad don’t get carried away showing us their Walter’s daydreams. They give us just enough glimpses of the adventures and moments of romances occurring in his head to let us know how he’s compensating and sublimating and distracting himself at the moment and then cut them off before they turn into stories and mini-movies in their own rights---which is what happens in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical adaptation. Stiller’s Walter is made of sterner and less silly stuff than Kaye’s. His daydreams are just passing thoughts, not alternative realities. Walter’s mind wanders but he doesn’t get lost in his imagination. He’s too responsible to let that happen. Too tough and too brave for that matter, as well. Besides, he doesn’t want to live a different life or not too different a life. He just wants a little more out of the life he has.
It’s not too bad a life.
He has friends. He’s close to his mother and his sister who love him and depend upon him. He has a job he’s good at, that he’s proud of (to a degree), and that means something (although not as much as he wishes it did). He has some financial worries and he’s lonely. There’s a woman at work he has a crush on but can’t bring himself to ask out, partly because he doesn’t want to risk rejection, partly because by habit and temperament he can’t bring himself to do things that will make him happy when, in his own opinion, he should be trying harder to make his mother happy. But there’s nothing awful about his life at the moment. The worst that could happen happened twenty-six years ago when he was sixteen and his father died. He’s still feeling the effect of that all these years later, however; he’s stuck on the day after his father died when he decided to put aside all the dreams and ambitions his father had encouraged and helped prepare him to realize to become…responsible.
What happens, of course, is circumstances come along that force him to become irresponsible.
That is, he’s suddenly deprived of the means to continue to be responsible, which leaves him desperate enough to do what he’s afraid is the irresponsible thing, run off on an adventure.
It’s at this point Stiller begins to cheat. Like I said, the cheating isn’t in the adventure itself but in how Stiller tries to force us to cheer for the hero the adventure reveals Walter to be and to keep the cheering up past the point there’s any more reason to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly become The Public Apotheosis of Walter Mitty, but that’s not for want of trying on Stiller’s part.
Stiller the director, I should point out. Stiller the actor plays things more honestly and ironically.
For the better parts of the movie, that’s how Stiller directs it too, in the visual equivalent of a minor key quietly punctuated by comic and melancholy grace notes---one of Walter’s laid off friends rescuing his potted plant from the moving men cleaning out the office, the car rental agent in Greenland’s pride in being able to offer Walter a choice of two cars, a red one and blue one, the care with which Walter carries a cake his sister has dropped off for his birthday, a pickup soccer game in the snow on the slope of a mountain. And it’s a beautiful looking film.
The dullness and numbing routine of Walter’s too ordinary and joyless life suggested by the grays and pale, cold whites of the magazine offices where he works are tricks of light. Look closely. They’re not grays and whites. They’re chromes and silvers in shadow. All it would take is for the light to shift and they’d shine and sparkle, an effect stunningly realized in the rocky and snowy landscapes and oceanscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas when Walter takes off on his adventure and shifts the light shining on his life for himself.
In style, tone, and theme, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded my of Stranger Than Fiction. Both movies are stories of an Everyman trapped in the drab, gray routine of a too ordinary life, although Will Farrell’s Harold Crick is trapped by his addiction to his routines and Stiller’s Walter is trapped by his overburdened conscience. If Walter’s addicted to anything in his life, it’s too self-denial. Both our heroes are offered salvation by the sudden insertion (assertion) of art in their daily lives. Harold, of course, has to come to terms with the idea that he is art, somebody else’s art at that. But he then learns to make his own art. Art’s role in Walter’s salvation is less direct and less obvious. Ultimately, he has to wake up to the idea that what he does for a living is a form of art, but his adventure begins with running off to rescue someone else’s work of art. It’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing, though, because he thinks he’s just trying to save his job.
Stranger Than Fiction is a work of magic realism and yet seems more true to life for that. There’s magic in Walter Mitty’s world but it’s out there. It can’t be touched and doesn’t touch us directly. It can be felt and it can be glimpsed through things,wonderful things, like the sighting of a snow leopard, or fairly ordinary things, like the appearance of a friend coming to help you out just when you need him.
Both movies share the theme that a life doesn’t have to be like a movie in order for it to be worth the effort. You just have to make the effort. And if the effort’s made, then love, romance, beauty, joy, even a bit of adventure are all attainable.
A big difference between the two movies as movies is that Will Farrell shares the screen with a couple of acting powerhouses in showy roles given most of the best lines, Dustin Hoffman (“Dramatic irony, it’ll fuck you every time.”) and Emma Thompson. Thompson is in fact the second lead. Then there’s Queen Latifah, more understated but far from fading into the background. And as Ana, Harold’s love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal is given a character to play who is more than just the lover interest. Ana has a life and a sense of herself apart from her place in Harold’s story, and she doesn’t need him to rescue her in any way, except from himself in his role as the auditor of her unfiled tax returns.
Stiller almost never has to share the screen with anyone (characters or actors) capable of taking the focus off him and, when he does, it’s not for very long. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely cameo as Walter’s mother. Sean Penn appears just long enough to have made me wish there were more straight-forward heroic characters in his filmography. Patton Oswalt appears just when we need him. But I’d be surprised if you tallied up their collective screen time and it came to more than ten minutes. And as Cheryl, Walter’s love interest, Kristin Wiig is less of a person in her own right than the character she voiced in Despicable Me 2, Gru’s love interest the overly enthusiastic secret agent Lucy Wilde, and she’s given fewer laughs. Her main job is to look like the kind of person Walter would find it nice to come home to. Cheryl has her own ordinary sorrows and cares as she’s also stuck in a life circumscribed by responsibilities she’s barely able to meet. But her predicament is too careful contrived to be one Walter Mitty is perfectly suited to rescue her from.
I’m still not sure what to make of Adam Scott’s corporate weasel who becomes Walter’s antagonist at work. With his impossibly black and glossy Elvis pompadour and lumberjack beard, between which his baby face peeks like an infant’s who’s been dressed up for Halloween as his hipster dad by his comically-minded and too easily self-amused parents, Scott looks less like he’s been sent by corporate to play the villain on their behalf than like he’s been dreamed up by Walter himself, an imagined, cartoon version of such a person too silly to be a real threat.
Maybe that was the intent. The weasel has Walter pegged as a dreamer and is contemptuous of him for that. But it may be that he’s the real fantasist and has dreamed up a macho, hairy, swaggering bully of an alternate self to disguise the weakling toady and flunky he really is. This would be more likely if there were other characters in the movie daydreaming their way through their own lives.
But the key difference is that Stranger Than Fiction stays true to the theme that a worthwhile life doesn’t have to be like a movie and thus earns its payoff in its wonderful bit of closing narration:
As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s not Bavarian Sugar Cookies, it’s citrus cake.
Unfortunately, Stiller, the director again, flinches and backs away from this idea almost to the point of backing up into the opposite idea, that a life is only worth living when it is like a movie.
While I'm thinking of it, my reviews of The Big Year and Despicable Me 2: Life is for the Birds and Not enough minions turns out to be just the right number of minions.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, screenplay by Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, and Sean Penn. 1 hr and 54 minutes. Rated PG. Now in theaters.
This description of Mrs Varden from Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge pretty well describes a side of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle. I don’t know if Lawrence or her director David O. Russell or Russell’s co-writer Eric Singer was influenced by Dickens. But they don’t need to have been. All individual human natures are variations on a few themes and a type that turns up in a novel published in 1841 can turn up in a movie made in 2013 because that type will have turned up in real life over and over again in all the years before Dickens invented Mrs Varden and in all the years since. We all know this person or somebody very much like them:
Mrs Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper--a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable. Thus it generally happened, that when other people were merry, Mrs Varden was dull; and that when other people were dull, Mrs Varden was disposed to be amazingly cheerful. Indeed the worthy housewife was of such a capricious nature, that she not only attained a higher pitch of genius than Macbeth, in respect of her ability to be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in an instant, but would sometimes ring the changes backwards and forwards on all possible moods and flights in one short quarter of an hour; performing, as it were, a kind of triple bob major on the peal of instruments in the female belfry, with a skilfulness and rapidity of execution that astonished all who heard her.
---from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.
Here’s a movie I’d like to see: A movie about a couple, he’s the owner of as struggling small chain of dry cleaners, she’s a former stripper who’s talked her way into a secretarial job at a fashion magazine that glamorizes a lifestyle she’ll never be able to afford on her salary, brought together by their mutual out of date---it’s the 70s---love for the music of Duke Ellington and a shared dream of a life of sophistication, elegance, culture, and taste---they dream of being the kind of people who dance to the music of Duke Ellington.
This is a common working class variation of the American Dream. It’s an ambition more than a wish not to be rich but to be better. Nicer. Smarter. Classier. And usually what happens is that people who dream this dream realize it through their children. They get them library cards. They find a way to pay for music lessons. They go to every concert, recital, and play. They fill their homes with books. They send the kids off to college. The trouble for this couple is they are impatient and they don’t have superior amounts of self-discipline and they are vain---of their looks (comical in his case) but more of their intelligence. They know they’re smarter than most people, including and especially greedy people with money. And they’re crooks. They figure they can steal and con their way to the honest life they dream of. Ironically, together they are too good at that. They inspire each other to more brazen cons, more reckless gambits. They start performing for each other and they get careless.
Enter the FBI.
An ambitious, ruthless, and vain agent has come up with a plan to use them to advance his own career.
This movie could be called American Hustle, and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other two movies about working class dreams of a better life and a better self, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.
If it starred Christian Bale and Amy Adams as the couple and Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent, so much the better.
Here’s another movie I’d like to see: A politician, a mayor, for instance, of a mid-sized city in the industrial Northeast fallen on hard times, falling apart except where the mayor, who was born here and grew up here and loves the place and its people like he loves his own family, has been able through wheeling and dealing to hold things (neighborhoods) together and even fix them up a little.
Trouble is the mayor’s got a little larceny in his heart. And he’s vain---of his love for his city and of his efforts to do good on its behalf. He sees himself as a working class hero, even a bit of a saint, so he feels entitled to reward, not himself, his family and friends for his good deeds. He’s a practitioner of what used to known as honest graft. Nothing gets done without his friends and associates making money out of it. But things get done. Good things. Schools get built, roads get paved, people get jobs. So what’s the harm?
But despite the love and devotion of his wife and kids and the adoration of his constituents, he’s a little lonely. He doesn’t have any real friends. Every adult he knows outside his family he knows through politics, his kind of politics, so they’re all either crooked or know he is and both types treat him accordingly. What he wants to be treated like, though, is an intellectual, of a sort. A politician who is philosophical about what he does, who has ideas, who has a vision. Someone who thinks about the good life and how to live it and how to bring it about for himself, his family, his city. And it’s not simply a matter of bringing more money to town. It’s culture too. (He has a son who’s an artist and of whom he’s inordinately proud.) He dreams of being a better, that is, a more cultured, nicer, classier person.
Enter this guy who seems to have the same dream.
They hit it off.
They become pals.
The mayor and his wife welcome the guy and his wife into their family.
The thing is, this guy is offering the mayor a deal.
He knows people. People with money to invest in cities like the mayor’s and who are looking to invest it. The guy can put the mayor in a room with these people. He promises the mayor these people will be eager to “help” the mayor finance his most cherished and ambitious dream for the city’s redevelopment.
The thing is these people are criminals.
The thing is, so is this guy, the mayor’s new best friend.
The thing is he’s working for the FBI.
Definitely a movie I’d like to see. It could be called American Hustle and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other films about large urban, ethnic, working class families united by their shared dreams of a better, that is, more cultured, elegant, and nicer life but strained by their clashing ideas of what that means and how to get there and by their conflicting eccentricities and difficult personalities, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.
If it starred Jeremy Renner as the mayor and Christian Bale as the guy, each sporting ridiculously elaborate hair styles that Bale’s character thinks makes him look like Burt Reynolds and Renner’s thinks makes him look like John Travolta, so much the better.
Here is the movie I thought I was going to see: American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, based on a true story, or as loosely based on a true story as Hollywood movies claiming to be based on true stories usually are, about an ambitious FBI agent who coerces a couple of real con artists into helping him pull off an overly complicated sting operation designed more to advance his own career than to bring down the corrupt politicians he’s targeted but who self-destructs---self-corrupts---through his attraction to the woman and the seductiveness of the easy-living, easy-money lifestyle they adopt in order to play out the con.
I expected a movie that had elements of the two movies I would like to see and elements that would make it a companion piece to Russell’s other two movies about out of control eccentrics struggling to realize their dreams of a marginally better life, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and it would have something to say about the time period, the 1970s, but mainly it would be a straight-forward heist movie with comic undertones and some, I hoped, not too heavy-handed lessons about the fallibility of even the best-intentioned human beings.
This is the movie I saw:
A movie called American Hustled directed by see above, starring see above again, that shows as if it needs showing that Christian Bale is a great character actor with absolutely no vanity.
A movie that showed that Bradley Cooper is a very good actor who wants to be a great actor but is maybe trying a little too hard right now but doing a good job of shedding his movie star vanity.
A movie that shows that Amy Adams is in spectacular shape and…and…what was I thinking before the macramé swim suit scene? Oh yeah…a very good actress who happens to be able to do an excellent imitation of someone who can imitate an English accent less than excellently but just good enough to fool people who’ve never been closer to England than their TV screens on a Sunday night when Upstairs, Downstairs is on Masterpiece Theatre.
A movie in which Jennifer Lawrence takes advantage of another opportunity provided by David O. Russell to use an ostensibly dramatic role to show she’s on her way to becoming one of our best comedic actresses.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock.
Many of the best dramatic actresses have also been among the best comedic actresses.
Hepburn. Stanwyck. Russell. Dunne. Fonda. Streep.
Saying a great dramatic actress is also a great comedic actress is a redundant way of saying someone’s a great actress.
(The same is true of male actors but less demonstrably so. See note below.)
I saw a movie a lot critics and fans of Martin Scorsese have enjoyed and admired for its cheerful, affectionate, and respectful nods to to Scorsese’s genius, which means I saw a movie a good part of the enjoyment of which is being able to give the person next to you in the theater a nudge and whisper out of the side of your mouth, “Goodfellas.”
But I also saw a movie a lot of other people disliked for all the times they nudged the person next to them and sighed, grumpily, “Goodfellas, again.”
This means I saw a movie many of whose strengths and weaknesses someone like me who isn’t a Scorsese buff and hasn’t seen Goodfellas in nearly twenty years---and didn’t commit it to memory at the time---can’t appreciate or deprecate. So, you know, when it comes to the homage thing? So what?
I saw a movie that was more stylized than stylish. A movie that captured the look of the 1970s down to the last extra button on Bradley Cooper’s suit coats but didn’t seem to be actually taking place in the 70s because nothing about the story or the characters was particularly of the 70s. There was no reason to set it in 1978 except that’s when the historical events American Hustle’s barely based on (A title card at the beginning of the film cheekily announces, “Some of this actually happened.”) took place.
American Hustle has a terrific soundtrack that includes a number of hits from the 70s but from the early 70s---Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live and Let Die, among others---and when they were played I grew instantly nostalgic for the wrong half of the decade. As advertised, it’s supposed to be 1978 but there are only two disco numbers, no punk, and no new wave (Remind me again. What was the name of the Talking Heads' first album?). Those songs were still on the radio and maybe what Russell wants us to hear is music his characters prefer to listen to, which marks them as out of step with the times, just as do the scenes of Bale and Adams dancing to Duke Ellington and Jeremy Renner leading a roomful of the mayor’s cronies in singing along with Tom Jones singing Delilah, and that would be part of the point. These people are living in the past, dreaming of better futures that are like the past, while the 80s are looming over them ready to overwhelm their small-time dreams with large-scale dreams of real MONEY and real POWER. That’s another movie I would like to see, a movie about some old-fashioned petty grifters and cheap hoods stunned by a confrontation with the sort of sociopaths who took control of Reagan’s America.
I actually suspect that if the inclusion of those songs on the soundtrack had any point other than that Russell really likes them, it’s to highlight the fair warning we were given at the beginning of the movie: Some of this actually happened. The rest? All made up and therefore fantasy. In other words, folks, don’t take any of this as realism.
There are elements that connect it to The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook---beside the cast---because there are elements of the two movies I would like to see and the movie I thought I was going to see. But those elements come in such a rush, one on top of the other and often all at the same time, that it wasn’t just hard to focus on any one, it was a distraction and a waste of time. If I got to thinking about one scene too deeply, I missed the next two.
What this all adds up to is that none of it adds up. Or at least I couldn’t follow the math in my head. It seemed to me that American Hustle was mainly about Russell having a little too much fun bringing together some of his favorite actors and letting them go to town, failing to rein them in when they needed it, allowing their improvisations to wander and go on too long, leaving too much of what he got a kick out of in the finished film instead of saving it for the deleted scenes segment of the bonus features on the DVD. I enjoyed it, in pieces. My enjoyment alternated with my disappointment and as the movie went along the periods of disappointment began to outnumber and outlast the periods of fun. As the saying goes, it’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts.
But many of its parts are good and the best of those good parts are provided by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, singly and together.
Bale makes his Irv Rosenfeld, who ought to be a repugnant figure from the top of his appalling comb-over to his pot belly-strained polyester shirts and down to the zippers on his ankle boots, into a deeply sympathetic human being. He does this by giving Irv the intelligence and imagination to see what ought to be happening at the same time he sees better than everyone else what is happening. And what ought to be happening doesn’t just mean how the con ought to be working. It means how it ought not to be working as well, that is, Irv sees that life would be nicer and more pleasurable if his marks were better enough people that they didn’t want what he’s pretending to sell them and if he himself was a better enough person not to want to pretend to sell them anything. It’s not so much that he has a conscience as that he has a dream he knows he’s getting in his own way of realizing by being a crook.
But some of Bale’s best work in American Hustle comes in scenes in which he plays straight man to Jennifer Lawrence, who as Rosalind Rosenfeld, Irv’s seemingly crazy wife and mother of Irv’s little stepson whom he’s devoted to, steals the movie. Roz uses the kid the way she uses everything within reach, as a prop in the wacky drama she’s made of her life. She’s a genius performance artist with an audience of one, herself. She doesn’t make a move---bat an eyelash, light a cigarette---without calculating its dramatic effect. She’s apparently careless, thoughtless, reckless, heedless, and even perverse---tell her do one thing and she’ll do the opposite even and especially when doing the opposite puts herself or people around her at risk. Warned not to talk to a gangster’s chief henchmen, she starts an affair with him. Warned not to put metal in her new microwave, her very first attempt to use it involves putting metal in it and setting the kitchen on fire, which a brilliant throwaway line---that is, a line brilliantly thrown away by Lawrence---lets us know is a routine occurrence in the Rosenfeld household. The only way to engage with her is to enter her little dramas, accepting the role she’s assigned you and playing the character as she’s written it.
Of course, this is how Irv works his cons, by manipulating his marks into playing parts in a play they don’t know he’s written for them. Which makes Roz as much a con artist as Irv, possibly even a more talented one. And he’s aware of this. He can even appreciate it, on a professional level. He just can’t think of any way to outmaneuver her.
As I said, Bradley Cooper maybe tries a little too hard here, but he’s wonderfully without vanity playing a man consumed by his own vanity. And as I said in my review of Man of Steel, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actors now in their primes, but she’s an elf and as an elf she has basically three modes: good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia), wicked elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter). Here she goes for a blend, a conflicted elf who wants to be and sometimes is a good elf but is more often a wicked elf who can pretend to be a good elf so well she fools even herself.
It’s good to see Jeremy Renner back at work playing a real human being after a run of playing superheroes (The Avengers) or essentially superheroes (The Bourne Legacy). Elisabeth Rohm shines as the mayor’s large-hearted wife who, maybe unwittingly, maybe not, encourages his scams and his schemes on behalf of the city through her absolute faith and devotion---the mayor can’t help thinking, A woman like this wouldn’t give her love and loyalty to a crook so I must not be a crook. Louis C.K. plays Cooper’s sad-eyed, put-upon boss who at first appears to be the only reasonable and wholly honest person in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area but who may actually be one of life’s willing and self-assigned victims, a masochist who gets satisfaction from allowing himself to be bullied and manipulated because he knows that in the end he’ll be able to say, “Told you so.”
Like me, Oliver Mannion enjoyed the movie while he was watching but he was also disappointed and his disappointment grew as it went along. He expected a different movie too, based on the trailers, although he wasn’t sure if it was going to be a more realistic, deeper, and more heartfelt drama or more of an out and out comedy. Either way, he was expecting it to be more about the con than about the characters as characters or, rather, about the lead actors’ performances as characters. The only likeable character, Oliver thought, was the mayor, and he thinks that if you’re going to make a movie full of unlikeable characters you should go one of two ways.
Either you do a serious exploration of what makes them tick or your exploit their flaws and foibles for laughs. Russell left most of his cast somewhere in between, but Jennifer Lawrence went for the laughs and that’s why she was Oliver’s favorite part of the movie.
Mine too, adding that often a smart and well-done comic performance can be more illuminating than the most emotionally wrought, Oscar-baiting serious ones.
Following up on what I said above about great dramatic actresses being great comedic actresses, as well: Male movie stars don’t get as many opportunities to show their comedic skills. When they take on “non-serious” roles it’s usually in action-adventure films. Crime and cop dramas in the 30s and 40s. Westerns in the 40s and 50s. Crime and cop dramas again in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Blow-em up, high body count action movies starting in the 80s.
These days there’s a second-tier of male romantic leads who get to play opposite female stars in their comedies. Comedies with male leads usually star clowns and comics.
Then there’s Ben Stiller. Coming up: My review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
And from way back in 2012, my review of The Fighter, The wounded family pride of the Pride of Lowell.
American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, and Paul Herman. 2 hours and 9 minutes. Rated R. Now in theaters. Soundtrack available at Amazon.
Not Roy Edroso. And as far as I know, not his cat either. But a link to his review of the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (above) and the cat (above) is below.
As regular visitors know, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with the blogging because my back problems make sitting at a keyboard for extended periods a challenge. (See below.) Slowly but surely though I’m coming to the end of my review of American Hustle. I should have it done this afternoon. I’d finish it up this morning but I have to spend the next few hours sitting with the car in the shop. (See a different below.) But I’ve got good news for those of you who are in the mood for some Monday morning movie reading.
Roy Edroso’s on the job.
Roy’s best known around these parts for his hilarious reports from the Right Wing territories of the internet, but as his fans know, he’s a terrific writer, one smart cookie, and a guy who knows his way around the cineplex. In short, he’s a very fine movie critic and recently he’s written about the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in posts that make me really sorry I’m probably not going to be able to see either.
Anywho, here’s Roy on The Wolf of Wall Street, And The Wolf That Shall Keep It May Prosper.
And here he is on Inside Llewyn Davis, Man of Constant Sorrow.
Temptation of the hero-hobbit: The Ring begins to work its evil on Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
[M]ost people [forget] that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s shed by the deserving*)…
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.
----from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
One of my most disappointing reading experiences occurred the Christmas Santa left me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham .
This was when I was in seventh grade. My youngest sibling, Laura Mannion as was, is nine years younger than me so Santa came to our house until my senior year of high school.
I was thrilled when I saw that book under the tree. That was the year I’d read The Lord of the Rings, all three books in three days, and I couldn’t wait to get back into Middle-earth. I took it with me to Church and started reading as soon as we got into the car after Mass to go to my grandparents’ for Christmas dinner. I’m pretty sure I had the manners and the sense not to keep reading during dinner---if I forgot my manners, Nana Mannion, who, love me as she did, I don’t believe ever thought I had much sense, would have reminded me, sharply.---but I read continually enough to have finished both novellas before we got home. That in itself was disappointing, that they were quick and easy reads. I thought that as a reader of “grown-up” books now, it should take me a good while to get through a book. That was supposed to be one of the rewards of having outgrown the Hardy Boys. More time spent happily lost inside a good story. But I went to bed sort of ticked at Santa and wishing he’d thought to bring me a new Allistair MacLean or Agatha Christie instead for two other reasons.
The first disappointment was they struck me as stories for children. I didn’t know Tolkien intended them as jokes for adults. The Lord of the Rings certainly wasn't a children’s story. But neither was The Hobbit. Not in the way fretful adults think of children’s stories. The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.
The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hear The Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.
Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.
The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.
It’s about blood.
Things were looking pretty bad again, when suddenly Bilbo reappeared and charged into the astonished spiders unexpectedly from the side.
“Go on! Go on!” he shouted. “I will do the stinging.”
And he did. He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting, and dared not come very near, now that it had come back. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just as when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.
There’s nothing like the battle with Shelob’s children in either Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major. There’s nothing dark or threatening or scary. No danger. Nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to not be afraid of, which means no reason to feel brave which is what most children want to feel. Brave. Because they know. The world is a scary and dangerous place. There's no hiding from it by staying snug and warm and apparently safe in you Hobbit hole. The world will show up on your doorstep, force its way in, and drag you out and carry you off to face trolls and goblins and dragons.
In the real world, the eagles never come and the dragons never sleep.
There are no goblins in those novellas. No trolls. There’s a dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham but compared to Smaug he might as well be Puff. There are no orcs, no Wildmen, no white wizards who turn against humans and their wizard friends, no heroes who can be corrupted by their desire to be greater heroes, no hobbits who can have their hearts turned and their minds unhinged by just the barest contact with power. No blood. No evil.
And that, I felt, was wrapped up in the second reason for my disappointment.
Neither story is set in Middle-Earth.
I was shut out of the place I wanted to get back to. And I didn’t just want to go back to re-visit favorite tourist stops and historical landmarks. I wanted to explore new territories, meet new characters, fight new battles, and encounter and brave new dangers.
All these years later and I still feel that disappointment even just thinking about Smith’s and Farmer Giles’ stories, and I now get the jokes.
Which, by the way, aren’t funny.
So you can see why it wouldn’t bother me in principle that Peter Jackson hasn’t made an absolutely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit.
He’s using The Hobbit to do what I’d hoped to do with Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham and what I have done in many subsequent re-readings of The Hobbit and my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, make his own way on another long explore of Middle-earth.
Of course, in doing so he’s showing that The Hobbit isn’t a children’s story in that way. He’s letting the blood show. He couldn’t help that. Do away with the narration and audiences can’t pretend they don’t see what children who aren’t fooled by the narrator’s diversions hear. Everything dark, violent, evil, scary, and strange that connects The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings---and that’s what Jackson’s trying to do with these movies, make the connection---is there in the book. That’s a given. The real critical questions are where does he take us in Middle-earth and what does what he finds there have to do with making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a good movie?
Tolkien created a world and then lost control of it. He couldn’t comprehend the whole of it himself and his son Christopher, working feverishly in his wake, just kept expanding it. It was as if he’d imagined his way through to another universe and left the door open behind him. Or, to borrow an image from his friend C.S. Lewis, his books are the wardrobe that has let millions find their way to Middle-Earth which is endlessly open to exploration and adventure. Narnia is much more circumscribed. Its precincts come into being only when Lewis needs something to happen there as opposed to here. And nothing happens in Discworld Terry Pratchett hasn’t put there. But Middle-earth’s boundaries can be expanded, its population added to, its geography reconfigured and remapped, its history extended forwards and backwards and sideways in time, revised and rewritten by the imaginations of anyone and everyone who visits.
Given all that Jackson could have added, it’s worth noting how little he actually has invented. A lot of what some persnickety fans of the book and irritable film critics with too much on their plates because it’s December and the studios are releasing all their award season hopefuls in a rush dismiss as “padding” to fill out what they think should have been one two-hour movie instead of three nearly three-hour ones is the inevitable result of Jackson the filmmaker having to put into explicit images what Tolkien the writer could get away with implying and even leaving entirely to his readers’ imaginations. More movies should leave more to the imagination, but there’s a limit to that. The camera has to show something.
A picture is worth a thousand words if the words are the work of a mediocre writer and the picture is very good and stands still long enough for us to give it a good look. When the writing is good, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
Jackson may not have needed a thousand pictures for every one of Tolkien’s words, but Tolkien’s words conjure up pictures that don’t stand still and that take time to present on screen. Then there’s the problem of turning into dialog conversations Tolkien was content to summarize.
So the issue isn’t whether Jackson’s added scenes, characters, and dialog. You can’t make a movie out of a book without doing that.
And it’s not whether what he’s added is true to Tolkien if not to the published version of The Hobbit.
It’s whether what he’s added actually adds to the story he’s telling, which isn’t The Hobbit. No one was going to give Peter Jackson millions of dollars to adapt The Hobbit. It’s The Lord of the Rings as told for the screen by Peter Jackson. This Hobbit trilogy isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s the first three chapters of what will be an eighteen hour movie that until last year was only half finished.
And when you think of it that way, then the orcs are there, Legolas is there, Radagast and his birds and rabbits are there, and the White Council does meet because something terrible is brewing at Dol Goldur. Jackson isn’t inventing. He’s showing what’s implied by what’s already been filmed.
But it doesn’t matter that Legolas is in there because, well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Mirkwood is his home. The wood-elf king is his father. As prince, wouldn’t he have taken part in the Battle of Five Armies? It makes storytelling sense, then, to get him on the scene ahead of time and not have him show up just to be glimpsed leading a charge of elves against the orcs.
What matters is that he appears to have something more to do than make a connection to The Lord of the Rings. Considering the wood elf king’s---Legolas’ father’s---antipathy to the dwarfs, his deciding to take part in the Battle of Five Armies has always seemed like a nakedly thematic choice on Tolkien’s part. Self-interest often wins out over prejudice in real life and in the book the Battle of Five Armies is not meant to be taken as glorious or heroic. It’s a clash of tribal egos and ambitions and greed. But something else is going on if it’s Legolas’ doing that the elves join in.
Something else again if they join despite him.
What also matters is that Legolas appears to be different from how he is in The Lord of the Rings. He’s more vain, more arrogant, crueler, and much more a hero in his own right than the hero’s perfect lieutenant which is his role as part of the Fellowship. The question is what softened him and when did it happen?
I suppose I could be misremembering what Legolas was like in The Lord of the Rings. It could be that Jackson or Orlando Bloom or both misremembered. It could be that Bloom, with ten years’ more experience as an actor in his quiver, didn’t want to repeat himself and figured out how to avoid it. But I hope more than that’s going on and we’re going to see him learn lessons in wisdom and humility in the next movie and I have a sinking feeling I know how he learns those lessons. Jackson is going to give us a reason somebody isn’t in The Lord of the Rings besides the fact Tolkien didn’t put that somebody in there.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jackson has found things and characters in Middle-earth Tolkien didn’t put there or didn’t know were there himself.
It doesn’t matter that Jackson has concocted the character of the female warrior elf Tauriel all on his own and given her a torch to carry for Legolas and then burdened her with a compensatory crush on Fili, the handsomest, swashbucklingest of the dwarfs after Thorin. That seemed forced to me but I still kind of liked it because it prefigures the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
What matters is whether Tauriel more than an avatar for girls playing the video game spinoffs. She isn’t as interesting a character as Eowyn who is more than her unrequitable love for Aragorn and her ability to fight like a boy. But that’s so far. She has potential but we’ll have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again to find out where Jackson’s taking her.
It doesn’t matter where Jackson got all the backstory he’s piled on Bard the Bowman. All of it could have come straight from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make Bard interesting and give us a rooting interest in him. It’s always bothered me that in the book Bard isn’t much more than an attitude and there isn’t any reason to care he’s the one who’ll fire the black arrow except that somebody has to do it.
Judging how well all of this, invented outright or mined from other Tolkien sources, works depends on how Jackson follows up in next year’s next installment, which means that at least a third of The Desolation of Smaug is setup for There and Back Again.
I’m not saying that The Desolation of Smaug is just a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again or that it isn’t at all faithful to the book (or books). It’s very much a continuation of the story and it is faithful to the book, much more faithful than it and An Unexpected Journey have been given credit for, particularly in the three set-pieces at the center of the part of the book The Desolation of Smaug is taken from: the battle with Shelob’s children, the barrel escape from Mirkwood---I mean from the point when Bilbo hatches his plan to when he finds himself in the river without a barrel of his own. The orcs chasing the barrels and the elves chasing the orcs chasing the barrels is another question. But the moment when Bilbo realizes he’s forgotten to arrange his own escape is a gem---and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug.
But these scenes aren’t good simply because they’re faithful to Tolkien. In fact, if all they were was faithful they’d be dramatically flat. What I liked best about them is what Jackson does with Bilbo and to him with them.
And not just to Bilbo.
I should say to our understanding of Frodo.
As I said last Hobbit season in my review of An Unexpected Journey, one of the things I'm enjoying most about Jackson's adaptation is how, with considerable help from Martin Freeman, he's establishing that Bilbo is a hero. The hobbit hero. And Jackson and Freeman are doing it in a way that I think will carry over into all future viewings of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo isn't Ian Holm anymore. Holm is Freeman's shadow.
For all his protesting at the beginning of An Unexpected Jouney that he's a Baggins of Bag End and therefore very much a stay at home sort of Hobbit, Gandalf has Bilbo’s number. There is a strong strain of adventuresome Took in him and it's coming out in The Desolation of Smaug.
Bilbo is getting to like adventuring. He's coming to like being in danger because, like children reading the book, he likes feeling brave. He's enjoying his role as the Burglar because to pull it off he has to solve problems---riddles---think for others, make decisions on their behalf, come to their rescue, and, when you get right down to it, take over from Thorin as the leader of the company.
In other words, he's getting a kick out of being a hero.
This is a good development in its own dramatic right for this set of movies. But it's good for Jackson's whole project because it calls attention to what he did with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Now of course Bilbo had to change in order to become a hero. But in The Desolation of Smaug we're beginning to see how the change works on itself. Being a hero is changing him. Bilbo has started to look for opportunities to be heroic. He is growing into his role as hero, which means he is growing ambitious.
Frodo is not ambitious, because Frodo is not a hero.
I think a lot of readers who find their way from The Hobbit straight into The Lord of the Rings tend to see Frodo as Bilbo all over again.
Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass understood that. That's why in their cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King---which are both pretty good, The Hobbit especially, considering the limitations Rankin and Bass had to work within.---they drew Bilbo and Frodo as lookalikes and had Orson Bean provide the voices for both.
Jackson's Frodo is very different from his and Tolkien's Bilbo, and the scene that encapsulates that difference is Arwen's Ride in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the book, Frodo makes the ride alone. And on his own he turns his pony and draws his sword to face the Nazgul and dares them to come and take the ring. He acts the part of a hero, just as Bilbo would have done in a similar fix.
But in the movie Frodo's in no shape to play the hero. He's close to dying from his wound (Note to myth watchers: a wound that will never truly heal.), barely conscious, and essentially helpless. He needs Arwen to protect and save him. Jackson didn't make this change just to give one of his very few female characters something important to do. It's a motif. Jackson's Frodo is always in need of saving. He needs Arwen and Gandalf and Sam and the other hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship to do the fighting for him. That’s the job of the Fellowship, to protect Frodo. And not simply because the journey's dangerous and there'll be minions of Sauron all along the way trying to take the ring from whoever's carrying it. It's because it's Frodo's job to carry the ring, and it's his job because he's not a hero.
He's a saint.
Carrying the ring is a burden and he's the only one up to taking it on. He's the only one up to enduring the suffering that goes with it and capable of resisting its temptations as well. Bilbo has already failed at that second part. In The Desolation of Smaug we see that failure begin, which means we see Jackson setting up a theme in his Hobbit movies that will tie it tight to his Lord of the Rings.
We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.
Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure.
The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf.
With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.
This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway.
Oddly, with all this intensified focus on Bilbo, it seemed to me that Jackson kept losing track of him. Even in scenes in which Bilbo ought to have been our main focus, the camera seemed to have a hard time staying with him.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw An Unexpected Journey. The second time we went and when we watched it on DVD I didn’t notice it. The explanation I came up with then was that Jackson filmed it in 3D but we saw it on the screen in 2D which means Jackson had the camera focused on points that shifted in the translation. The second time we went my eye knew better where to look. That probably happened again this time out. We saw the 2D version. This might explain something else, as well.
There’s no point complaining anymore that Jackson didn’t need to make three movies out of a story that could have been told in one, which, by the way, I’m not so sure is the case. I think he would have had to rush things. Two movies, then. Two three hour movies, for sure. But he didn’t so we have what we have. And what we have so far are two two-hour and forty minute or so movies that I think could have benefited from being edited down to two-hours and thirty minutes or even two-hours and twenty. There seemed to be a lot of repetition within scenes. Images repeated each other. Dialog went on past the point where anything important or interesting was being said. Whole seconds went by at a time (and a second is a long time within a single shot) when nothing appeared to be going on. And I wonder if it was the case again that I just wasn’t seeing what the 3D camera was supposed to show.
This is either a reason that you should see The Desolation of Smaug in 3D or more evidence that 3D is a waste of time and gigabytes.
As for the movie as a movie apart from its place in Jackson’s grand scheme of things, it’s generally a rip-roaring good time with as much humor as An Unexpected Journey though with less comedy, if that makes sense.
The video game Jackson made of the barrel escape is fun and exciting because of the addition of the orcs and the elves and because it is integral to the plot. But the video game that ends the film is just a video game, and a routine one in which things appear and disappear just because they’re needed at the moment or they force the characters to continue on to the next level. Worse than that, however, is that coming where it does and going on and on as it does, it erases the effect of the great and key scene before it, Bilbo’s game of wits with Smaug.
And speaking of Smaug…actually, speaking of Smaug speaking, it was terrific news that Jackson had cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and face and body behind the motion capture) of Smaug. But went and made a huge mistake by not letting Smaug speak with Cumberbatch’s real voice. He’s distorted it so that Smaug roars and growls and snarls his way through his speechs in ways that could have been the work of any actor and that pretty much reduce Smaug to the level of a special effect like the orcs Azog and Bolg rather than a performance like Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
Smaug isn’t any old fire-breathing monster. He’s a highly intelligent dragon and, as these things go, a cultivated one. How much more appropriate and disturbing and frightening would it have been then if he spoke in Sherlock Holmes' plummy, seductive, and very human baritone? Plus, it would have been a treat for Sherlock fans to hear Freeman and Cumberbatch sounding like Watson and Holmes but talking to very different purpose.
So Cumberbatch’s kind of wasted. So is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn the skin-changer, although in his case it’s because his whole character is wasted. Beorn’s chess set is more interesting than he is. I expect, though, he’ll have more to do in There and Back Again.
But Lee Pace is definitely not wasted as Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the wood-elf king. Pace is marvelously and gorgeously languid and decadent and yet still sinister and menacing as a once upon a time noble warrior corrupted and weakened in spirit and will by fear, hatred, and, it appears, boredom resulting from having lived too long to no special purpose. Pace gives him an extra note of self-loathing that Thranduil nurses by making arbitrary decisions and doing and saying things that disgust him, which gets to back to why Legolas’ presence comes across as necessary. Pace’s Thranduil is another lost father or father-figure like Denethor and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings who needs to be saved from himself by his children, which, by the way, is maybe what Thorin ought to be doing, saving his father, who is wandering Middle-earth mad and lost, instead of pursuing his ambition to take his grandfather’s place as king. (That he’s not, turns out to be on Gandalf who is playing Realpolitik and using Thorin to use Bilbo to use Smaug to unite dwarfs, elves, and men in alliance against you know who.) At any rate, the question raised here that I presume will be answered in There and Back Again is whether Thandruil is redeemable like Theoden or irredeemably lost like Denethor.
Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin continue to the good work they started in An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. As Radagast the Brown, Barry Humphries has toned down the eccentricity and we can begin to see why Gandalf trusts Radagast.
Evangeline Lilly’s effectiveness as Tauriel will depend on what she does with what Jackson does with her in There and Back Again. As Bard, Luke Evans is suitably grim but his grimness has reason. It the book it’s just his temperament. Here it’s both a mask and a shield. There’s much more to Bard than he dares let on if he wants to protect himself and his family from the political intriguers who run Laketown. Still, like Lilly, most of what he’s doing in The Desolation of Smaug is setting up what he’ll be doing in There and Back Again.
Stephen Fry is having a high old time as the oily, craven, and debauched Master of Laketown, but he seems to have wandered in from another sort of movie. I’ve noticed this is often the case with Stephen Fry. Some of this is the effect of his being so much bigger and broader than the other actors around him. But I think a lot it is that he always seems to be having much more fun than everybody else as well.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien . Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Bell, and Lawrence Makoare. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Peter Jackson didn’t invent the eccentric woods-dwelling wizard Radagast the Brown and the cutsey and cuddly Disneyesque birds and animals that go with him for the The Hobbit movies. He just went to town with it. Radagast is a Tolkien creation. His original name, Aiwendil, means “Bird-friend” and Tolkien made him the wizard in charge of protecting Middle Earth’s flora and fauna. Terry Pratchett is obviously up on his Tolkien lore and makes use of it in his Discworld novels. So I got to think Sir Terry had Radagast in mind when he came up with Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University:
Unseen University had had many different kinds of Archchancellor over the years. Big ones, small ones, cunning ones, slightly insane ones, extremely insane ones---they’d come, they’d served, in some cases not long enough for anyone to be able to complete the official painting to be hung in the Great Hall, and they’d died. The senior wizard in a world of magic has the same prospects of long-term employment as a pogo stick tester in a minefield.
However, from the Bursar’s point of view this didn’t really have to matter. The name might change occasionally, but what did matter was that there always was an Archchancellor and the Archchancellor’s most important job, as the Bursar saw it, was to sign things, preferably, from the Bursar’s point of view, without reading them first.
This one was different. For one thing, he was hardly ever in, except to change out of his muddy clothes. And he shouted at people. Usually at the Bursar.
And yet, at the time, it had seemed a really good idea to select an Archchancellor who hadn’t set foot in the University in forty years.
There had been so much in-fighting between the various orders of wizardry in recent years that, just for once, the senior wizards had agreed that what the University needed was a period of stability, so that they could get on with their intriguing and scheming in peace and quiet for a few months. A search of the records turned up Ridcully the Brown who, after becoming a Seventh Level Mage at the incredibly young age of twenty-seven, had quit the University in order to look after the family’s estates deep in the country.
He looked ideal.
“Just the chap,” they all said. “Clean sweep. New broom. A country wizard. Back to the thingumajigs, the roots of wizardry. Jolly old boy with a pipe and twinkly eyes. Sort of chap who can tell one herb from another, roams the high forest with every beast his brother kind of thing. Sleeps under the stars, like as not. Knows what the wind is saying, we shouldn’t wonder. Got a name for all the trees, you can bank on it. Speaks to the birds, too.”
A messenger had been sent. Ridcully the Brown had sighed, cursed a bit, found his staff in the kitchen garden where it had been supporting a scarecrow, and had set out.
“And if he’s any problem,” the wizards had added, in the privacy of their own heads, “anyone who talks to trees should be no trouble to get rid of.”
And then he’d arrived, and it turned out that Ridcully the Brown did speak to the birds. In fact, he shouted at birds, and what he normally shouted was, “Winged you, yer bastard!” ---from Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
Aren’t three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen a part of every normal suburban family? Former villain turned good guy father and jam and jelly maker, Gru, deals with fallout from the household help’s helping out too much in Despicable Me 2.
[This week’s feature for Family Movie Night, Despicable Me 2. Now out on DVD and available for streaming. This is adapted from my dual review of Red 2 and Despicable Me 2, Bald-headed action-adventure heroes in retirement, which I posted in August when they were both still in the theaters.]
Red 2 isn’t as restrained or realistic as Despicable Me 2. Or as funny.
But in both Red and DM2 we have a bald, middle-aged retired action-adventure hero trying to live a normal life in the suburbs who gets dragged back into a world of mystery, danger, and suspense by the uninvited and unwelcome appearance of ghosts from his exciting past.
The difference is that, unlike Red’s Frank Moses, Gru isn't bored or alienated. He's quite happy, in fact. He has a new line of work, making jams and jellies in the underground laboratory and factory where he used to build the weapons and devices for his evil schemes. He fits in and gets along well with his neighbors---Most of them, at any rate.---and they like him. The mothers in the neighborhood, particularly, look out for him. They see Gru as a normal single dad doing an admirable job of raising his three adopted daughters on his own. And that's just it. Frank is lonely. Gru has Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They adore him, he adores them and would do anything for them, including, if the situation is desperate enough, dressing up as a fairy princess now and then.
But then those ghosts come calling. Gru, as reluctantly as Frank, although reluctant for very different reasons, gets back into the game and puts the old skills to work to save the day.
And that's about as far as the Red-Despicable Me 2 parallels go, because...
The temptation for makers of sequels, especially for makers of sequels to movies that didn't really need sequels, is to deliver more of the same with emphasis.
If something worked once in the original, then you can count on it being tried twice in the sequel. Or three times. Or four. Or four dozen. (See above.) As you might expect, in Despicable Me 2 that means more minions.
Now, as a fan of the minions, I might have been inclined to feel you can't have too many minions. But directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud don't test that. They give us more but in a way that feels like less. Not less as in not enough. Less as in always leave 'em wanting more.
The minions get more scenes and more to do. There's more minion slapstick. More minion singing and dancing. More minion involvement in the plot. But we see them more on their own terms. They have lives, you know.
Freed from having to spend their workdays in the underground lab---it doesn't take as many minions to make jams and jellies as to build shrink rays and rocket ships--- Gru's core group of minions, Dave, Stuart, Lance, Jerry, Carl, and Kevin, have assigned themselves key jobs in the running of the Gru household and are, generally, handling things so well that Gru has learned to take them and their efforts for granted. In fact it's not until the WiFi goes out and Kevin doesn't come running to fix it that Gru starts to suspect there's trouble brewing at home, although his first thought is that Kevin has taken another vacation day without putting in for it.
But because Gru takes the minions for granted, we do too. They don't exactly sneak into scenes. It's more the case that their being there is such a given that it takes a minute to remember that three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen aren't a part of every normal suburban family.
There's another temptation for sequel makers, the temptation to undo the happy ending of the original in order to redo it in a slightly different but still safely familiar way, and this one Despicable Me 2 avoids completely.
Gru doesn't fall back into his evil ways. He's truly reformed, a really good good guy. The girls aren't taken from him, so he doesn't have to prove his worthiness as a loving and loveable father all over again. The moon doesn't need to be stolen again. Vector, thankfully, doesn't return as the villain.
Despicable Me 2 quietly picks up Gru where Despicable Me left him, cheerfully and contentedly at home, a devoted family man with three loving daughters, the foundations of a full and happy life safely laid, lacking for nothing except---
No, not adventure.
Enter Lucy Wilde, an overly enthusiastic rookie agent for the Anti-Villain League who arrives to forcibly recruit Gru in an effort to track down and thwart a mysterious new supervillain whose evil scheme will eventually involve cupcakes, chickens, a threat to the minions, and a lot of purple.
Lucy is voiced by Kristen Wiig but that hardly matters any more than it matters that it’s Steve Carell doing the voice of Gru. Like Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 is very close to being a silent movie. Not that it is very close to being silent. But it could be and we’d still get it. Almost all its humor is visual and much of its exposition is delivered visually too. Lucy looks and moves funny, but what she really brings to the story, which Despicable Me lacked, besides a grown-up female lead, is a visual complement to Gru.
I like the style of both the original and the sequel. They don’t look any other CGI cartoons. I can’t identify all their influences, but Gru is clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and in Despicable Me he was alone in that. But Lucy could be one of Gorey’s ballerinas, slender, apparently boneless, and liquidy, except cheerful and always in motion instead of at rest or frozen in mid-plie. Actually, she never rests. And in her company Gru never rests either. He becomes graceful. I should say, more graceful. Together they’re paired in a continual slapstick tango.
I don’t think you need to have seen Despicable Me first in order to enjoy Despicable Me 2, although it’s probably better if you did. But coming out of the theater, I had the feeling that I liked Despicable Me 2 more than the original. Not a lot more. But more. I’m not sure why. It may have been that all the sentimentality of Gru’s reformation and adoptive fatherhood was gotten out of the way. It may have been that I was just glad Vector wasn’t back. He was a truly annoying villain. It may have been that Lucy really was exactly what was needed to complete things. It may have been that Gru makes an even better hero than he did a villain.
It may have been the tortilla chip hats.
It may have been that it was simply a better made movie all around.
Who am I kidding?
I know what it was.
From July 2010, my review of the first Despicable Me, I’ve got to hire me some minions.
Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, screenplay by Ken Dorio and Cinco Paul. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, and Kristen Schaal. 98 minutes. Rated PG. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Hugh Jackman, acting with every muscle in his body, snarls, growls, slashes, claws, and dances his way through The Wolverine, an X-Men movie with more in common with The Bourne Identity than with the other X-Men movies.
When I was kid blowing what was left of my allowance and lawn mowing money after blowing it on baseball cards, Hardy Boys books, GI Joe equipment on comic books and deep enough into superhero legend and lore that I could spend an afternoon with my friends debating who would win in a fight, Batman or Daredevil, Aquaman or Submariner, I wasn’t much interested in spending an afternoon in debating who would win in those fights or any matchup of DC and Marvel superheroes.
I couldn’t get worked up over an argument that as a staunch DC fan I felt was over before it began.
We had Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. Over and done.
Marvel’s best hope was in having Reed Richards on its side and I figured that proved the point. In order to have a chance Marvel would have to resort to…science? Come on. Play fair.
The kid in me still influences my thinking on this and I still put the odds in DC's favor when it’s a matchup of superheroes.
But when it’s a matchup of actors who play superheroes?
Whole nother ballgame.
Of course, at this point Marvel has the advantage of having produced many more movies.
But you can still work up some intriguing matchups that produce decisive DC wins.
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman vs Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon vs Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson.
Heath Ledger as the Joker vs William Dafoe as the Green Goblin.
And a couple of no-decisions:
Diane Lane as Martha Kent vs Sally Field as Aunt May.
Michael Caine as Alfred vs Paul Bettany as Jarvis.
Kidding on the last one.
Caine wins on points.
But as far as the heroes go:
Henry Cavill or Brandan Routh vs Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans?
Ryan Reynolds vs anyone except Halle Berry (who can be paired off against herself and lose either way. It’ll be interesting to see Ben Affleck’s Batman opposed to his Daredevil, which in comic book fan heaven is the ideal matchup)?
Even DC’s Great Bat-Hope, Christian Bale, enters the arena a sure loser as he has to go up against Robert Downey Jr.
To be fair to Bale, Christopher Nolan fixed the fight against his own boy here by losing interest in Batman and Bruce Wayne in the last two movies and leaving Bale nothing to work with but uninspired lines of exposition that it didn’t matter Bale growled his way through unintelligibly.
At any rate, there’s nothing to be gained for DC in taking this any further. Even excluding Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as the ringers they are, Marvel’s bench is just way too deep.
A happier and more satisfying waste of time is to imagine matchups between stars of the three main Marvel franchises, the Avengers, Spider-man (and for the purposes of my argument I’m treating the Maguire-Rami trilogy and the reboot with Andrew Garfield as one and the same), and X-Men.
Actually, it’s inspiring, just making a list of the great and good actors appearing throughout the Marvel movie universes who aren’t there to camp it up but to act.
The Avengers: Downey, Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Tobey Jones, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier they’re adding Robert Redford.
Spider-Man: Maguire, Dafoe, Field, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Hayden Church, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, and, coming up, Paul Giamatti, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Cooper.
X-Men: This was the weakest until the reboot brought in Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Kevin Bacon. It wasn’t that the acting was bad. It was just that the casts have been mostly made up of male and female starlets who’ve gone nowhere and second-tier character actors without star power of their own. Brain Cox is terrific but he’s no Tommy Lee Jones or Stanley Tucci. (Like I said, I disqualify Stewart and McKellan as ringers.) There’s been one magnificent exception and, based on the title of this post and the picture up top, you’re already ahead of me on this, aren’t you?
By now, just about everyone with taste and judgment and a sense of fun who loves movies outside the Hollywood award-giving community and a few of the more effete of the elite film critics takes it as a given that a part in a comic book movie is a respectable gig and that it’s possible for the actors in one to deliver performances that are as nuanced, convincing, and true to life as in any reverent biopic, sentimental foreign import, or Scorsese-directed or influenced cinematic opera.
Christopher Reeve set the standard, but I’d make the case that it was Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, with an assist from Bruce Willis as John McClane in the first Die Hard, who showed that that comic book heroes or what are essentially comic book heroes could be played as grownups, by grownups, for grownups.
The travesty that devolved from Tim Burton’s Batman could have derailed the trend. Thankfully, Marvel decided that DC’s failures had nothing to do with them and along came X-Men.
There was some necessary cheating for respectability with the casting of Stewart and McKellan seeming like a doubling of what George Lucas managed to pull off having Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars, as if Lucas had also managed to sign Lawrence Olivier for the part of Grand Moff Tarkin. But, also like Star Wars, zippy storytelling and the director’s faith in the material carried the movie. But, also again like Star Wars, the movie was made even better by the fortuitous casting of a charismatic and savvy actor as a secondary character who used the part the way Harrison Ford used Han Solo to turn himself into a star.
Hugh Jackman became to the X-Men franchise what Ford was to Star Wars. And, still following Ford’s example, this time as Indiana Jones, Jackman showed that playing a live-action cartoon character wasn’t just a launching pad to stardom. It was a job for a star.
A star who could and did act.
As Wolverine, Jackman set the scene for Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, and, ultimately, Robert Downey Jr.
With that, you could say Jackman’s work here was done.
If you bothered with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you’re probably thinking, Too bad Jackman and Marvel didn’t see it that way and leave well enough alone.
You can also understand, though, why four years later they’d want to try again with The Wolverine.
And if you’re a fan, you’ll be glad they did.
But here’s the real news. You don’t have to be a fan---of Wolverine, of Marvel, of superhero or comic book movies in general---to enjoy The Wolverine. I’m assuming you’re a Hugh Jackman fan because who isn’t, but you don’t have to be a fan of him either. The Wolverine might make you one, but you don’t have to be.
The Wolverine is only technically a superhero movie. It’s only nominally connected to the previous X-Men movies and there’s little in it to connect it with next summer’s Days of Future Past. In style, tone, narrative structure, and overall effect, it has little in common with any superhero movie that’s come before it and a lot in common with simpler, more straightforward, and---these things being relative---realistic action-adventure movies like Taken and The Bourne Identity. In fact, it’s very much like those two films. A lone hero with a very special set of skills has to stay alive and save the girl while running a gantlet of bad guys. The difference is Wolverine doesn’t have to find weapons or improvise them as he goes. He is the weapon.
The fate of humankind isn’t at stake. There’s no cackling supervillain bent on world domination or destruction. Backstory is minimal which means so’s exposition. The story’s told mainly through visuals, character development is done on the fly, and our rooting interest in the hero depends on his being played by a star who can carry the plot and convey everything we need to know about what the character’s thinking and feeling while implying depth and emotion the script doesn’t actually provide without having to say very much. In a way, these movies require a dancer in the lead role, and while you might not think of Liam Neeson or Matt Damon as dancers, Hugh Jackman is one. A song and dance man, at any rate, and his Wolverine is as athletic and balletic as Gene Kelly.
Somewhat less cheerful, of course.
Here’s all you need to know about Wolverine going in. Logan, the name he’s known by to friends and his more intimate enemies---I can’t recall if he’s ever referred to as Wolverine in The Wolverine---is a mutant, a human being with abilities that are essentially magic powers explained away by genetics, the next step in evolution, yadda yadda, science. Logan is superstrong, super-agile, superquick and has the ability to heal from just about any wounds almost instaneously. Shoot him, stab him, beat him, pin-cushion him with arrows or burn him up in a nuclear firestorm and you’ll slow him down for a second or two while the holes you put in him close up, the bruises fade, and the burnt skin sloughs off, then he’ll come back at you again.
Time’s passage is a continual wound or series of wounds but Logan regenerates and rejuvenates without pause, so he’s pretty much immortal as well as close to invulnerable.
He also has a pair of retractable claws that shoot out of the knuckles on the backs of his hands and are made of metal not bone. Don’t worry about it.
Once you accept that his claws are like other action-adventure heroes’ guns and his ability to take a bullet like their ability to dodge one, the superhero aspect is practically ignorable.
When we meet up with him at the beginning of The Wolverine, Logan’s cut himself off from his superhero friends and teammates and, as for all they matter to this story, from the previous X-Men movies. He’s retreated to the great north woods to be alone with his demons and his grief. Time can’t touch him physically, but it weighs heavy on his heart and his soul. The woman who haunts his dreams is a character from the X-men (comics and films) but you don’t need to know who she is. In fact, it’s probably better you don’t know, and if you do know, try to forget because who wants to bring her back to life? What’s important is she’s the love of his life and she’s dead. He’s not trying forget the past, though. He’s avoiding his future, desperately trying to live in an eternal but imaginary present in which she is still alive. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the past and the future to come calling together in the person of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a henna-haired female ninja who can swing a katana with as deadly effect as Logan can use his claws. She’s been sent by an old friend of Logan’s, a former Japanese soldier whose life Logan saved during the bombing of Nagasaki now an extremely rich old man dying of an intractable disease all the money in the world can’t cure. The old man wants Logan to come to Japan to say goodbye and to thank him again for his long and prosperous life by giving him the gift of the thing the old man believes Logan wants most.
The trip is a trick. The old man’s idea of a gift is selfish and perverse. Logan prepares to return home to get back to his brooding. But…there’s a girl.
And she needs saving.
Soon Logan is slashing and clawing, smashing and brawling his way up and and down the Japanese archipelago, taking on Yakuza and ninjas and leaving a trail of blood that to his amazement includes puddles of his own. Somehow his power to rejuvenate has been arrested. His wounds aren’t healing. Each new fight leaves him weaker and more demoralized.
He keeps going, of course. Having someone else to fight for gives him something to live for. This is the closest The Wolverine comes to expressing any comic book subtext. Logan doesn’t come out and say, Oh that’s right, I’m a superhero! This is my job! But we know that’s where his thinking’s headed.
It’s just a question of his living long enough to get there.
Even if Logan was inclined to talk about his feelings, he doesn’t have anybody to talk about them with, which is another way of saying that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have anybody to play off of in The Wolverine.
The most interesting supporting character---who is practically the only other character with a character. The rest are mainly attitudes, poses, and plot points---Fukishima’s Yukio keeps disappearing from the plot for long stretches at a time. Tao Okamoto, who plays Moriko, the damsel in distress, is there to center the camera and give us something calm and lovely to focus on so that we’re not too dizzied by the storms of violence and mayhem filling up the screen around her. The bad guys and their henchmen are obstacles and targets. The only real interplay between Logan and any of them is a dance on the top of a bullet train, an almost comic pas de deux in which Logan and his opponent have to take cues from one another and follow each other’s leads in order not to bet knocked off or blown off the train in between exchanges of kicks, punches, and body slams. The result is that all the acting in the movie is left to Jackman. And he delivers, despite not having a lot to work with.
On the page, Wolverine isn’t much more than a snarl, a growl, and the snick-snick sound of his claws coming out. But even if he was a more talkative type and had somebody to talk to, chase movies can’t slow down to give their characters time to soliloquize. What Jackman does, though, is give us an extended visual soliloquy, Logan’s To be or not to be expressed in movement instead of words, words, words. Like I said, it’s a dance.
Jackman puts every muscle to work. It’s not just that he has fifteen different ways to frown and a dozen more to grin menacingly. He can make a twitch of a deltoid do the work of a frown or a menacing grin and put as much expression into a bunching of his shoulders as the best Shakespearean actors have in their voices. Which, of course, is the mark of a true movie star. Movie stars know how to move. And this is why stars should play superheroes. It’s not a matter of filling out the costume and striking the right pose. Superheroes dance. Which is why Robert Downey Jr is the best of the stars playing superheroes. Sure, he’s good with the wisecracks. But when he puts Tony Stark to work at a virtual keyboard or with a sledgehammer, he’s dancing.
Jackman is dancing in The Wolverine.
You don’t have to be a fan to get caught up in The Wolverine. If you’re not, the only question that will concern you is Will Logan save the girl and in the process save himself?
If you’re a fan, there’s an added question: Does The Wolverine save the Wolverine as a character?
If you’re that kind of fan, there’s one more.
Who would win in a fight? Robert Downey’s Iron Man or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine?
The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Starring Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, and Haruhiko Yamanouchi. Rated PG-13. 1 hour and 26 minutes. Now available on DVD and to The Wolverine at Amazon.
Because it’s still in the theaters and it’s fun and because it’s going to take me a couple of days to work up my review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug...
While Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) recover from another family squabble, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) does that thing she does that makes her the heroine of Thor: The Dark World and the only true leading lady in the Marvel’s Avengers series of movies---think for herself.
The mortals save the day in Thor: The Dark World.
Thor helps out but he’s taking direction from the mortals, a team of scientists led by an astrophysicist named Jane Foster.
The love interest is the movie’s heroine.
This continues to give the Thor movies something the other entries in The Avengers series don’t have. A true leading lady.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter’s role is to admire Cap and be admired back. She’s there to remind us that Captain America is everything he’s said to be and to represent the purity of Cap’s heart---when he gives his heart to something or someone, his country, an ideal, his best girl, his devotion is total, unswerving, innocent, and self-less. (But not blind or unquestioning.) Peggy is more of a symbol than anything else and the most important moment in her and Cap’s love story happens when she’s not on screen and the sexy blonde WAC plants a kiss on Cap that knocks him for more of a loop than anything Hydra has thrown at him. Peggy walks in on it, but we’ve already seen that Cap is more appalled than she’ll ever be. He can no more respond to another woman’s sexual advances than he could to a bribe from the Nazis.
In the Iron Man movies, Pepper Potts has a similar role. She has to admire Tony for us in order to remind us that although he can be a big jerk, there’s a man inside the armor (emotional armor, that is) worth caring about and she has to be admired back so that we can see that Tony isn’t entirely without a heart. Otherwise, she’s mainly there to be the damsel in distress.
I’m not sure if The Incredible Hulk is still considered part of the series. I think the only part of it definitely in the ongoing storyline is the part where he “broke Harlem.” But Betty Ross was an admirer and object of admiration and a damsel in distress and not either a heroine or a leading lady.
At any rate, Cap’s, Iron Man’s , and the Hulk’s love interests are defined by their relationships to their men.
Thor is defined by his relationship to Jane. Jane is defined by her relationship to her job and fits everything else in around that, including Thor.
And he likes it that way.
The Plot of Thor: The Dark World has Malekith, ruler of the Dark Elves of Schwartlfheim, leading his army of weirdly bug-eyed masked stormtroopers into a war to destroy Asgard and restore the universe to its original darkness. To succeed, Malekith needs to gain control of a simultaneously gaseous and liquid substance called the Aether, an energy source of, naturally, world-shattering power, and take advantage of a “Convergence,” when the nine realms of the Norse mythological cosmology will line up and all kinds of new laws of physics will come into play while old laws will no longer apply.
In short: SCIENCE!
Which is why we’re going to need a scientist to save the day.
Meanwhile, Thor and Jane have some issues to iron out and Thor’s mischievous and conniving brother Loki connives and makes mischief but to what purpose and who’s side is he on?
At the beginning of the first Thor movie---which now needs a subtitle---Thor and Loki have each fallen to the same temptation to think their special talents and abilities and their status as sons of the king exempt them from the rules all the other gods, mortals, and monsters have to live by. And die by.
Thor is punished for this sin and learns from it. But he learns his several lessons mainly through his dealings with Jane. And one of those lessons, the one that comes fully into play in The Dark World, is that god of Thunder or no god of Thunder, prince of Asgard or no prince of Asgard, superhero or no superhero, he doesn’t have to be the one in charge all the time. Not only that, but being in charge isn’t a matter of bossing others around and expecting them to follow your instructions. It’s a matter of listening to others’ ideas and letting them step up and take charge of seeing those ideas through.
This is the virtue that allows Jane to be a heroine. (It’s also a virtue Loki knows how to take advantage of.) Thor is willing to listen to anyone and will even let Jane’s goofball intern Darcy tell him what to do if the situation calls for it.
As The Dark World opens (I almost wrote As the Dark World Turns), Thor and Jane have been separated and kept apart and out of touch by various adventures and misadventures for two years. Both have been heartbroken, but Thor has had more to do to keep his mind occupied. Jane has been pining for Thor, though, and spending her time looking for a way to contact him up in Asgard. But as soon as she’s presented with a significant scientific mystery to solve, she puts the God of Thunder right out of her thoughts and focuses on solving it.
Of course this the moment Thor chooses to show up again. But Jane doesn’t go all swoony. Her attitude is, Oh good, you’re back. I’m glad. I’m mad at you for leaving me in the lurch like that but I still love you and we can work it all out later. Right now I need you to help me with this. Get to work.
Jane is one of the best written of all the characters, male and female, in the Avengers series and the best, after Loki, of the characters in the Thor movies. She’s allowed to think and speak for herself and as herself. She’s independent-minded as a matter of spunky heroine course and she’s intelligent by definition as a multiply-degreed astrophysicist, but it’s more than that.
She’s been given a mind that works independently of her role in the plot.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Natalie Portman, one of the best and most intelligent actors in the whole Marvel franchise.
My favorite Jane moment is actually a moment when Jane’s intelligence fails her. When she learns that her goofy and less than competent intern Darcy has hired herself an intern of her own, we can see all the gears in Portman’s/Jane’s head spinning as she forgets everything going on around her and tries to comprehend the absurdity of that. Her brain just freezes up. It’s over in a moment but it’s a brilliantly delivered mental double-take.
Portman builds her performance on moments like this as Jane thinks her way through or around whatever problems and dangers the script throws her way. It’s not by any means a purely intellectual piece of work either. Portman’s Jane is full of warmth, spirit, humor, and just a hint of irritability. Having a superhero for a boyfriend and getting to be an action-adventure heroine yourself as a consequence has it charms, but it does get in the way of getting your real work done.
As good as Portman is as Jane, though, it’s still Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who gets off the best lines and steals the show, again, committing his thefts with a glance, a grin, a lifted eyebrow, a completely hypocritical but thoroughly convincing soulful look in the eye. This time out Hiddleston is allowed to play for some pathos. It turns out Loki has a heart capable of more than self-pity and mild, self-interested affection. He does love. And so he can have his heart broken too. In one scene, Loki lets one of his illusions drop and we get to see the effect of that heartbreak and it’s harrowing.
Of course, it’s still Loki and Hiddleston makes sure we’re left wondering what Loki’s scheming despite his bereavement.
Hiddleston’s performance, however, is dependent on his give and take with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. So is Portman’s. And with both, it’s mostly Hemsworth doing the giving.
I don’t know if it’s all Hemsworth’s doing or if he’s just been very well-served by three directors now, but he’s made Thor’s willingness to step back and let others take over a defining quality of not just Thor’s character but his performance.
You’d think a guy that big and that handsome would have trouble blending in. But, while in my review of the first Thor I compared him to several actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, particularly Errol Flynn, in his ability to become part of ensemble without toning down his leading man star power, he reminds me of…Gary Cooper.
If it was appropriate for a Norse god to say Aw shucks, Hemsworth would pull it off.
There are times when his Thor is beaming with affection and respect for his friends (and Loki) that you can see in Hemsworth’s eyes the urge to applaud his co-stars. Nobody gets pushed off screen by his size, looks, muscles, or charm. If anything, he draws them more towards centerscreen.
It’s getting past the point where it’s worth rating the Avengers movies against each other. The producers, directors, and writers are doing a good job of making them feel all of a piece. Still, I’d put Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers at One, Two, and Three, with Iron Man 3 at number Four. But I have a growing soft-spot for Thor and Thor: The Dark World and it seems underappreciative to say they come in at Six and Five.
The Dark World explicitly rejects any idea leftover from the original comics that the Asgardians are actual god or even demi-gods. They’ve been reinvented as a long-lived and muscularly robust species of anthropoids with a technologically super-advanced civilization who have kept the trappings and mores of their ancient Viking-esque culture.
This creates a problem visually, particularly during the perfunctorily directed and digitized battle scenes on Asgard where the design and special effects clash and things on screen begin to look like mashups of outtakes from the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.
But Thor: The Dark World, like Thor before it, isn’t all that interested in itself as an action-adventure movie.
This is true of all the Avengers movies. Action-adventure is the given, not the be-all and end-all. But if the Iron Man trilogy (so far) is a potential tragedy unfolding and Captain America is a classically romantic hero’s journey and (if it still counts) The Incredible Hulk is a horror story, Thor: The Dark World is a comedy.
Or a tragicomedy, at any rate.
Bad things can still happen. But comedy doesn’t exist without tragedy and vice-versa.
None of the Avengers movies are short on humor. They wouldn’t be Marvel if they were. They’d be DC. (A fact Warner Brothers and DC seem perversely determined to emphasize.) But the Thor movies are different from Captain America and the three Iron Mans in that, battles and catastrophes aside, it is more continuously humorous and the comedy isn’t mainly a matter of wisecracks and mishaps. The comedy and humor arise out of the interplay of the characters just being their all too human and human-like selves.
Which brings me to this…
I would have liked to have seen more of the Warriors Three. They’re back, now reconfigured to include the lovelorn warrior-princess Lady Sif along with the roistering, boisterous bruiser Volstagg and the roguish Errol Flynn avatar Fandral. (For some reason Hogun the Grim gets pushed out of the story very early on.) Each gets a few funny and swashbuckling moments, but really they’re relegated to background to make room for the adventures and misadventures of the Scientists Three.
Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard return as Jane’s intern with an intern Darcy Lewis and her mentor and surrogate father Erik Selvig. Since we saw her last in the first Thor, Darcy has grown in confidence and developed a sense of authority without acquiring any of the competence that ought to be the basis for both. Selvig, meanwhile, is struggling to regain control over his own thoughts after having spent most of The Avengers brainwashed by Loki and the struggle’s not going well. He has enough self-command to head on up to Stonehenge to make some crucial calculations, but not enough to remind himself he doesn’t have to be as naked as an ancient Pict to do it. He can deliver a coherent lecture on the physics of the coming Convergence but seems unaware that delivering it to a hospital ward full of psychiatric patients, while he is one of those patients, probably won’t result in anyone taking necessary action based on his findings. Darcy and Selvig are potentially clownish characters then, but they’re saved from clownishness by Dennings and Skarsgard’s playing them as straight as can be---Darcy and Selvig make perfect sense to themselves---and by director Alan Taylor’s taking them on their own terms and making sure we do too, especially in the final battle against Malekith when almost all Thor can do is hold the line until the scientists get their equipment set up.
The fate of nine worlds depends on a small band of nerds being able to calibrate under pressure.
Which leaves us with this as the moral of our story:
Being a big, strong, handsome blond superhero with near godlike powers is fun and all, but when the universe needs saving, call out the human beings.
Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Chris O’Dowd, and Anthony Hopkins. 1 hour and 52 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
Man of Steel is out on DVD and available for streaming but it’s NOT going to be our feature for Family Movie Night. You can probably guess why, but in case you missed it, here’s my review from when it was in the theaters in June.
Fighting a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and Product Placement! Henry Cavill in one of the few moments when we get to see him as Superman instead of just a red-blue blur dodging in and out of the cgi battles and explosions in Zack Snyder’s evocative but sadly dull Man of Steel.
When in Man of Steel Superman did that thing you probably heard he does but you know in your heart Superman would never do, there were audible outcries of dismay and anger from at least three different grown men in the theater where I was watching the movie. One of them even said flat out, “He wouldn’t!”
I groaned to myself too. But it wasn’t just because Superman would never do that. It was because the moment in which he did it---“had” to do it---was stupid in several different ways, the main one being that it depended on Superman forgetting he can fly.
A better way to put it is the moment depends on director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer betting that the audience won’t remember Superman can fly. They’re counting us not to think about how Superman could have gotten out of the situation without having to do what he did or how he might have avoided the situation entirely.
And that’s pretty much the problem with the whole movie. Snyder and Goyer need us not to think, just react. And to make sure we don’t they try not to give us any time to think by moving things along at a frenetic pace and then, to be sure we’re thoroughly confused and distracted, they fill our eyes and ears with movement and noise so that our minds shut down from sensory overload.
Here’s where they made their bloomer. You can move things along rapidly through hyperkinetic editing, by treating single pictures as if they are each worth ten thousand words and flashing from image to image as if your audience is made up of the visual equivalent of speed readers, by rushing through dialog that’s all in shorthand to begin with, bulling aside essential details and exposition, by jumping from fight scene to fight scene, blowing up everything in the background and much of what’s in the foreground along the way, and if nothing is really happening, if no real story is being told, your audience is still going to have plenty of time to think because you’ll have lost their attention. They’ll be looking the screen but they won’t be watching because there’s nothing worth watching.
Critics and disappointed fans have complained that Man of Steel is heartless, humorless, soulless. What it mostly is, though, is dull.
Once you’ve seen one whole neighborhood in Metropolis crumble into dust, you’ve seen every neighborhood in Metropolis crumble into dust.
That’s about five crumbling blocks away from not being a joke.
The dullness isn’t just a matter of Snyder and Goyer seeming to think that all it takes to make a good movie is a lot of motion and noise. The dullness is due to what I implied above. They don’t tell a story. And that’s because they don’t seem to have a clue as to what kind of story they want to tell. The motion and noise are symptoms of their cluelessness. They are clueless about Superman in general, but more to the point, clueless about their own Superman and what makes him tick.
They don't have a Superman story of their own to tell.
They do have a Clark Kent story. The beginnings of one, at least.
But they don't know how to tell it themselves.
So they try to do it by evoking others ' stories.
And Batman Begins'.
Clark’s wanderings evoke Bruce Wayne’s in Batman Begins and match them in imagery, look, and tone. And there are definite thematic parallels. Both young superheroes in the making are leaving behind their old identities and searching for…well, that’s the question. Bruce flees Gotham City after a humiliating encounter with a mob boss, symbolically shedding his now former self in the form of the overcoat he gives to the homeless guy he meets on the way out of town. We know explicitly what Bruce is looking for, power: the power he needs to defeat the criminals who have taken over Gotham City, and that includes not just the ability to outfight them. He's after the ability to out-think them by being able to think like them which will let him think two and three steps ahead of them.
We aren’t shown or told what’s driven Clark out of Smallville and onto the road to apparently nowhere and it’s not clear what he’s searching for. Whatever he's after, though, it's not power. In fact, he appears to be running away from his powers. We know from what little Snyder and Goyer have allowed him to say on the subject he doesn't like having superpowers because they make him different and because they make him afraid of himself. In acquiring both those feelings he’s had help from Jonathan Kent who’s taught him to hide his powers as if they’re something to be ashamed of to the point of its maybe better to let people die than let them know what he can do.
We can also guess he’s not happy being a superbeing from the movie’s evocation of yet another story, the Incredible Hulk’s. In the scene after Clark saves the crew of the burning oil rig we see him sneaking through somebody’s backyard wearing just his torn to shreds trousers, looking incredibly buff but also very much like Bruce Banner after he’s recovered from one of his Hulked-out rage fests, frightened and ashamed and sick at heart and as if he would give anything for this not happen to him ever again.
The parallels suggest the criticism of Batman that’s long been inherent in Superman. Bruce wants for himself what Clark is rejecting about himself. The power to take the law into his own hands or, to put it mythologically, the power of a tyrant. That’s incredible arrogance. Clark is sort of a modern Aragorn, proving himself a true hero-king by not wanting that power.
But the criticism works both ways. Bruce is accepting responsibility for taking on the gangs and rescuing Gotham City from itself. Clark is evading his responsibility. You know which responsibility. The great one that comes with…
(This would make Man of Steel the third action-adventure blockbuster this summer about an immature hero having to grow up, learn what it means to be a hero, and accept the responsibilities that come along with the job, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness being the other two. Only Iron Man 3 gets it right.
I hear something similar goes on with Sully in Monsters University. Maybe I heard wrong.)
If I’m reading it right, it’s this thematic back and forth that could connect Man of Steel, which, don’t forget was produced by Christopher Nolan, with Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the both of them to a Justice League movie. Or could have made the connection, if Snyder and Goyer had stuck with it and developed it.
(Maybe in the sequel, although making the connection would also depend on Nolan and Christian Bale changing their minds about coming back for more.)
But they rush us through it without giving us an onscreen payoff. Suddenly, thanks to some good advice from the parish priest and his mother’s homecooking, Clark’s ready to be Superman and Snyder drags us in a hurry onto another half-baked theme---Clark’s ready to be Superman but is the world ready for Superman?---that gets lost in the noise and confusion of the final and interminable confrontation with General Zod and his squad of superhenchmen and woman before it can be developed.
Plenty of others have written about the mind-numbing ugliness and repetitiveness of the wanton destruction of Metropolis and Snyder's failure of judgment, tact, and taste in including evocations of 9/11. (I recommend our pal M.A. Peel’s post Superman: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger… ) There’s not much for me to add. But I want to make one point.
Joss Whedon did the wreck the city shtik in The Avengers but he managed to continue to tell his heroes’ stories while he was at it. Steve Rogers learns the world still needed Captain America. We learn Bruce Banner’s secret. Thor resigns himself to his brother Loki’s true nature. And Tony Stark does the up until now unthinkable for him---he acts unselfishly.
I don’t know if Snyder thought he was just going Whedon one better, but the lesson he should have taken away from The Avengers---besides the one that says character and story trump special effects---is Maybe I should try something different.
And if he didn’t learn that from The Avengers, then he should have learned it from another movie he evoked.
In Superman II, Christopher Reeve’s Superman confronts Zod and his gang in an epic battle that threatens to destroy Metropolis and saves the day by acting with heart and intelligence.
Why Snyder thought he could get away with reminding us of that while learning nothing from it beats the heck out of me.
Amy Adams is one of my favorite movie stars now working but she's all wrong for Lois Lane. She's an elf. And as an elf she has basically three modes. Good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia, The Muppet Movie), evil elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter, Trouble With the Curve). No Lois Lane worth her salt or her Clark is elfin.
The script doesn't give her an elf to play, either, and Adams doesn't seem to know what to about that except to work on creating a fourth mode that I think she intends to be spunky elf---a mistake to begin with. Lois is not spunky either.---but it comes off as self-important, pain in the neck elf.
Really, though, as for just about everyone else in the cast, the script doesn't give her much of any sort of a character to play and most of what it gives her to do could just as well have been done by Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, Pete Ross, or, for as much as it matters, by Snapper Carr, Krypto, or Beppo the Supermonkey.
For the record, out of that list only Lana and Pete appear in the movie and Lana's there as just a reference point. What the movie does with Pete is a travesty.
Michael Shannon is awesome as General Zod, although he's another who hasn't been given enough to establish and develop a true character. Pretty much his whole job is to roar out his orders, roar out his pain, and roar out his rage at the gods, Jor-El, and Superman while looking angry enough to be in the mood to wipe out the entire human race.
Kevin Costner does an admirable job working against the script to make Jonathan Kent the patient, decent, honorable man and father Clark needs to set him on the path to becoming Superman. As written, this Jonathan is the most twisted, conflicted, and unintentionally corrupting mentor to a potential hero since Harry taught his code to Dexter.
"What was I supposed to do? Let them die?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
How about, figure out a way to come to the rescue without letting people see you? You could have stayed under water and still saved the day. Swim under the bus next time. You'd get better leverage anyway. Then swim downstream and bob up later spluttering about how you got swept away because you can't swim.
See. Too much time to think.
Costner fills all Jonathan's lines counseling Clark on how he shouldn't be a superhero with self-doubt, marking Jonathan as a modest man who just doesn't feel he's up to the job fate's dumped on him of raising a son with powers and abilities far beyond those of his all too mortal self and placing him among the legions of real life parents who've found themselves responsible for children of extraordinary talent or difference.
Diane Lane does a lovely job of quietly balancing out Costner’s angst and doubt. I really like the way she evokes Amy Madigan in Field of Dreams. She doesn’t have Annie Kinsella’s temper but she’s got Annie’s hippie chick turned farmer’s wife combination of idealism and practicality. Her Martha never loses faith…in Clark. She’s had her son figured out from the start and knows where he’s headed and what’s in store. But she’s patient and willing to wait for her over-thinking husband and hot-headed kid to figure it all out for themselves, which she’s confident they will given time.
And Russell Crowe is terrific as the star of the movie within a movie, the one that begins on Krypton and tells the story of super-scientist Jor-El’s attempts to save the planet from ecological and political disaster and of his broken friendship with the super-idealistic Zod. That’s the movie Oliver Mannion says he would have liked to have seen. Unfortunately, that’s another story Snyder and Goyer lose track of before they get close to completing it. They take this one farther and deeper than the others, though, to the point of coming close to giving us its denouement. Then they throw away what should be the big moment and give us instead Superman doing that thing Superman would never do.
Speaking of Superman…
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned somebody’s name yet.
I’ve been saving him.
Let me put it this way. If I could just show him rushing toward the camera pulling open his shirt to show that bright red S underneath, I’d do it and leave it at that. It would say it all.
Two problems with that. Cavill never gets that iconic moment in Man of Steel and even if he did his S isn’t bright red, it’s a dull metallic red, and it isn’t an S anyway. Where he comes from, it stands for…oh, never mind.
Cavill doesn’t get to be Superman much. He’s Clark Kent more often---and this movie’s Clark is a brooding cipher who has only one scene in which he shows any sign he’s the super man his mother believes he is---and when he puts on the supersuit he’s mostly just a red and blue blur flying through the cgi explosions and debris. But in those few short scenes when he’s allowed to act he makes a very good Superman, maybe even the second best Superman. It’ll take a sequel, a well-made sequel, to show if that’s the case.
Of course, he’s no Christopher Reeve. Who could be?
But he’s got a super smile.
Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by David S. Goyer. Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Lawrence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Henry Lennix, Michael Kelly, and Dylan Sprayberry. Rate PG-13. 2 hours and 23 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
I did a lot of thinking about Man of Steel and Superman before I wrote this review. Probably over-thought things. But I posted some of those thoughts before posting the review, so if you’re in the mood to geek out some more, here they are. Warning some are short, some aren’t. Some contain mild spoilers, others not so much. A few include videos. They don’t have to be read in order. I recommend the Third, Sixth, and Final Thoughts (Oliver Mannion contributed mightily to the last one) myself, but take your pick:
Final Steely Thought on Man of Steel: The stupid and unnecessary death of Jonathan Kent. (Co-written with Oliver Mannion.)
In Red 2, the even more over the top follow-up to the over the top action-adventure comedy Red, retired CIA super-spook Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), thrill-seeking former government clerk Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), and paranoid assassin Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) are running for their lives again, this time from lovelorn spies, wine-snob double agents, grudge-bearing contract killers, and well-mannered mad scientists.
[Editor’s note: This week’s feature for Family Movie Night was Red 2, which is now out on DVD and available for streaming. Turned out I enjoyed it more on second viewing than I appear to have when I saw it in the theater back in August. The post below is taken from my dual review of Red 2 and Despicable Me 2, Bald-headed Action-Adventure Heroes in Retirement, and includes revisions.]
Whatever Red did with one shot of John Malkovich deadpanning evidence of insanity, Red 2 does with twenty.
Whatever Red did subtly and slyly to get laughs, Red 2…doesn’t do. Subtlety and slyness are not among its virtues.
None of these comparisons are damning criticisms of Red 2. They're statements of stylistic and tonal difference. Red 2 isn't more of the same. It's just plain more. Red was a relatively modest action-adventure comedy that moved along with patience, allowing its charms and surprises to sneak up on you as it built towards its over the top final shootout. Red 2's director Dean Parisot, taking over the franchise from Red's Robert Schwentke, assumes that since we've already been charmed and surprised, we're ready to laugh at what previously charmed and surprised us. In effect, he's made Red 2 an affectionate spoof of Red.
Red was hardly realistic, but it started out by grounding itself in the real world or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. When we first meet recently and uneasily retired CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), he appears to be an average middle-aged single guy feeling bored and lonely as he tries to start his life over in a non-descript suburb in Anywheresville, USA.
If we didn't know better, when we see him on the phone awkwardly and embarrassedly inventing excuses to keep the conversation going with Sarah, a clerk in the government pension office (played by a cute and fluffy Mary-Louise Parker smoothing off all the hard edges she'd developed over the years on Weeds), herself as bored and lonely as Frank, we could be be fooled into thinking we're watching the opening of a Nora Ephron-esque romantic comedy or, at any rate, a Hitchcock-inspired mystery-romance.
Our first clue that Frank isn't your average lonely single guy is that he clearly has no clue as to how to fit into his new neighborhood. In fact, not only wherever he's come from it wasn't the burbs, he wasn't following the calendar either and he's surprised to realize it's Christmastime, which only dawns on him when he notices his is the only house on the block without any decorations.
Our second clue is the team of ski-masked assassins who show up in the night and shoot the house to pieces in an attempt to kill Frank.
Frank, as if we hadn't guessed, turns out to have a dangerous past and it's now catching up with him.
This connection to reality, stretched thin as it was, allowed Schwentke to play for small stakes. Frank's only objective was to keep himself and Sarah, who of course got caught up in the adventure, alive long enough to find out who wants them dead and thwart them. The fact the world of Red included people who could kill an agent as competent and dangerous in his own right as Frank was enough to create anxiety and suspense and kept the simple and straight-forward plot humming along.
Parisot doesn't worry about reality. He takes his cues from the graphic novels the movies are based on. Things happen because they make for exciting visuals. Characters exist to carry the plot from one exciting visual to another. In Red, the central villain was a cowardly politician desperate to maintain his viability as a potential Presidential candidate by covering up a war crime he committed as a young marine in Central America in the 1980s. In Red 2, once again, fallout from from a mission from Frank's past threatens his and Sarah's lives, but while in Red the mission had a historical basis that gave the film a plot that could have come out of a novel by Ross Thomas or Elmore Leonard, in Red 2 the mission and with it the chief villain, a cackling mad scientist seeking to wreak vengeance on the world, are straight out of Ian Fleming.
Red 2 begins with the premise that after all he and Sarah went through in Red, Frank has decided he wants the boring suburban life he seemed almost relieved to have had to flee at the beginning of Red. Not just for his own peace and quiet though. He thinks a house in the suburbs---well-stocked and equipped in one trip to Costco, where the movie opens and the relentless product placement gets underway---will be a safe haven for Sarah too. He's so spooked by the possibility that more ghosts from his past will pop up to threaten her that he's ignoring the fact she'd enjoy that.
It turns out that Sarah, having lived the suburban dream Frank's trying to hide them both in, is cheerfully addicted to the the new life of danger and adventure Frank accidentally dragged her into in Red.
Frank's refusal to take her opinion on the matter seriously gives Sarah the excuse to stay mad at him for most of the movie and punish him passively and aggressively as they run from shootout to shootout and gives John Malkovich, back as Frank's ultra-paranoid sidekick, Marvin, countless occasions to give the two couples-counseling on the fly---his advice is remarkably clear-headed, practical, insightful, and romantic for a psychopath.
At any rate, before Frank can check out of Costco with his new gas grill, Marvin pops up with the news that the ghosts are already on the loose, a plot to kill the three of them is underway, and they'd better get moving right away to hunt down the villains behind or else. Immediately, or else happens. Bullets start flying, cars blow up in the parking lot, Marvin is killed (I'm not spoiling anything by telling you not really), Frank and Sarah are captured by rogue CIA agents, Bruce Willis gets to re-enact all the Die Hard movies in the space of three minutes inside a storeroom, Marvin returns with a kidnapped Army intelligence officer in the trunk of his car, and then things really get rolling.
The chase is international this time and takes the gang to Paris, to London, to Moscow, and back to London. Along the way they reunite with their old comrade in arms, the quasi-retired MI6 secret agent Victoria Winslow--- Helen Mirren here given the chance to show Daniel Craig how it's done, and now that I think about, how great would it have been if she'd turned up in one of Timothy Dalton's Bonds as a fellow Double 0?---trade bullets, bombs, and barbs with Byung-hun Lee as yet another ghost with a grudge from Frank's past, team up with Catherine Zeta-Jones as still another ghost, this one carrying a torch as well as nursing a grudge---Marvin unhelpfully describes her to Sarah as "Frank's kryptonite", giving Sarah another reason to be mad at Frank and torture him, jealousy---and come to the rescue of Antony Hopkins as the most absent-minded professor in movie history.
Brian Cox returns as Ivan, Victoria's once and again Russian lover, to reveals he has a foot fetish Victoria is willing to indulge as long as it doesn't distract from her sharpshooting. Morgan Freeman's character is gone. Ernest Borgnine is really gone. Neal McDonough replaces Karl Urban as the bad guys' go-to guy for Frank Moses elimination. Urban's character was meant to be something of a version of Frank's younger self but one who's made the mistake of thinking he can have the safe suburban life at the same time he's working as essentially a paid assassin, a mistake that puts a strain on his conscience which Frank exploits and further grounds Red in reality. McDonough's Jack Horton is simply a maniacally grinning legman without conscience, scruples, or connection to reality. He's straight out of Comicbookland, which works because it's McDonough, who, with his ice blue eyes, slashing grin, rocky jaw, and, as it's described by a rival bad guy on Justified, giant baby's head, looks like he was designed by God to play comic book characters come to life.
A favorite British character actor of mine turns up as a charismatic French aesthete, oenophile, and double agent and I'm still mad at myself for not recognizing him. The whole time he was on screen I kept saying to myself, I know that guy! I know that guy! Turns out I did know that guy. (Not saying here. I’m letting you see if you recognize him.) Titus Welliver has a funny and uncredited cameo, and him I recognized.
Mary-Louise Parker was more believable when her character was more believable. In Red, Sarah started out as an average cubicle worker daydreaming about the sort of romantic adventure Frank gets her caught up in who then can't get her head around the twin facts that of course among the retired government workers she’s helped sort out pension problems there'd be a former CIA agent or two and that her daydreams had become real.
That normalcy and disbelief defined Sarah, but she's cured of both at the beginning of Red 2. Trouble is there isn't much else left of her. Parker tries to make up for the deficit with an excess of cuteness.
Willis' job in Red was to surprise Sarah and the bad guys with the fact that he was Bruce Willis and to be the one who kept his---and our focus---on the seriousness of the trouble Frank and Sarah were in while the eccentrics around him eccentrified. He was helped in this by Morgan Freeman and Karl Urban.
But as I mentioned Freeman and Urban are gone, McDonough's playing a comic book character, the trouble isn't serious because it's too outrageous, and Frank is too distracted by his domestic problems to focus anyway. Without Willis and Parker centering things, the plot seems to run away with itself, getting more and more out of control as it barrels along. To make matters worse, instead of playing straight man to the eccentrics, this time out Willis joins them in Eccentricville.
Willis does many things well as an actor, but eccentrifying isn't one of them. Here he doesn't come off as eccentric as much as just plain goofy.
It might have been funnier if instead of reaching for laughs by making Frank less of the super-spook he was in Red, Parisot and his screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber had taken advantage of the opportunities they'd provided themselves with in the forms of those ghosts from his past, Lee and Zeta-Jones, to show us, and Sarah, that Frank is an even more super super-spook than we thought, a real Matt Helm or Derek Flint.
Developed, this might have given Red 2 a story as well as a plot. As it is, it's only hinted at in the form of a few throwaway jokes.
But if Willis can't keep pace with the lunacy around him, Mirren and Malkovich are well ahead of it. Victoria and Marvin are the heroes of Red 2 and you can have a worse time at the movies than watching Helen Mirren and John Malkovich deadpan their unique ways through their characters' craziness.
Red 2, directed by Dean Parisot, screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber. Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Byung-hu Lee, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough, and Anthony Hopkins. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Meryl Streep as Julia Child, public intellectual, in Julie & Julia.
Finished up the semester Tuesday with pizza and a movie, Julie & Julia.
Talk about coddling Millennials.
I’d direct you to our usual Twitter hashtag so you could look at their live-tweeted responses to the movie but they were forbidden to open their laptops. No live-tweeting. Their assignment was to sit back and celebrate the work they’d put into the course and enjoy the movie for the movie’s sake.
But it wasn’t as though Julie & Julia wasn’t relevant to the class. After all it’s about a blogger and it raises some good points about things we’ve discussed and our students have put into practice on their blogs about the art of blogging and what good it does for bloggers and their readers. I’ll be posting about that. But there’s actually more relevance than that.
I’ve liked to joke that the course should have been called Blogging for Fun and Very Little Profit. Its real name, thunk up by my teaching partner, Steve Kuusisto, is Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons, which is not only more impressive but implies our aims for the course.
The object was for our students to use the blogs they started to begin to establish a professional presence on the internet and make connections through their blogs and other social media---Twitter, Facebook, reddit---with people working in their chosen fields of study and join the public discussions and debates taking place in those fields on the web. They were, Steve and I urged, to think of themselves as budding public intellectuals helping to ask and answer the questions that will define their fields and so shape their careers and their lives.
This required us to come up with a definition of public intellectual that did not necessarily include a sinecure at a think tank, tenure at an Ivy League-level university, or regular op-ed space in the New York Times.
This turned out to be trickier than we’d expected---mainly because a lot of the public intellectuals we pointed to as examples were completely unknown to our students, which I’m embarrassed to say is more of a comment our old fogeyness than on their youthful ignorance.
You never heard of Norman Mailer?
Oh, that’s right, he died when you were twelve.
(It should be noted that they now know who Norman Mailer was.)
It was easier, and more effective, to focus on what public intellectuals do, never mind who they are, and then tell them to do it themselves or at least make a point of trying when choosing what to write about on their blogs.
Public intellectuals don’t just join the debate. They help shape it. They work to decide what questions get asked, which questions get answered, which answers are correct, and what new questions those answers raise.
They have to be professional doubters. They have to be skeptical, self-questioning, contrarian. But not reflexively, crankily contrarian. Their professional attitude isn’t a grumpy Blow it out your ear! More of a politely put but still tough-minded, Sez you!
Public intellectuals spend a lot of their time saying, Hold on here. Let’s think this through. How do we know this is true or not true? What do we really know about this? How do we know it? What if we don’t actually know what we think we know? What if instead of things being this way they’re this other way or that other way or no way at all?
As they’re usually thought of, public intellectuals are mainly engaged in the broadly political debate---“broadly” as in encompassing the economic, sociological, and cultural issues that obsess the collective psyche.
By that light, our guest lecturers, Melissa McEwan, Tom Watson, Bill Peace, and, although I suspect he’d think it’s too formal, too constraining, and too grandiose a description of himself, James Wolcott are public intellectuals.
But every field of endeavor has to ask and answer questions about itself. Within every course of study or profession, there are political, economic, sociological, and cultural debates. There are practical and ethical issues that need to be examined, re-examined, argued and re-argued. These are all subsets of society and what goes on within them affect the course of society at large so that within any of them there are thinkers and writers doing the work of being public intellectuals. And by that light, our other guest, Farran Smith Nehme, known far and wide as the classic film blogger the Self-Styled Siren, is definitely a public intellectual and a highly effective one.
Through the example she set on her blog with her fine and lively writing, demonstrable knowledge, high standards, and taste, as well as the calm, loving, and self-amused and self-deprecating approach she takes towards her subject, she has not only helped lead the online discussion of classical films but has been influential in building the community of classic film fans and bloggers that now exists on and offline.
And all of which taken together is why her influence extends beyond that community.
Plus she gets things done.
By that light, Julie & Julia wasn’t just relevant to the course, we might have been better off showing it the first day of class instead of saving it for last, because it is very much about a public intellectual.
Julia Child wasn’t just promoting a hobby. She was advocating an approach to life that was as intellectually rigorous, demanding, and subversive as it was joyful, sensuous, and physically and emotionally pleasing. (Its subversion lay in its joyfulness.) In order to do what she did, she had to challenge any number of orthodoxies, conventions, prejudices, and preconceptions; break down barriers, professional, cultural, and personal; set and re-set standards; and change the way people did things and thought about what they did and thought about their lives and themselves.
She had to be contrarian in rejecting the ideas that the gourmet kingdom was a male kingdom, that high culture, that is, European culture (represented by French cuisine), was and should be available only to the well-off and the well-born and definitely not to “the servantless American housewife,” that a woman did things in order to "have something to do” when she wasn’t minding the children or picking up around the house and she needed “something to do” because she didn’t have any thing real to do, like a career, and then that a career was something you did for money and status and not for the joy it brought you and others.
And she was self-questioning, as well, constantly experimenting, testing, refining, reimagining, and reinventing recipes, redefining the whole process as she went.
Food and cooking were the medium and the process through which she explored one of the most important questions a society and a culture have to ask themselves in order to know themselves, What are we here for?
Her answer, at least as it appears in the movie, was We’re here to enjoy being here and to help others enjoy it to.
Her platforms were her cookbooks and her TV shows. Julie & Julia doesn’t get into the importance of the TV shows, particularly her first one, The French Chef, produced by WGBH in Boston and broadcast on the precursor of PBS, the National Educational Television. I don’t know how she thought about it herself, but I’m willing to argue that she and Fred Rogers, who was himself a public intellectual by any definition, were the driving forces that firmly established public television as an institution and a defining cultural presence. The point of television before they came along was to make money. In fact, it was more or less accepted that it could only exist as a money making enterprise.
The French Chef and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood proved television could be something more than “chewing gum for the eyes.”
The pizza was good. Meryl Streep was great. The course was fun. Our students were terrific and their blogs are all off to good starts. If you’d like to keep up with them and get an idea of what were doing in the course, our Facebook Page, Digital Commoners, is going to remain open for business. Please join the conversation. And please follow them on Twitter.
Visit Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian.
Julie & Julia is available to watch instantly.
Bottom photo of the real Julia Child courtesy of PBS.
Students in Lance Mannion’s Spring 2014 honors seminar, Media Criticism for a Wired Audience, discuss the day’s class.
Decided on the reading list for the course I’m teaching in the spring, Media Criticism for a Wired Audience. High-fallutiin’ name for a class on how to write movie and book reviews like Lance Mannion only shorter, pithier, and with less pedantry. Students are going to read six books, watch seven movies, and write a lot of different things including some reviews but not just reviews.
So here’s the required reading and viewing, not necessarily in the order in which they’ll appear on the syllabus.
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.
Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen.
Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel.
We’re going to be busy.
I included a mix of genres, not just for variety’s sake, although I wanted there to be a little something for everyone, but to give the students different issues and questions to write about. Pairing up the movie and the book Silver Linings Playbook lets them tackle the problems of adaptation. Pairing up Frankel’s book about The Searchers with John Ford’s masterpiece lets them look into the history and the personalities behind a movie. Zero Dark Thirty opens up questions about the lines between journalism and fiction, history and dramatic license, politics and art. You get the idea. I think it’ll go over like gangbusters but who knows. Maybe it’ll go over like Gangster Squad. Maybe I should include Gangster Squad just so they can write about one real stinker of a film.
What do you think? The books have been ordered, but I can still change the movie list. I may have to drop one of them for the sake of time. Any suggestions? Would you sign up?
It’s ironic. Chris Evans and Marvel Studios or, I should say, the directors doing the honors for Marvel (Joe Johnston, Josh Whedon, and, this time out, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo), seem to have learned the lesson of Christopher Reeve much better than their counterparts over at DC, which is the answer to the question how do you sell a character as square and corny as Superman/Captain America? By playing him absolutely straight and taking him at his word.
Note to Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill: A sense of humor helps.
“Before we get started. Does anyone want to get out?”
The Mannion boys didn’t know anything about Murrow’s Boys when they requested Good Night, and Good Luck for family movie night last week. They’re both fascinated by history and they knew about Joe McCarthy and liked the idea he was finally brought down by a team of courageous journalists. But they’d never heard of those journalists. They didn’t know about Ed Murrow. They didn’t know about Murrow’s Boys. They didn’t know about CBS News, for that matter, at least not about the glory that once was CBS News.
There’s a hint in the movie that TV journalism---all journalism---was what it is today, superficial, process and narrative obsessed, prone to the worship of power and success and the celebrification of the rich and powerful, including and especially Washington politicians, fetishizing “balance” and “objectivity”. Chuck Todd would have been as at home then as he is now, although he might have thought twice before blithely announcing it’s not his job to sort out fact from fiction or determine who’s lying and who’s telling the truth out of fear of what Ed Murrow would think of him. But part of why McCarthy was able to get away with things he did---“I hold in my hand a list…” was that the national press corps practiced the same He Said-She Said journalism that lets Republicans today claim climate change is a hoax, tax cuts pay for themselves, government spending doesn’t create jobs, Obamacare will establish death panels, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... I learned in a history of journalism course back in college that after the Senate finally censured McCarthy and he crawled all the way into the bottle---one thing is clear in the clips interspersed throughout Good Night, and Good Luck: McCarthy was almost continually drunk---there was some collective soul-searching among journalists and editors that concluded with the self-indictment that “balance” was another name for institutional timidity and for some time after, up to and through the Vietnam War and Watergate, news organizations practiced a more aggressive and investigative brand of reporting. That ended with the election of Ronald Reagan and the realization that there was a large conservative audience waiting to be exploited as a market for advertising. Probably a lot more to it than that, but the point is that Murrow (David Strathairn earning his Oscar nomination in the same year when, too bad for him, Philip Seymour Hoffman did Capote.) has a speech in which he more than implies that See It Now, Murrow’s signature news program, was as…Guilty? Complicit? Hamstrung? Cowardly? All of the above? as any other news outlet, broadcast or print.
But Murrow wanted to do more and do better and he tried to deliver, and Good Night, and Good Luck tells the story of one of the times when he and his Boys succeeded.
But if he couldn’t always or consistently deliver, Murrow set standards for other journalists to try to live up to, established ideals to try to realize, and defined goals that could be achieved despite the limits of the medium and the foibles and follies endemic in the profession. And his Boys took those goals and ideals and standards to heart and did their best to make CBS News Murrow’s spirit in action.
Murrow would have been proud that it was a CBS News anchor who showed up Sarah Palin as the dangerously vapid and ignorant narcissist she is. I suspect, though, he wouldn’t have been surprised, just disgusted, that Katie Couric’s example was never followed up by the rest of the national press corps and that, in fact, most insider journalists and pundits continued to prop Palin up as a potential world leader for years after most Americans had pegged her for a clown. Palin will never be President but she still wows the yokels and is good for eyeballs and clicks and that makes her “news”.
The most famous of Murrow’s Boys, the one who came to embody Murrow’s legacy and who made CBS News what it was, isn’t a character in the movie, Walter Cronkite. But Don Hewitt is and it can be argued that Hewitt was almost equally responsible for CBS News’ sterling reputation throughout the 60s, 70’s, and even deep into the 80s, thanks to his work on 60 Minutes, which he created and then produced for over thirty years.
But all things end. Most of Murrow’s Boys are long gone, even the generation of newsmen and women they trained has left the studios, and it’s been a long time since CBS News and even 60 Minutes delivered in the way Murrow strove to and taught his Boys to. Two weeks ago Steve Kroft delivered a report that would have appalled Murrow, whose last great contribution to CBS News was Harvest of Shame, an expose of the exploitation of migrant workers. Kroft “exposed” people collecting disability insurance.
Once upon a time 60 Minutes took on the Tobacco Companies. Now it takes on the “poor” and the “sick” and the “broken” and the “disabled.” The tenor of Kroft’s report put quotation marks around all of those words, italicizing and underlining disabled.
If you went by the report, you could easily get the impression that no one who’s collecting disability deserves it, that the whole Social Security system is being bankrupted by frauds, con artists, and loafers who refuse to get jobs.
And the whole thing is just a rehash of the thoroughly discredited NPR/Planet Money story making the same case last spring. What I wrote about that applies to the 60 Minutes piece:
…for all the attention and emphasis [the Planet Money reporter] gives it, you might not know from her story that there a people on disability who can’t walk, can’t get around without a wheelchair, can’t breathe without oxygen, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t roam far from a dialysis machine, can’t regulate their bodily functions, can’t plan their week beyond their next round of chemo or radiation, can’t hold themselves together emotionally without medication, can’t stand for more than a moment or make a move without pain, can’t lift, can’t bend, can’t work.
You might not get the sense that she has any sense that many of these people could work, would like to work, but can’t work because they need accommodations and training stingy employers refuse to provide and because they face hiring prejudices based on outdated assumptions and attitudes about the capabilities of the disabled.
Actually, the only difference that makes the 60 Minutes just a rehash and not an act of out and out plagiarism is the inclusion of Senator Tom Coburn as a main source.
That would be Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is only not the most Right Wing Senator from Oklahoma and therefore arguably the most Right Wing Senator in Congress because he serves with Jim Inhofe. Both Coburn and Inhofe have been standing up to the Tea Party lately over the shutdown and the debt ceiling, but whatever schisms there are between the Tea Party Types and the supposed sane and sensible Republicans like Coburn and Inhofe, the two factions are united in their belief that all government spending on the poor and the sick and the otherwise down on their luck is a form of theft and needs to be shut off at the source.
The preferred Republican method for eliminating waste and fraud in government programs is to eliminate those programs.
I suppose this isn’t quite as appalling as if Murrow had made Roy Cohn his main source for his story on McCarthy, but it has to make you wonder if Kroft and 60 Minutes were doing their version of Harvest of Shame now if their main source would be someone like Iowa Congressman and rabble-rousing know-nothing Steve “Calves the Size of Cantaloupes” King or, worse, Ted Cruz, or worse and worse, Mitt Romney and the take would be how all those greedy and ungrateful immigrant workers were just coming here for the free housing and to drop their anchor babies.
The 60 Minutes piece and the Planet Money one might be evidence of the corporate and conservative co-option of the once upon a time actually somewhat liberal “liberal” media. But I think they’re more examples of a general thirty year drift away from Murrow’s ideal that television news should do more than “entertain, amuse and insulate”, it should “teach…illuminate [and] even inspire” towards a more advertising friendly desire to incite, inflame, frighten, and enrage with the targets of our wrath not being the politicians and business leaders who are screwing up our lives but…each other.
If the spirit of Ed Murrow and his Boys and his Boys’ boys and girls still thrived, the villains of the news would be demogogues like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Steve King and flim-flam artists like Paul Ryan.
The villains of the news these days seem to be our fellow Americans who are cheating and robbing us all blind.
The title of the 60 Minutes piece, by the way?
There we are. A nation of thieves and loafers.
Not how Murrow wanted to see us or wanted us to see ourselves.
Here’s the transcript of Disability, USA.
Here’s Dean Baker exposing the expose: CBS News 60 Minutes Joins the Disability Bashing Bandwagon.
Here’s me, back in April, on the Planet Money piece: “Disability”.
Tufts University Library has an online exhibit devoted to Murrow, The Life and Work of Edward R. Murrow.
And here's Murrow himself delivering his concluding commentary on See It Now's McCarthy expose.
Iron Man beside himself: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark feeling less than invincible as he contemplates what else he is without his suit of armor besides a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, and wonders if he’s up to that job in Iron Man 3.
This isn’t a joke. After all, The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made, right up there with Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and the original Iron Man. Every superhero movie ought to be able to stand up to comparisons of one type or another with it.
No matter where I go with this, I will not be arguing that Pepper Potts is sexier than Mrs Incredible.
But think about it. Syndrome is a version of Iron Man. Both owe their powers to available technology which means both are walking, flying, fighting advertisements for the notion that anybody can be a superhero. Syndrome not only embraces the idea, he intends to peddle it. Tony Stark rejects it, but what is it Cap says to him in The Avengers?
“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”
And that’s the big question. What makes Iron Man a “super” and not merely a spoiled man-child playing with a lot of cool toys he’s invented?
What makes a “super” a superhero is one of the themes of The Incredibles. It’s the theme of the Tony Stark/Iron Man arc in the Avengers series.
Iron Man 3 is the story of Tony Stark trying to answer for himself the challenge Captain America put to him in The Avengers:
“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”
Stark’s comeback, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” is funny but empty, because it’s missing a word.
Or even just hero.
Stark tries to get back at Cap by calling him a lab rat and belittling his powers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Which shows that he must never have read his father’s notes on the Super-Soldier project.
We know, from Captain America: The First Avenger, that everything special about Steve Rogers was already in him. That’s why Dr Erskine picked him. The serum just brought it to the surface. At heart and in his soul and to the physical degree he was capable of, Steve Rogers was already Captain America.
Iron Man 3 is one of the better-made of all the movies in the Avengers series. But I left the theater feeling strangely let down and anxious and…lonely.
Alienated might be the better word.
This ennui surprised me because I thought I had been enjoying the movie while I was watching it. Mulling it over afterwards, I got half way to concluding I’d just been put off by the obligatory ad for the video game that’s become the standard climactic battle of every Marvel superhero movie. At least this one varies from the endings of Spider-Man 3, both Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. It doesn’t take place in the city streets full of crowds of screaming civilians running pointlessly to and fro while cars and trucks blow up around them and pieces of buildings rain down on their heads. But it’s confused, directionless, repetitive, purposeless in that it doesn’t build toward a satisfying confrontation between our hero and the villain, it just keeps throwing up more obstacles between them until the director and his stunt coordinator run out of gags and the whole thing just sort of times out, nihilistic, perfunctorily violent for violence’s sake, visually ugly, boring, and ultimately just another big noisy mess, and it’d have been no wonder if it was what had soured me on the film.
But then I realized that all the battle had done was dampen the sense of fun to the point that I was left feeling more strongly something I’d been feeling all along.
And it dawned on me that Iron Man 3 is in fact a sad story about the losses that come when you reach a certain age and you turn around and realize you are now the grown-up in the room and everybody around you is relying on you and you have no one to rely on yourself in the same way, because all the grown-ups you used to count on are gone from your life.
In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Tony Stark behaved as if he didn’t need anybody and nobody really needed him. Being a superhero was just something he did to amuse himself. In The Avengers he got a lesson in teamwork. He found out he couldn’t go it alone. The question was going to be whether the lesson would take.
Maybe we’ll get the answer to that in The Avengers 2. In Iron Man 3, Tony learns something else, that he was never as alone as he’d always thought and prided himself on being. But he learns it by finding himself suddenly very much alone. And he learns it while also learning that being a superhero isn’t something he can do for kicks. It’s something he’s obligated to do because other people need him to be one. And he learns that when as it happens he doesn’t have his superpowers.
Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what is he?
Jeez. No wonder Tony’s so sad. And since he’s still played by Robert Downey, his sadness is profound and convincing and, at least for me, infectious.
This is the first Iron Man---the first Avengers---movie without a certifiable grown-up, good or evil, to guide, advise, support, or challenge the hero, or, as Stark has always taken advantage of, mother, father, big brother or sister him. Agent Coulson is dead. Nick Fury is off doing whatever it is he’s doing with Cap in The Winter Soldier, along with Black Widow. Jim Rhodes is busy trying to chase down the super-terrorist known as the Mandarin. Happy Hogan’s in the hospital. Jarvis, Stark’s cyber-assistant and alter-ego, has been knocked out of commission. And, while Pepper Potts lives to take care of Tony, the trouble coming his way is way beyond her skill set and it isn’t long before she’s in no position to take care of him in any way.
Even Iron Man is out of the picture for much of the picture.
That is, if you accept that it’s the armor that makes Tony Stark Iron Man and not Stark who makes the armor something more than a machine.
Stark’s tried and true suits of armor have disappeared in the rubble of his house after the Mandarin’s minions leveled it in a helicopter attack and the one suit he has left is a prototype designed to assemble itself telekinetically but it has a few bugs in its program so that at the moment it’s much better at disassembling itself. It has a habit of short-circuiting and falling apart on him and eventually, instead of carrying Tony through the air, Stark is hauling it through the snow on a makeshift litter.
Tony is left to save himself, save his friends, save the President, save the country, and save the day all on his own, and it’s not a job he feels at all up to.
Iron Man 3 isn’t about learning that with great power comes responsibility. It’s about learning that with responsibility you don’t have enough power to take care of everybody you’re responsible for and yet you still have to try to take care of them.
In Iron Man 3, we get to see Tony doing things he hasn’t had to do before---think seriously about what he’s up to, doubt himself, ask for help---and not doing things and being things he’s used to doing and being. He has to not be so full of himself, not deflect criticisms, not shrug off or joke away feelings. In short, he has to act like an adult. Since he regards all this adult behavior as a drag (and an assault on who he thinks he is), he is add odds with himself in a way he hasn’t been before, consciously.
And he’s not sure whose side he’s on.
He jumps back and forth, but either way he jumps he treats himself as he’s been in the habit of treating everybody, dismissively, with impatience, with a general lack of sympathy, with offhand contempt, and as the deserving object of his meanest jokes.
And this means we get to see Robert Downey doing something he hasn’t had do to often in the series, play it straight. He gives us a Tony Stark who’s sober, somber, sorrowful, afraid, and…lonely.
It’s disconcerting. And of course Downey does it all very well. Maybe too well. Which it’s why it’s like I said earlier. Infectious.
Nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 undid that for me.
Since Tony is on his own throughout much of the movie, Downey is on his own too. He has some fun moments in the early going with Jon Favreau as an unhappy Happy Hogan and a funny scene with a couple of the villains’ henchmen who let themselves get a little cocky after making the mistake of thinking that Tony Stark without his armor is just a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. But his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes are mostly a matter of their focusing together on the same spots on the green screens. All his best work with the Rebecca Hall as a sexy scientist with a secret and Guy Pearce as an unsexy scientist with a bigger secret is over and done with in the first fifteen minutes of the film.
And when Stark at last confronts the Mandarin, Downey’s main job is to hang back and feed Ben Kingsley pieces of scenery to devour.
The closest then Downey has to a co-star to really share a scene with is eleven year old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley Keener, a fatherless middle-schooler with access to a workshop Tony commandeers to try to repair his recalcitrant suit of armor after it crashlands in the woods outside Harley’s small town in Tennessee.
Harley is a budding engineering genius in his own right and desperately in need of a father-figure, so naturally he takes to hero-worshipping Tony right away, something the old Tony would have enjoyed as his due but at the moment, beaten up from within by self-doubt and self-recrimination and not in the mood to hear what a swell guy he is, something he doesn’t feel he deserves. This has Tony brushing off Harley’s attempts at friendship which allows Downey to deliver some of the most acerbic anti-child acting since W.C. Fields last said, “Go away, son, you bother me.”
If you’re thinking that Tony and Harley sound a little like they're paralleling Mr Incredible and Buddy Pine at the beginning of The Incredibles, then you’re thinking along the same lines I’m thinking, but you’re ahead of me. I’ll catch up.
Downey and Keener make a good team, but given that Tony is divided against himself, Downey is really his own main co-star and mostly left alone to play against himself. Which means we finally get to see Tony Stark/Iron Man in the full Hamlet mode that’s the signature emotional state of Marvel’s superheroes.
This doesn’t mean he’s all gloom and doom. Like Hamlet, Downey’s Stark is still quick with a joke and, since the suit of armor’s been taken away, we get to see him (Downey and Stark) do something else we haven’t really seen him do yet, play the action hero. And Downey has a ball with it. As is the case with any great movie star, the man can move.
Stark is in good shape and he’s had training that’s made him a martial arts expert, but he’s no Captain America without his armor. What he is, though, is a genius. That’s his superpower: his ability to think and invent and build on the fly or, since the suit’s out of commission and he’s grounded, on the run.
He has to MacGyver his way through various challenges and around obstacles and past dangers and out of all kinds of trouble, and, as he showed in his last three outings as Tony, Downey is a genius at playing a genius. He doesn’t just look and sound smart, he moves smart. As a scientist, he’s poetry in motion. As an engineer, he’s a dancer and a painter, a musician and a performance artist. He makes the act of creating look creative.
Of course, what we’re really seeing is if without the suit of armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man.
There’s always been a distant allusion to the Tin Man of Oz in the Iron Man myth, the working and survival and metaphorical existence of Tony’s heart being always and often literally an open question. Tony’s brain is what powers and empowers the armor, but what the suit needs is a heart. The Stark chapters of the Avengers series have been about the search for Iron Man’s heart.
But in Iron Man 3, there’s one more missing element Tony has to find.
Tony has never been a fraidy cat. But that’s not the same as saying he’s been courageous. What’s to be afraid of when you’re the Invincible Iron Man?
But it’s not physical courage he needs. He has plenty of that, although with him it’s a fine line between bravery and a recklessness born of pure vanity. Tony needs to find the moral courage to accept grown-up responsibility for other people even though he doubts he has the strength or the wisdom necessary for the job.
Ok. This has gone too far down the Yellow Brick Road. Let’s back up so I can get back to The Incredibles.
In most superhero movies and most action-adventure movies in which the supposedly normal hero is in effect a superhero, the villain drives the plot in one of two ways.
Either he’s just going about his business as a supervillain and his scheme to control or destroy whatever he feels he needs to control or destroy is really just an excuse to show our hero acting heroically.
Or it’s personal. For one reason or another he has it in for our hero. His schemes to control or destroy are just ruses to draw our hero into a trap and, of course, force him to act heroically.
Sometimes the two get combined. Things get personal because our hero gets in the villain’s way and the villain’s feelings are hurt by that.
In The Incredibles it’s the second situation. It’s very personal for Syndrome. But with this variation. It’s the hero’s fault.
This is where things can start to border on the tragic or, at least, on the grown-up. Sometimes it’s personal because the hero has, to one degree or another, helped bring about the evil he has to confront and defeat.
And in effect, this puts our hero in conflict with himself.
Kind of goes without saying that The Incredibles isn’t a tragedy. Neither is Iron Man 3. And neither one is really intended for grown-ups. But it’s definitely an important theme of both movies. And The Incredibles does a better job of developing it and resolving it.
Both movies begin with our heroes making the same potentially tragic mistake. They reject offers of help from characters they make clear they regard as not worth their time or attention.
Stark does it with less reason and more cruelty and with a gratuitous demonstration of open contempt. But the effect is the same. The characters whose help they reject return to threaten everyone they love and they return having reinvented themselves as evil shadows of our heroes.
And their intention isn’t simply to destroy our heroes.
It’s to replace them.
Syndrome wants to be the superhero. Iron Man 3’s villain wants to be…Tony Stark.
They’re also in it for the money, of course. But that’s gravy. Mainly what they’re after is the sense of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction Mr Incredible expressed in rejecting Buddy’s application to be his sidekick. “I work alone” means I don’t need anybody else. But it also means “I get to take all the credit and reap all the rewards.”
Mr Incredible can only triumph by recognizing the mistake he made that brought Syndrome into existence and rectifying it. He has to face up to the fact that he can’t work alone and, not only is this well played-out in the dialog, it’s resolved in the climactic battle.
That’s what makes The Incredibles far more satisfying in the end.
That and that Syndrome is just a much better written villain with a far more interesting and sexy sexy henchwoman.
Also, Iron Man 3 has no Edna Mode.
The Incredibles gives Mr Incredible time---and better dialog---in which to realize what’s he done and face up to the consequences.
Tony does realize his mistake but he and we have very little time to process it before the video game boots.
And the big noisy mess that’s the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 3 doesn’t play out as a confrontation between Tony Stark and his own evil shadow.
That might have contributed to let down at the end. I think there was something else, though.
So, Iron Man 3 isn’t as good as The Incredibles. But how does it stack up against the other Avengers movies?
Pretty well. I’d rank them this way. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.
But it’s getting to where asking which movie you think is best is like asking which chapter of a novel you liked best. All the chapters share in a fan’s affection for being part of the same book, and that’s the point. Iron Man is now thoroughly part of the Avengers series and I missed the other Avengers, Cap most of all. Not just because I’ve always liked him the best, but because his story is still ongoing.
Tony’s almost certainly going to be back for The Avengers 2 and probably for an Iron Man 4, and there’s already talk of recasting when Robert Downey decides to take off the armor for good. But really Stark’s and Iron Man’s story was completed in The Avengers and in a very real way Iron Man 3 is about driving that home---the story is done and it’s time to say farewell.
So maybe that’s what I was feeling at the end. A sense of loss.
It’s over and I’m going to miss this Iron Man.
Yes, Stan Lee’s back for another cameo, and, yes, you should sit all the way through the end credits.
The Incredibles, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet? Really, Lance? Of course. What else would you expect from the English professor who reviewed The Avengers as a commentary on the Knights of the Round Table?
Like I said up top, as much as I like Gwyneth, Mrs Incredible is far sexier than Pepper Potts. But know what else? Much as I like Don Cheadle? No way the Iron Patriot is as cool as Frozone.
Saturday Matinee update: I'm not the only one who saw references to The Incredibles. Via Oliver Mannion: How Iron Man 3 Should Have Ended. Probably you shouldn't watch if you haven't seen the movie. Spoilers, of course, but also the jokes won't work if you don't know the film.
Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyenth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Paul Bettany, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, and Ben Kingsley. Now in available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
James Woods and Robert Downey Jr, both playing against type and personal politics as a pair of liberal lawyers, in the 1989 drama True Believer.
Very important update: James Woods has responded to this post on Twitter, graciously, considering he feels I've insulted him and gotten important facts wrong. For one thing, he is not a Republican. He's a registered Independent. You should read my twitter feed to read his responses. I've made a few revisions below, accordingly.
James Woods---great actor, Right Wing kook---spent a good deal of time on Twitter this past week railing against Obamacare. It was a pathetic display of arrogance, ignorance, and spite. Woods seems to think people are being mandated to buy an actual product called Obamacare from a federal store, as opposed to health insurance policies from private companies. But, you know, he’s an actor. The Mark Ruffalos of the movie industry, people who take the time and trouble to understand the issues and causes they’ve adopted are rare on the left as well as the right. And, for the most part, who cares? Politics isn’t their job.
But with Woods and Obamacare it’s a case of a probable multi-millionaire (Woods has never been big box office, but he’s worked steadily on high quality projects and I’m guessing he’s made good money and had sound financial advice) who can afford gold-plated insurance and who, anyway, is old enough for Medicare, desperately trying to convince people with little money and crappy insurance or no insurance not to take advantage of the exchanges.
But then, he is a Right Winger, and it’s a staple of Right Wing rhetoric to tell people they’re better off not taking advantage of any government program. Of course this is at the bidding of the owner class who wants to make sure their employees have nothing to depend on to keep body and soul together but the sufferance of their bosses. The idea is to make workers abjectly grateful for whatever the owners choose to pay and offer in the way of benefits.
Already stories are beginning to bubble up of people quitting jobs they took just for the crumby health insurance.
Although Woods likes to think of himself as a tough-minded, independent, contrarian sort, he’s just another corporate shill, although I'm guessing he doesn't realize he’s working for the likes of the Koch Brothers for free.
But in his own mind, Woods is a hero and a potential martyr. He says---and he’s boasting when he says it---that he expects that his stream of 140 word anti-Obamacare diatribes, which are not incidentally hateful and spiteful anti-President Obama rants as well, are going to cost him acting jobs. The liberal powers that be won’t let this bold and brave conservative unpunished.
I’m sure he’s right, considering how hard it is for Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight to find work.
Grammer’s another martyr in his own mind for the cause. It’s a very different Republican Party from the days when Charlton Heston marched with Martin Luther King and Grammer may not realize how times have changed and how his mouthing off in support of the party of the Tea Party, heirs of the Dixiecrats, and the Religious Right is offensive to the many women and gays and people of color and the straight white men who love them he not only has to work with but work for. But you’d think he’d notice that all these people he thinks are out to get him are still happy and proud to work with him and add him to their casts.
But to hear Grammer, you’d think his career hangs in the balance and any day the word will come down, the black list will include a new name, and the vindictive liberals who run the industry will have seen to it that Grammer will be lucky to be doing infomercials.
Woods seems to be thinking along the same lines, cheerfully, as if he’s looking forward to his martyrdom and the subsequent satisfaction of being able to say Told you so.
I understand why Woods and Grammer and other conservatives in Hollywood might feel like odd men and women out and how it might make them grumpy. If Hollywood liberals are anything like many liberals I’ve met in academia, there’s probably a lot of parading of politics as virtue, as if how you vote is always result of a conscious and reasoned moral choice and not, as it mostly truly is, a mix of self-interest and accidents of birth, experience, and education. Liberals annoy me sometimes. I annoy me sometimes. I’m sure it’s not easy to listen quietly to people spouting liberal pieties who you know are underpaying their nannies and gardeners, refusing to promote women to positions of influence and authority, and constantly finding excuses to keep the casts of their oh so hip TV shows lily white.
Doesn’t seem to be liberal hypocrisy that upsets them, though, at least not as much as their own potential victimization. And that I don’t get, how these successful, celebrated, and (in Grammer’s case, at any rate) beloved stars manage to indulge an image of themselves as put-upon and oppressed, victims of prejudice and discrimination. The self-pity behind this is bemusing. The self-infatuation is amusing and expected. They’re actors, after all. But the self-delusion is just depressing.
But then they are Right Wingers and it’s a salient trait of the Right these days to wallow in their shared sense of victimhood. To hear them tell it, the most persecuted minority in America is middle-class white people, with rich white people coming in a close second.
I’d like to think this is defensive, a sign of a bad conscience, that deep down they know it’s wrong to side with the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the healthy over the sick, as if that last one should even be a competition. Most Right Wingers are avowed Christians and Every man for himself and I got mine, you get yours aren’t exactly themes of the Sermon on the Mount.
What it really is, though, is paranoia.
Paranoia is the well spring of Right Wing reactionaryism.
Not paranoia of the tin-foil hat variety. They aren’t afraid of being kidnapped by aliens or that operatives from secret government agencies are watching them or that strangers are out to get them. They’re afraid a set of known others are out to take something from them. It’s the paranoia of a dog with a bone. What’s theirs is theirs and there’s not enough of it to share. Whenever they see one of them, those others, get something they think belongs to them or ought to belong to them, they’re infuriated. They feel robbed, even if they still have that something themselves, even if they don’t need whatever it is.
Woods will never have to worry about his health insurance. But it’s driving him crazy that millions of people who did have to worry don’t have to worry (at least not as much) anymore. He can’t stand it that they’re enjoying things that by right ought to be only his, peace of mind among them.
This would be merely pathetic, easily dismissed crankiness on their part, except for the extent these cranks are willing to go to get their own back.
Started myself off on a kick with my Pacino post yesterday, I think. I’m in the mood to watch all those great movies from the first half 70s starring Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Gene Hackman. Began last night with The Conversation, since it’s streaming on Netflix.
It’s good. It’s too good. Too good at being itself. It’s relentlessly what it is. No let up, no relief, no breaks in the tension or mood. If you ever want to make the case that perfection is actually the enemy of great art, The Conversation can be exhibit A. Hackman is too good too. John Cazale isn’t. He’s just right.
Afterwards, I looked up some things about the making of the film and on imdb found that director Francis Ford Coppola and Hackman set out to make Hackman’s character Harry Caul look like a man who wears his entire narrow, gray, and depthless emotional life on the outside, hence the unhip, civil engineer’s glasses, the mustache that says nothing about Harry except that he has a mustache, and the odd, unnecessary transparent raincoat. Part of achieving this “look” was having Hackman wear suits ten years out of date.
When’s ten years out of date from the time frame of the movie?
Mad Men era.
I’m sure it read differently in 1974, but from the perspective of post 1970s audiences who’ve long since accepted the idea that everything hip and groovy about that kidney stone of a decade was really the exact opposite, Harry doesn’t look like the “nudnik” Coppola and Hackman set out to make him. Harry’s dressed in the uniform of an adult professional as opposed to dressed up in the costume of the determinedly I may be a banker or a Presidential aide but I’m still a member of the counterculture at heart Rock Hudson as McMillan wannabes.
He’s no Don Draper, but, when he’s ditched the raincoat, next to the other men around him---except for Cazale and Harrison Ford, who three years before Han Solo is seen here giving off a vaguely gay vibe as an unctuous, cookie-baking smoothie of an executive’s assistant---with their overwide ties and earth tones and hot-combed hair and bushy porn star mustaches, Harry looks not stylish but at least put-together, grown-up, and in a way cool.
Which would explain Teri Garr waiting up for him night after night.
Nothing else does.
Last night's feature for Mannion Family Movie Night.
In the space of four years Pacino did The Godfather, Scarecrow, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather II. No wonder we thought he was God’s gift. But then he followed up with Bobby Deerfield, And Justice For All, Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface (a cult classic, I know, but, come on, it's ridiculous), Revolution, Sea of Love, Dick Tracy (although Pacino's actually very funny), The Godfather III, and Frankie and Johnny. The question is, when did his career right itself? With Scent of a Woman, Carlito’s Way, or Heat? Or wasn’t it until Donnie Brasco? Or did it take all four plus The Insider? (Ignoring The Devil’s Advocate. I liked City Hall, but I wouldn’t count it as a career saver.)
Cate Blanchett as not Blanche DuBois with Bobby Cannavale as not Stanley Kowalski in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s ironic riff on A Streetcar Named Desire.
I promised friends I wouldn’t say anything about Blue Jasmine until they’d had a chance to see it. Easy promise to keep since I don’t have much to say about it.
Really, Lance? You don’t have much to say about a movie? A Woody Allen movie? Go ahead, pull the other one.
Ok, a few things. Just notes, really, that I don’t think will spoil anything for my friends or any of you who haven’t seen it yet.
You know how people will say, “I’d pay to see [insert name of great actor here] read the phone book”? Blue Jasmine isn’t a Cate Blanchett reads the phone book movie, but the movie exemplifies the spirit behind the saying. You’re paying to see a great actress act. Blue Jasmine could be adapted for the stage as a one-woman show. The other characters are there to push the button that starts Jasmine on what amounts to another soliloquy.
This marks a big difference between Blue Jasmine and the play Allen unabashedly riffs on throughout, A Streetcar Named Desire. In Streetcar, Blanche DuBois’ arrival disrupts a community that exists apart from her and is important to itself despite her. It’s a very small, tawdry community and probably needs disrupting but the fact is its members don’t need Blanche to be themselves. In Blue Jasmine, the little community Jasmine invades, her sister’s family and small circle of friends, pretty much defines itself around Jasmine. It’s nearly impossible to imagine most of the other characters existing when Jasmine isn’t there. Jasmine faces no Stanley who insists she respond to the fact of another person with needs and interests and desires of his own to rival and even supersede hers. Bobby Cannavale’s Chili, Jasmine’s sister’s boyfriend, is in fact in danger of being erased by Jasmine and he feels it. His reaction is a very un-Stanley-esque cringing and whining.
But then Allen isn’t doing a rewrite of Tennesee Williams. Blue Jasmine isn’t to Streetcar what Clueless is to Jane Austen’s Emma or Kurosawa’s Ran to King Lear. Allen uses the play to provide structure and the semblance of a plot. It’s also a source of ironic humor. It’s funny to compare scenes. Oh, that’s like when… I see, this is that scene… Ah, he’s supposed to be…
The inherent compare and contrast also provides a lesson in the difference between the tragic and the merely pathetic. Like any tragedy, Streetcar could have been a comedy. Blue Jasmine is a comedy with the jokes removed.
I could probably do a post making the case that Cheers during the Diane years was a through the looking glass comedy version of Streetcar.
You can feel where the jokes would have been in Jasmine and might find yourself, like I did, chuckling in those spots as if the jokes were actually there.
The real significant influence on Blue Jasmine isn’t Williams, it’s John Cassavetes. Especially Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. Allen has been a longtime student of Cassavetes. He even made what’s essentially a John Cassavetes’ film, Another Woman, which starred Cassavetes’ wife and leading lady, Gena Rowlands. There’s a much more improvisational feel to the dialog in Blue Jasmine than in most other Allen films.
As she enters her forties, Cate Blanchett is beginning to look like Gena Rowlands.
Or maybe that’s a deliberate effect of lighting, makeup, and camera angles.
I can imagine Ben Gazzara as Chili. Peter Falk in the parts played by Max Casella, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Andrew Dice Clay. Cassavetes as the Alec Baldwin character. Seymour Cassel could have had either of the parts played by Louis C.K and Peter Sarsgaard.
Sarsgaard looks exactly like Kelsey Grammar did on Cheers.
Alec Baldwin should only work with Woody Allen and Tina Fey. He was the best thing in To Rome With Love. It’s hard to remember, and possibly not worth remembering, that he was also the best part of Allen’s Alice. He’s not the best part of Blue Jasmine, but he is the best part that isn’t Cate Blanchett.
The only thoroughly likeable character in Blue Jasmine is actually completely despicable. I don’t know if that’s thematic or Allen presenting us with one of life’s little ironies. All the way through I found myself identifying with the worst in every character. Needless to say, I left the theater feeling less than happy with myself or the world. This might have been me, but I think it was more that all these characters were most vital when they were displaying their weaknesses and flaws. It wasn’t a matter of their vices being more attractive than their virtues. It’s that their virtues were watery and ineffective. Blue Jasmine is about a collection of people who just can’t help themselves. Which, when you get down to it, is what makes them pathetic and not tragic.
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Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum as the best Lex Luthor ever. Unfortunately, Rosenbaum won’t be playing Lex in the announced sequel to Man of Steel, Superman vs. Batman.
Nope. Zack Snyder’s still going to be directing so I don’t think it much matters who plays Batman any more than it mattered who played Superman in Man of Steel. (For the record, I thought Henry Cavill made a good Superman in the few moments in which he was allowed to be Superman and not just an image to manipulate along with the rest of the CGI disaster effects.) I think it’s potentially interesting that we’re going to get a Batman who is significantly older and more experienced at the superhero business than Superman and Affleck fan Oliver Mannion’s hoping it means that we’re going to get a Batman who’s a bit of smartass and also, in a twist, a Batman who is of a sunnier disposition than Superman and a Bruce Wayne who is having a good time being a billionaire playboy vs an overly earnest and serious-minded Clark Kent. The chances of that increase if it’s true that Christopher Nolan’s disassociating himself with the project.
What’s cool, though, is the idea of Bryan Cranston as Lex Luthor. Of course, I originally thought Michael Shannon as Zod would be cool too. And he was. Just not as cool as he would have been if almost anybody but Snyder had been directing.
Totally uncool is the idea of Matt Damon as Aquaman. The idea of anyone as Aquaman is uncool. Aquaman is the least necessary member of the Justice League.
But as cool as I expect Cranston to be, you know who I’d really like to see playing Lex.
Well, yeah, Michael Rosenbaum. Of course. The best Lex ever. But if not him, then this guy. This f---ing guy.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad." Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.
His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.
The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.
When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.
The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.
"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."
He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.
I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.
So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.
This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.
You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.
But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.
Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.
Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.
“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”
His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.
Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.
And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.
“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.
Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!
That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.
The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"
In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.
The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.
This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.
Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is. Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.
In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.
We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.
It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.
I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.
Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.
But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.
Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.
Drama being a relative term.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.
Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them
It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.
But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all. It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character. It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.
The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.
Keep in mind that it is funny. And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.
So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.
West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.
But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.
The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.
Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.
Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people. She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.
Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness. But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?
As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.
This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.
It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.
I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.
In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:
First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.
I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”
In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.
In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.
Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.
I once asked Pop Mannion, a Dodger fan since he was a kid, his affections and loyalty having gone West wit' dem Bums to L.A., if he remembered if it took fans a while to warm up to Jackie Robinson.
Pop, who was fifteen in 1947, said he didn't know how it was in Brooklyn---judging by the cheers of the crowds on the radio, he'd guess not long---but what he remembers is that among Dodger fans he knew in his hometown, Troy, New York, where they were outnumbered and beleaguered by Yankee fans with more to brag about and root for, there was an excitement of a kind they weren't used to. Robinson was helping the Dodgers do something they hadn't done a lot of in their history.
As Pop recalls it, because of that, long-suffering fans felt about Robinson the way Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher says he does in the movie 42. They didn't care if he was black, white, or zebra-striped. As long as he helped take the Dodgers to the World Series, he was their guy.
And it wasn't as though Robinson's arrival was a surprise. Fans had followed his progress with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. They saw him coming and couldn't wait for him to get there.
That anticipation and excitement aren't shown or felt in 42.
For all we see of Ebbets Field on game days, the Dodgers might have spent the whole of the Forty-seven season on the road, playing only before the most hostile crowds.
There are some other things missing I'd hoped to see.
A flashback to the young Branch Rickey as a college baseball coach comforting one of his players who'd been humiliated in public because he was black.
A scene in Montreal of Robinson chased down a street by a crowd of white people Robinson assumed were after him for the same reason a crowd of whites might have come after him in the U.S. but who turned out to be clamoring for his autograph.
42 - The Jackie Robinson Story is an excellent biopic, getting at essential truths of the true story it's based on without too much embellishment and while avoiding sentimentality and underplaying the moments that are too good to be true. It doesn't take too much for granted but resists overburdening itself with exposition. It's hokey in spots, contrived in others. You don't come away thinking, If that's not the way it happened, it's the way it should have happened. More like, if it didn't happen exactly like that, it's close enough.
Though I missed those things I said are missing, their absence don't make it a lesser movie. It makes it a weaker baseball movie. The rhythm of that pennant-winning season isn't part of the rhythm of the film. We get to see individual plays and at bats but get no sense of whole games being played. And we don't really get to see and appreciate Robinson as a baseball player. It's as if we're meant to take his greatness as a player for granted and not think about how the game was his passion and profession.
We don't see him playing to win.
We see him playing to show them.
Every time he steps up to the plate, whenever he's in the field or on base, it's a confrontation, a showdown between Jackie Robinson and racism.
And there's some truth in that. Every moment on the field was a moment when he might have failed.
But there'd have been as much truth and more fun in it, if we'd seen him taking an extra base now and then just because he saw the chance and not to prove a point.
I understand , though, why some of what I was rooting to see was left out. Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't want to give white audiences an excuse to think that if they'd been alive and in the stands back then they'd have automatically rooted for Robinson or to say, If he had that much support from white fans, and most of his teammates liked him, and lots of players on opposing teams accepted him, how bad could it have really have been for him?
(Think of Republicans, who did not vote for him, insisting racism must be a thing of the past because we have a black President, as if Barack Obama was elected and re-elected unanimously.)
But 42 doesn't dwell on showing crowds of black fans coming out to cheer for Robinson either.
This is thematic. 42 emphasizes a possibly unappreciated aspect of his story, how alone he was.
It didn't matter how many people, black, white, or zebra-striped were rooting for him. They couldn't go out on the field and play for him. They couldn't be him in confrontations with racist hotel managers, airline ticket agents, local cops, waiters, opposing teams' players and managers, members of his own team, umpires. They could not hold his temper for him. They could not swallow his pride. Everything, everything!, depended on Robinson's success on the field and his behavior in public. Which is to say everything depended on what he could only do by himself.
He had to be better than good for his own sake, for his family's sake, for his teammates', for the sake of all the black ballplayers hoping to make it to the majors behind him, for the Brooklyn fans, for everybody who showed faith in him, for all black Americans, for all Americans, black, white, and zebra-striped, for that matter. (Another theme of 42 is that while Robinson's struggles were inspiring they were also redemptive for many people.) That's a lot of people to be carrying on your back when you're reaching far to your right for a hard-hit ground ball or taking a long lead as you're getting ready to steal a base.
As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is heart-breaking in conveying that sense of aloneness and the what must have often felt unbearable loneliness that would have gone with it. I have some vague memories from my kidhood of the white-haired Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson became, but I only know him as a player from film clips so I can't say with any certainty how close Boseman comes to capturing the real man. Rachel Robinson seems impressed enough. But Boseman isn't built like Robinson---Robinson looked and ran like what he was, a former star running back at UCLA---so he can't quite match that sense of dangerous abandon on the basepaths. Imagine what it was like to be a shortstop of the time, who tended to be puny and anemic, and looking up to take the throw from the second baseman on what is now not going to be a routine 4-6-3 double play seeing Robinson coming at you as though you are all that stands between him and a touchdown. Boseman doesn't fly, he sprints like an athletic actor who might have run track in high school.
Robinson's voice was high and piercing and he spoke fast with the volume turned up. Boseman speaks low and slow. No one would describe his Robinson as the real Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe once described him in an argument as not just wrong but " loud wrong." And the thoughtful look in his eyes is that of someone who sees obstacles ahead as problems he's quietly worrying his way toward solving, while the brilliant glint in Robinson's eyes was that of a man who sees obstacles as challenges to be met head on, at top speed, and at full force. And if, as the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said of him, Robinson burned with a dark fire, Boseman smolders.
But impersonation isn't required. Boseman plays Robinson as what he was in essence, a proud and talented man called upon to be two things he would rather not have had to be, a hero and a saint, and one thing he was but only more so, a great ballplayer. Boseman captures the pressure and the frustration and the strength, but he also conveys the natural human fragility. He's strong enough that we believe he'll stand up to it all, but we can see how he might break.
Boseman also shows us something else important about Robinson, that he was a man deeply in love with his wife. In showing that, though, he gets a lot of help from Nicole Beharie.
42 is as much a story of a happy marriage as it is a baseball tale and a history lesson.
As Rachel Robinson, Beharie gives what I hope will be a star-making performance. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s got a strong will of her own, every bit a match for her husband. They’re equal partners and quietly passionate lovers. Together they make monogamy look very, very sexy.
As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford might surprise a lot of people. His performance might even strike them as a revelation. But when you think about it, Ford has been playing character roles all career long. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are not typical action-adventure heroes. There's a fundamental insecurity Ford gives both, an almost neurotic self-doubt behind Han's bravado and Indy's guilt that mark them as thinking men---"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."---and they are articulate. They know what they're saying. They're self-aware. Ford is always playing smart. This time out, he can really let the smartness show.
And it's not the case that it's time for him to play the grumpy old coot or wise elder. It happens that this character is in his sixties. But don't be fooled by the glasses and the dentures and the wig. They make him look like Branch Rickey. But he's still recognizably playing a Harrison Ford specialty. His Rickey is roguish and conniving, a conman and a liar in a good cause when the situation calls for it. Boseman gives 42 its heart. Ford gives it a sense of fun.
(Just for kicks, take a look at this picture of the real Branch Rickey as a young man. Still think having Harrison Ford play him was a stretch?)
That incident from Rickey’s past I’d hoped to see in the movie as a flashback gets in there in a confession Rickey makes to Robinson. Ford delivers the lines as an awkward and embarrassed apology. Back then, he tells Robinson, he knew what his player was going through was wrong but he didn’t have the courage to do something about it. Now he’s placing yet another burden on Robinson’s shoulders by looking to him to redeem his moral failure of thirty years before.
42 doesn't go out of its way to congratulate its white characters, like Dodger coach and scout Clyde Sukeforth and pitcher Ralph Branca, who treat Robinson decently. It's more interested in manager Leo Durocher's romantic misadventures with movie star Larraine Day, which got him suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the Forty-seven season started, than in Durocher's championing of Robinson, although it does give Chris Meloni, who is excellent as Durocher, one powerful scene in which he puts the kibosh on a players mutiny being organized by some of the Southerners on the team led by Dixie Walker who think the Dodgers management would rather keep them than let Robinson play. 42 isn't one of those well-meaning but inadvertently insulting movies that portray episodes from the Civil Rights movement as cases of brave and kindly white people coming to the rescue of noble but powerless on their own black folk.
Instead, what we see more of is Robinson's morally uplifting effect upon some whites, starting with a few of his teammates. This includes Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
The famous moment at Cincinnati's Crosley Field when Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky playing before what was for him something of a hometown crowd---Kentucky lying just across the Ohio River---silenced the boobirds by putting his arm over Robinson's shoulders, a gesture that legend has it earned Reese his plaque in the Hall of Fame, is presented as Robinson doing the white guy the favor.
Despite how it might look from a distance, Reese (affably played by Lucas Black) assures Robinson, what's really happening is that he's thanking Robinson for giving him the courage to decide between what he knows to be right and attitudes he was taught growing up. You made a better man of me, is his essential point.
But, to make sure we don't get too sentimental and make too much of the moment's effect, at the same time Reese and Robinson are having their conversation on the field, up in the stands a white Cincinatti fan is instructing his young son on how to hate the black man Robinson. The boy takes the lesson immediately to heart and enthusiastically joins in on the boos and the jeers. But when he sees his hero Reese put his arm around Robinson, he looks stricken, baffled, and sick to his stomach. Suddenly he's struggling with a choice similiar to Reese's. He has to choose between his father and what he's just been shown is right. His dilemma isn't resolved when the scene ends and we're left to wonder which way he'll choose.
Given the time and place and what we know is coming over the next twenty years and a son's natural instinct to take after his father, it's unlikely he'll choose well. It's frighteningly easy to imagine this cute little boy as a young man dumping milk shakes over the heads of people sitting in at lunch counters and screaming at children on their way to school.
One brave man has only so much redemptive power.
42 is an inspiring film but not a triumphant one. It doesn't reward Robinson with the comforting knowledge he has saved anybody or anything but himself and his baseball career---and that's only for now. There's still a lot to be done and a lot of troubled water ahead. In the end, it leaves him and Rachel only a liitle less alone than when we met them.
Robinson may have been a man alone, but Boseman sure isn’t an actor alone. Along with Beharie and Ford, he gets strong support from Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith was the sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier and later became the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America but at the time he was writing his stories in the stands with his typewriter on his knees because he wasn’t welcome in the press box. The Courier sent Smith on the road with Robinson. In the movie he acts as Robinson’s press agent and advance man but also as his conscience. Howard is by turns amusing and affecting as a basically nervous and introverted intellectual inspired by Robinson to find the courage to stand up to…Robinson and push his hero to be even more heroic.
Chris Meloni has a grand time as Leo the Lip Durocher. The script gives him some of the best lines, after Ford’s, and two scenes of him on the phone to Rickey are two of the funniest in the movie. Max Gail has a sly cameo as the easy to underestimate Burt Shotten who replaced Durocher as manager after Durocher’s suspension. T.R. Knight is a hoot as Harold Parrott, Rickey’s timid, bottom line-watching, bean-counting assistant who develops what Rickey calls “sympathy” for Robinson but which looks like an irresistible urge to start going around punching racists in the snoot. Alan Tudyk is delightfully despicable as the racist whose snoot Parrott wants to punch first and hardest, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a shameless insult artist who taunts Robinson in the vilest ways from the safety of his dugout in one of the film’s necessarily ugly but most powerful scenes.
42 – The Jackie Robinson Story, written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Chris Meloni, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.