Posted Monday evening, August 29, 2016.
You probably heard. Gene Wilder’s gone.
Posted Monday evening, August 29, 2016.
You probably heard. Gene Wilder’s gone.
Posted Thursday, August 18, 2016.
Someone was wrong on the internet, again. This must be corrected.
This morning I saw a post on Twitter that said today’s Robert Redford’s 80th birthday.
Robert Redford is not 80 years old.
Maybe in human years. But human time clearly doesn’t apply to him.
If he is human, then he’s a Dúnedain, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and he just doesn't age at the same rate as the rest of us.
I'm not sure if this makes him the rightful King of Gondor.
At any rate...
My favorite Redford movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Three Days of the Condor. Barefoot in the Park. The Hot Rock. The Natural. All the President's Men. The Sting. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Spy Game. The Company You Keep. The Candidate. An Unfinished Life. (You should look that last one up. It didn't play in the theaters because of some contract dispute. But it's one of Redford's best performances and it co-stars Morgan Freeman and a bear.)
Honorable Mention: Situation Hopeless But Not Serious.
Favorite movies directed by Redford: The Milagro Beanfield War. Quiz Show. A River Runs Through It. Ordinary People. The Conspirator. The Company You Keep.
Below I've re-posted my reviews of The Company You Keep---The Company Robert Redford Keeps---and A Walk in the Woods---Robert Redford and Nick Nolte take a cheerful hike with Death. A Walk in the Woods isn't a particularly good movie, but it's fun enough for an evening's rental. Redford and Nick Nolte have a high old time together and Redford and Emma Thompson make one of the best movie married couples I can think of and I wish there'd been a way for the movie to have included more scenes of the two of them together.
Sunday. June 5, 2016. Revised Tuesday, June 7, with the editorial advice of Oliver Mannion.
I hadn’t heard promising things about X-Men: Apocalypse going in, but I didn’t expect to spend time watching it thinking, “You know, Batman v Superman wasn’t so bad.”
Hold your four horsemen! I’m not about to make the case that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t bad or that X-Men: Apocalypse is anywhere near as bad. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t bad, but it isn’t very good either. And it was more of a disappointment not just because I expected far more of it going in than I did of Batman v Superman.
Batman v Superman is what it was going to be and about all it could have been given that Zack Snyder was directing it and given Snyder’s ambivalence towards superheroes in general and Batman and Superman in particular. Snyder’s not interested in his characters except as symbols of his own problematic relationship with the whole idea of heroism and the story he wants to tell is an allegory of his feelings on the matter, and his movie is unremittingly grim, gloomy, and dull. But that results in a kind of perverse aesthetic and narrative consistency. It’s not fun movie storytelling but it is storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse’s director Bryan Singer is interested in his heroes as characters and treats them with real affection. He just keeps losing track of them.
And it’s not clear what story he’s interested in telling or that he even has one in mind to tell. There are a number of interesting storylines he starts and lets drop in order to focus on his plot: the world’s first mutant (played by Oscar Isaac), an immortal and nearly all-powerful supervillain who’s named En Sabah Nur but who’s known by what’s essentially his job description, Apocalypse, is resurrected after five and a half millennia of suspended animation under the collapsed ruins of an unearthed pyramid in Egypt. Apocalypse, eager to make up lost time as a self-proclaimed god, immediately sets out to destroy the world and remake it in his own image, a task that doesn’t require him to break a sweat but does involve lots of screen time devoted to images of buildings disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up in the earth, crowds of people staring bug-eyed and open-mouthed at the sky, and dust and debris flying around and about everywhere and obscuring the views of building disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up, people screaming, and, oh, by the way, the X-Men coming to the rescue.
None of that is interesting or makes for good movie storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the third installment in a series that I guess is serving both as a set of prequels to the X-Men trilogy of the last decade and a reboot of the franchise. It’s set in 1983, ten years after X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was set ten years after X-Men: First Class.
One of my disappointments with X-Men: Apocalypse, besides its not being as good as either Days of Future Past or First Class, is that while many references and allusions to events and pop culture highlights of the 1980s are scattered throughout the movie---for instance, there's a way too short scene of the teenaged Scott Summers, the future Cyclops, leading his School for the Gifted classmates Jean Gray, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee on a young X-men apprentices’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which unfortunately doesn’t include a cutaway to one of the teachers back at the school calling the roll and repeating “Summers? Summers?”---none of them figure significantly in the plot or even make it in as fully-developed jokes.
The Cold War undergirds the plot of X-Men: First Class and the 60s are invoked stylistically and thematically throughout the movie. The 70s matter in Days of Future Past as the target of commentary on the nightmare that was Nixon’s America and as an annoyance to Wolverine who’s forced to relive his least-favorite decade of his long life. In X-Men: Apocalypse the 80s are just background noise. Singer doesn’t even pause for a second to highlight the irony of Apocalypse setting out to make himself a god in the eyes of 20th Century humans by ending the Cold War at the moment the Cold War was actually ending.
Or maybe he does and I just missed it amid all the noise and computer-generated visual chaos and confusion. I think there was a muddled line or two in which Apocalypse suggests that one of the things he really doesn’t like about the 21st Century is that humans seem to have created a world in which gods like him are unnecessary.
Not just unnecessary but basically a nuisance.
The storylines and subplots featuring Singer’s other stars beside Oscar Isaac---Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier/Professor X, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, all returning from the previous installments of the series, along with Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Alexandra Shipp making their first appearances as Scott Summers, Jean Gray, and Ororo Munroe, the future leaders of the real X-Men, Cyclops, Phoenix, and Storm---are interesting but like I said, Singer keeps dropping their storylines and losing track of their characters.
Eric Lehnsherr/Mangeto is working as a steelworker in Poland where he’s established a life as a normal family man with a wife and daughter, a good neighbor, and friend to all, secretly using his superpowers to do small good deeds, but mainly enjoying being an ordinary man and learning not just to tolerate non-mutants but to like them. That’s interesting. And since he’s essentially living out a subplot of Man of Iron, the 1982 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film, which is set in the shipyards of Gdansk during the rise Solidarity’s challenge to Poland’s Soviet-puppet regime, the possibility is there that he’s taking part in the movement and has met Lech Walesa and that’s very interesting.
Charles Xavier/Professor X is happily running his school for “gifted” students---that is, for young mutants who need to be educated on how to control their superpowers and use them for good because with great power etc---which isn’t all that interesting, it’s simply required exposition. What is interesting and funny is watching him making a lovable goof of himself as he awkwardly tries to rekindle his romance with CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert without resorting to restoring the memories of their love affair he took from her at the end of X-Men: First Class for the usual stupid superhero’s reason for sabotaging his personal happiness, to protect her.
Mystique seems to be running an underground railroad for mutants, rescuing them from various troubles and perils and putting them on the route to someplace where mutants can live unthreatened and unexploited by humans. Mystique needs to keep a low profile so she has to go around continually shape-shifted into looking like Jennifer Lawrence which means Lawrence gets to spend less time naked and blue and more time in a black motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens, looking like she’s just finished a late-night gig at CGBGs. That’s neither interesting nor uninteresting but was probably a relief to Lawrence. The Doc Martens website, by the way, boasts of their boots’ popularity among punk rockers and skinheads and that’s interesting as in WTF? but beside the point here. Mystique’s adventures bring her into contact with a fixer and mutant mafiosi of sorts named Caliban, a strange and unnerving character who looks more like an extraterrestrial than he does like any mutant we’ve seen so far. He’s interesting.
Storm is a street rat in Cairo using her still far from developed weather controlling powers to help her steal food from street vendors, and that’s interesting.
Quicksilver is still living in his mom’s basement ten years after we last saw him in Days of Future Past but apparently, having gotten a taste of being a superhero, he’s been zipping out from time to time to fight crime on the QT, and that’s interesting.
Just as he did in Days of Future Past, Evan Peters runs away with the movie. That’s not a bad joke. Well, it is, but it’s also an accurate description of what happens.
Jean Gray/Phoenix and Scott Summers/Cyclops are introduced to us and each other, finally bringing together the core of the original X-Men from the comic books and the rebooted storyline near to the point where the first set of X-Men movies began way back in 2000. That’s probably interesting to fans of the comics and those movies. I’m not among either. But I recognize that’s me. The X-men left me cold when I was a comic-book reading kid in the 60s and when I got interested in them later, for a brief time in the late 70s, it was the group centered around Storm, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine. Cyclops was just sort of there, the nominal leader, but really along for the ride, and Jean Gray was mostly offstage busy being sort of dead. But Nightcrawler is in X-Men:Apocalypse and that’s interesting because he’s interesting as a character and as he’s played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. I’m not interested in any more X-Men movies but I would be interested in a stand-alone that featured Nightcrawler and Quicksilver teaming up as a pair of not typically heroic superheroes who are essentially invisible when at work for secret and comedic crime-fighting adventures.
All that is interesting and could have been more interesting if Singer had given his supervillain an interesting story of his own and used it to weave his superheroes’ storylines together or, even better, been content to tell those stories without a superpowered villain and instead come up with a villain like Bolivar Trask in Days of Future Past who actually had to do things to demonstrate his evil genius beside wreak computer-generated havoc. But Apocalypse’s part of the movie is only plot and special effects and those storylines are just devices to bring the X-Men into that plot and then beat them up with the special effects. And Apocalypse himself isn’t the least bit interesting.
Unlike Lawrence, Oscar Isaac spends the whole movie not naked but blue. I couldn’t tell how much of what we see of him is makeup and prosthetics and costume and how much is CGI, but for all the acting he has to do and for all it matters that it’s Isaac doing the acting, Apocalypse might as well be entirely computer generated.
Isaac isn’t called upon to do much more than frown mightily or grin malevolently as he watches buildings disintegrate, bridges collapse, holes open up, etc. His dialog is mainly variations on the theme that it’s time for humans to learn their place and bow to him or die and he has to deliver most of his lines at the top of his voice in order to be heard over the din of buildings disintegrating etc. Apocalypse has no wit, charm, no verbal style. He doesn’t talk intelligently or even coherently about what he’s up to or what motivates him, probably because, as far as we can tell, he possesses no intelligence, not even of the movie evil genius kind, and doesn’t think at all, never mind think coherently. He fumes, rages, and sneers, but he doesn’t monologue like a good movie villain. He says that the power he wants most of all is the power to look into the minds of every human being at once but the one he really needs is the power to hold a simple conversation. In short, he’s boring.
In the comic books, Apocalypse has been continuously active interfering destructively in human affairs and trying to bring about the end of the world since he came into existence centuries upon centuries ago. This could have given Isaac something interesting to work with. Apocalypse could have amused himself and us monologuing about how much fun he had bringing about the Fall of Rome and guiding Cortes to Tenochtitlan and about his frustration at seeing his last chance to ignite a nuclear Armageddon slip away as the Soviet Union collapses.
Not having gone that way, however, Singer then could have spent time showing us an Apocalypse who, having gone to sleep in Pharaohic Egypt and woken up in an automobile traffic-snarled Cairo where the street vendors listen to Metallica on their boom boxes, struggles to figure out how to make himself a god relevant to life in the 20th Century.
But Singer has Apocalypse solve that problem for himself in a single quick scene. While visiting Storm’s apartment, Apocalypse picks up all the information he thinks he needs to navigate life in 1983 by absorbing everything being broadcast on her portable TV, which includes a rerun of an episode of the original Star Trek. The episode happens to be “Who Mourns for Adonais” in which Kirk and his crew are captured by the Greek god Apollo who is feeling lonely and bored after centuries of self-imposed exile on an uncharted planet the Enterprise bumps into while seeking out new life and new civilizations. Like Apocalypse, Apollo is looking to get back to work at that divine job of being worshipped by all of humanity. Apocalypse learns how to speak perfect 20th Century American English from that episode but he fails to pick up on its lesson: that the most powerful deities are no match for plucky humans who don’t need gods to rule them anymore, not even benevolent gods like Apollo, never mind malevolent ones like Apocalypse.
What Singer fails to pick up from his own inside-joke is what could have been a good plot for his movie that allowed for the development of his villain’s character in a way that might have made him interesting and even sympathetic.
Apollo is defeated when he’s forced to face the fact of his irrelevance. The realization and the implicit rejection by the humans he genuinely loves as his children breaks his heart.
X-Men: Apocalypse, directed by Bryan Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Oscar Isaac. With Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
Tuesday morning. May 31, 2016.
Immediately below him the hillside fell away, clean and cleared for fifteen hundred feet, where a little village of stone-walled houses, with roofs of beaten earth, clung to the steep tilt. All round it the tiny terraced fields lay out like aprons of patchwork on the knees of the mountain, and cows no bigger than beetles grazed between the smooth stone circles of the threshing-floors. Looking across the valley, the eye was deceived by the size of things, and could not at first realise that what seemed to be low scrub, on the opposite mountain-flank, was in truth a forest of hundred-foot pines. Purun Bhagat saw an eagle swoop across the gigantic hollow, but the great bird dwindled to a dot ere it was half-way over. A few bands of scattered clouds strung up and down the valley, catching on a shoulder of the hills, or rising up and dying out when they were level with the head of the pass. And “Here shall I find peace,” said Purun Bhagat.
James Alan McPherson turned out to be a very shy man. Jim, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction---he won it in 1978 for his short story collection Elbow Room---wasn’t a reason I chose to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop, but he was a reason I was glad to be going there. I looked forward to having him as a teacher. I was hoping some of the Pulitzer luck would rub off. I was relieved when he turned out to be kind, patient, tolerant, and encouraging. Writers don’t always make the best teachers. I’d heard stories about other writers who’d made life hell for their students. John Cheever had taught at the Workshop. It didn’t go well. Jim was not like John Cheever. He did have one serious drawback as a teacher, however. He didn’t talk.
Not much, at any rate. Not in class. Less outside class. In class he let us do most of the yakking and kept discussions on track and arguments from getting out of hand with judicious nods and shakes of his head, wry smiles and doubtful frowns, and the occasional joke, muttered quietly, so quietly that if you were at the far end of the table you only knew he’s said anything, let alone something funny, by the laughter of the two people sitting on either side of him. He kept his opinion of whatever student work was being workshopped that week to himself, and you only found out what he thought of your story or novel chapter in the one on one meetings he held in his office later. And then it was indirectly. He let you know where he thought your story needed work but he didn’t tell you how he thought you should go about fixing it. Instead, he’d suggest something to read. “So and so has a scene like this in his/her short story/novel,” he’d say. Then you’d have to go puzzle out for yourself how whatever he’d had you read could help you fix whatever it was he thought needed fixing. It was a bit like having to solve a zen koan. At any rate, that’s how I got to reading Isaac Babel’s short stories...without ever quite understanding what particular lesson I was supposed to learn from them.
Jim thought I should read "The Story of My Dovecot."
I left our meeting heading straight for the library where I checked out Babel’s Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales, determined to have all the stories in both read by next week’s class.
I also left disappointed that we hadn’t gotten around to talking about---or, really, that I hadn’t managed to steer the discussion around to talking about---a writer I assumed was a mutual favorite, Rudyard Kipling.
At our first class meeting, after introducing himself and his goals for the class and letting each of us do the same, and with no stories ready yet for us to workshop, rather than sending us on our way early, Jim had surprised me and I expect the whole class by reading us “The Rout of the White Hussars”. In all likelihood, I was the only one in the room beside Jim to whom the story wasn’t new. Students at the Workshop then weren’t a particularly widely-read bunch. My friend Ann took an informal poll once and discovered that out of the fifty students in the fiction writing program only a handful had read Moby-Dick. And I’m pretty sure I was the only one at the table (Ann was in a different workshop that semester) who didn’t think it was strange that Jim had chosen to read us a story by Kipling.
But it was strange.
Not going to get deep into why it was strange that a writer teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-1980s was reading Rudyard Kipling to his students. It simply was and it shouldn’t have been.
Kipling is a problematic figure in the history of English literature and there’s no use in pretending he wrote only The Jungle Book and the Just-so Stories. But it’s also mistake to read him as if all he wrote were variations on “The White Man’s Burden.”
Kipling is a terrific poet and one of the greatest prose stylists and storytellers in English literature. Mark Twain rated Kipling among his favorite writers. Kipling is who Hemingway wanted to be when he grew up and learned how to tell a joke.
But most of us at the Workshop at the time were writing with the ambition of getting published in The New Yorker and that meant most of us were diligently imitating the likes of Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Quirky, minimalist, domestic realism was the fashion.
I say most of us, but I really wasn’t one of us, yet. Jim’s reading Kipling meant a great deal to because it made me feel at home.
I’d come to Iowa more than half-convinced I was going to be out of my league and when Jim started reading those old, familiar, beloved words I suddenly thought, Hey, maybe I’ll be all right here.
I wouldn’t have said Kipling was one of my major influences. But Twain sure was, and Twain was a major influence on Kipling and I’ll bet I picked up on it. And I arrived at Iowa after at least a year’s worth of immersion in Kipling’s direct literary descendants Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene---the line of succession goes, I think, Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, Maugham, Greene, le Carre---so if I’d become the famous writer I thought I was going to be, there’d have been someone’s Ph.D dissertation in teasing that out.
More to the point here is that Kipling was one of my favorite writers back in junior high when my reading was mostly boy’s own adventure stories and I read as much of his work I could squeeze in between Stevenson’s, Twain’s, Melville’s, Conan Doyle’s, Jules Verne’s, and Alexander Dumas’. “Gunga Din” was one of the first poems I memorized on my own. In fact, I didn’t find my way into Kipling’s world through the Just-So Stories or The Jungle Book as I suspect a lot of young readers do. Gunga Din was my guide. And in that world Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera weren’t my brothers as much as Mulvaney, Learoyd, and Ortheris were my mates.
Fact is, if there was one work by Kipling I didn’t love, it was The Jungle Book.
It may just have been that I came to it a little too late and I thought it was too much of a little kid’s book. But I think it was more Kipling’s own fault. He’d taught me to expect one sort of thing from him and The Jungle Book didn’t deliver it. There was nothing in it I wanted. No soldiers. No Soldiers Three. No Mulvaney, Learoyd, or Ortheris. No battles with guns and cannon blazing. No men who would be kings. No captains courageous. No Tommy this and Tommy that. No Din! Din! Din! Where the mischief ‘ave you been? No villages, towns, or temples. No crowds. Herds and packs but no crowds. Kipling was good with crowds. No romance. No ghosts. And no good jokes. At least none that I understood as jokes.
Just animals talking, and talking pompously, thou-ing and thy-ing at each other like characters in a biblical epic.
Of course you know why I’m bringing all this up.
We finally got around to seeing Disney’s new movie version of The Jungle Book the other day.
Because it wasn’t among my favorites, I can’t say it bothered me that there’s not a whole lot of Kipling’s Jungle Book in it. There’s more of it than I expected, however, and more of the spirit of Kipling than that. There are scenes and images that reminded me of Gunga Din---the movie not the poem, but the spirit of Kipling is very much alive in that---and others that reminded me, more obliquely, of The Man Who Would Be King---again, the movie, but still.
Of course the artist whose spirit this Jungle Book’s meant to conjure up isn’t Kipling’s. It’s Walt Disney’s.
This Jungle Book is a re-imagining of Disney’s Jungle Book, famously the last full-length cartoon Walt himself steered through to completion. And here’s something I can’t tell you. How good a job it does at that. I’ve never seen the original in order from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ve seen all of it. I refused to go see it with the family when I was a kid on the grounds that it was a little kids’ movie and it wasn’t on the Mannion guys’ To Be Watched Over and Over Again Until Mom and Dad Run Screaming From the House List when they were little kids. They both claim to have seen it more than once but I can’t recall ever having been forced to sit through it with them.
Both songs are in this Jungle Book. I’d be inclined to say it would have been better if director Jon Favreau had left them out (although I’m sure the powers that be at Disney didn’t give him the choice, even if he’d wanted it), because they come across as breakings of the fourth wall and actually take you out of the onscreen story. But Christopher Walken does such a surprisingly delightful job with “I Wanna Be Like You” that I’m glad Favreau didn’t have the choice, if he didn’t, or chose to leave the songs in if he did.
I can tell you, with pleasure, that Favreau does an excellent job working in homages and parallels to at least two other but more recent Disney classics. Tarzan and The Lion King. There are nods as well to some non-Disney movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the second Hobbit, the most recent Planet of the Apes, and The Wizard of Oz. But those two, Tarzan and The Lion King figure most prominently. At several points, Favreau includes extended visual quotes from The Lion King and even restages the stampede in the ravine, and he’s almost made Mowgli’s story into another retelling of Tarzan’s origin story.
Favreau knows how to tell an origin story. He directed Iron Man, which I still rank as the second best of the Avengers movie franchise. (Guess which one I think is the best.) He also knows how to direct what’s essentially a live-action cartoon---and all superhero movies are essentially live action cartoons. He takes the material and the characters seriously but isn’t over-serious in going about it. He has a light comic touch and is skilled at mixing comedy with drama. He hasn’t directed all that many films, but you have to admire a career that includes Made, Elf, Iron Man, Chef, and now The Jungle Book.
Kipling’s Jungle Book isn’t the little kids book about talking animals I took it for when I was a kid myself. It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure Story. I probably don’t need to say that I don’t think it’s Kipling’s best of the form---although it’s been a long time since I last read Kim and Captains Courageous and both pale in my memory compared to their obvious inspirations, The Prince and the Pauper and Treasure Island. I told you. Kipling was one of my favorites. But he wasn’t one of my very favorites. ---but that’s what it is, the epitome of a boy’s own adventure story and that’s what Favreau’s Jungle Book is. In fact, based on my unreliable sense of the cartoon---a lighthearted musical comedy about about a boy playing with his stuffed animals come to life, with Mowgli as a Christopher Robin free from all adult supervision and able to join in the hijinks and share in the danger---I’d say that’s the main point of departure for Favreau’s movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why Favreau wanted to direct The Jungle Book: to make an adventure movie.
He’s made a rousing one.
The many chases, fights, perils, and escapes are genuinely thrilling and surprising, the dangers and violence are shocking and terrifying. Favreau keeps it all moving briskly without the characters and story getting lost in the action. He varies the tempo and the scale and mixes things up so that the movie isn’t just one, extended action scene. And his Mowgli isn’t just a lucky boy who grows up and learns a lesson. He’s a true young hero.
Thirteen year-old Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli. Stars is the right word. It’s very much his movie. His movie-star voiced animal co-stars are his supporting players and sidekicks. His Mowgli is brave and curious, of course, but he’s smart, active, energetic, clever, and competent, without his becoming a miniature adult in a kid suit. He has a wide-eyed look of astonishment that comes over him in the dangerous moments that lets you know he’s still a little boy making it all up as he goes along and regularly surprised that there’s more to the world than he has even begun to know.
What he does know, however, he knows. This Jungle Book isn’t about a young innocent learning lessons. It’s about a young hero putting to work lessons he’s already learned and teaching himself new lessons on the run...and the climb.
One thing I can say for sure about the cartoon Jungle Book. The voice work of the four main animal stars was excellent. It would have been hard to top Phil Harris as Baloo, Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther, George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger, and Louis Prima as King Louie the orangutan. But Walken, as I said, is a delight as Louie, doing a bit of Robert De Niro. Idris Elbla as Shere Khan scared me. Ben Kingsley is Obi-wan-esque as Bagheera. Imagine the younger, post-Revenge of the Sith Obi-wan, getting to know Luke as a little boy, which happens, and maybe we’ll get a movie that shows that.
Bill Murray is Baloo because who else?
Add to this, Scarlett Johansson as an unnervingly seductive, gender-bent Kaa the python.
The CGI work on the animal characters is exquisite. There were very few moments when I noticed those aren’t real animals up on the screen.
And Favreau doesn’t forget that the jungle and all the terrain through which Mowgli travels are as intrinsic to the spirit of the story and the formation of Mowgli’s character as the animals. The sense of place is as important here as it is in all Kipling’s fiction. Favreau pauses from time to time---but never for too long---to give us the visual equivalent of passages like this from “The Miracle of Puran Bhagat,” one of the stories in Kipling’s Second Jungle Book:
There was a sigh in the air that grew to a mutter, and a mutter that grew to a roar, and a roar that passed all sense of hearing, and the hillside on which the villagers stood was hit in the darkness, and rocked to the blow. Then a note as steady, deep, and true as the deep C of the organ drowned everything for perhaps five minutes, while the very roots of the pines quivered to it. It died away, and the sound of the rain falling on miles of hard ground and grass changed to the muffled drum of water on soft earth. That told its own tale.
Never a villager — not even the priest — was bold enough to speak to the Bhagat who had saved their lives. They crouched under the pines and waited till the day. When it came they looked across the valley and saw that what had been forest, and terraced field, and track-threaded grazing-ground was one raw, red, fan-shaped smear, with a few trees flung head-down on the scarp. That red ran high up the hill of their refuge, damming back the little river, which had begun to spread into a brick-coloured lake. Of the village, of the road to the shrine, of the shrine itself, and the forest behind, there was no trace. For one mile in width and two thousand feet in sheer depth the mountain-side had come away bodily, planed clean from head to heel.
At the end of my two years at Iowa, I asked Jim McPherson to be on my thesis committee. He declined. Politely but reticently, with no more explanation than was absolutely necessary. He had already agreed to serve on too many other students’ committees and simply couldn’t take on even one more. This was almost certainly the truth. There were twenty-five of us with essentially whole books that needed reading, and, although there were three other members of the faculty, each of the four of them had to serve on five or six committees. Jim would have been the first choice of almost of us and had probably already turned down at least ten requests by the time I asked him. Assuming I wasn’t one of the first five to ask him. Which I tried to assume.
I tried not to take it personally. Jim was in fact my third choice. I’d already nabbed Ron Hanson and I’d had the bright idea to ask one of the poets teaching in the Poetry Workshop, James Galvin, and in going over my thesis (a pair of novellas) Galvin gave me one of the best pieces of advice I got while I was at Iowa: boiled down it was “Make it sound like you talking.”
That, by the way, as Galvin explained, not permission for lazy, “colloquial” writing. Read some of his poetry and you’ll see what he meant.
Anyway, I was happy with my committee, they seemed happy with me, and I was able to tell myself that Jim’s---the first Jim, McPherson---begging off was not a judgment on my writing.
I told myself that. I still tell myself that. I’m telling myself that right now.
It nagged at me and still nags at me. There’s some insecure part of me, which is to say the whole writer part of me, that can’t help suspecting that whatever else he might have thought, he was certain of one thing.
I was no Rudyard Kipling.
The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Marks, based on the novels by Rudyard Kipling. Starring Neel Sethi. With the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Espisito, and Gary Shandling. Rated PG. Still in theaters.
Posted May 10, 2016. Updated Tuesday afternoon, May 11.
Ok. Now on to the important stuff. Captain America: Civil War.
Seems there are people who think Cap is on the wrong side on this one. They're not wrong exactly. Trouble is there isn't a right side.
It’s odd to me that anyone would think the right side is the side that has Thunderbolt Ross as its spokesman, but I think their point is that the Avengers should answer to a democratically elected civilian authority. This is more than just a matter of keeping a group of superpowered vigilantes in check. It’s a way of making them responsible to the people they’ve dedicated themselves to protecting, that is, the People. It lets the People decide when and how they should be protected and gives them the power to protect themselves from their “protectors.” A good democrat (and Democrat) like Cap shouldn’t have a problem with that.
And in principle, he doesn’t.
But Cap is a product of a different time. The civilian authority he answered to during World War II was Franklin Roosevelt’s. We don’t know who’s the President in the MCU. It may be Barack Obama or someone very like him. (Update: See note below.) You have to wonder, though, and worry about the kind of president who’d make Thunderbolt Ross Secretary of State. Doesn’t matter who the president is, however; he or she would always feel like a mere stand-in to Cap. In his heart and even still in his head, Franklin Roosevelt is his president and he’s loyal to FDR. And he didn’t enlist to fight for the United States government anyway. He enlisted to fight on behalf of everyone everywhere being “bullied” by the Nazis.
“Do you want to kill Nazis?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”
That answer’s what convinces Dr Erskine he’s found his super soldier.
But our Captain America-to-be adds something telling to his declaration about bullies.
“I don’t care where they’re from.”
In submitting to the authority of the United Nations, he’d have to care where the bullies are from. The UN would be telling him which bullies he officially disliked and, it follows, which bullies he was to ignore or even treat as fellow good guys.
Then there’s the promise he made to Erskine who asked him the night before he took the serum and became Captain America, which was also the night before Erskine dies:
“Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Cap recognizes at once that if he accepts the UN’s terms he becomes a member of a peacekeeping force---in other words, a soldier.
Worse. It’s clear from what Ross says about the missing Thor and Bruce Banner, the UN regards the Avengers as weapons.
On top of this, Cap has recently finished working for a government agency. S.H.I.E.L.D. And look how well that turned out.
Now, it’s likely he only signed up with S.H.I.E.L.D because he had no one but Nick Fury to turn when he woke up from his 70 year nap and he needed a job and somewhere to start in getting used to life in the 21st Century, but he was almost certainly drawn to SHIELD because it was founded by Howard Stark, General Philips, and, of course, Peggy Carter. So he wouldn’t have regarded himself as a typical government agent. In his view, he’d have been continuing to do the work for them he’d done during the war.
What this all amounts to is that in his heart Cap has always been answering to his own conscience and principles and subjecting himself to the guidance, counsel, and approval of FDR, Erskine, Stark, Phillips, and Peggy, and Nick Fury.
He’d see signing up with the UN as something of a betrayal of himself and all of them.
Still, he knows he messed up in Nigeria. (I’d have written fucked up, but...language.) He feels guilty for the deaths he takes responsibility for causing and there’s a part of him that doesn’t think it should be his responsibility to take. I mean, he doesn’t think it should have been up to him to decide Wanda was ready to be in the field. This isn’t because he doesn’t want the responsibility of command. It’s because he doesn’t trust himself anymore.
This was one of the themes of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Cap’s growing self-doubt.
Self-doubt bordering on self-loathing.
So he’s torn between following his conscience, even though he’s filled with self-doubt, and answering to the will of the People through their elected representatives, even though he has good reason to suspect those representatives might not think they have to answer to the people who elected them.
Neither choice feels right.
That's Cap's dilemma. He doesn't know what to do. When it gets down to it he can only do the one thing he knows is right.
Try to save his friend.
The other Avengers who join him are doing the same, they're trying to save their friend Cap.
But that's what Nat is doing by siding with Tony, trying to save Cap from himself.
Meanwhile, Tony isn't on the right side either. There is no truly right side for him. If putting Iron Man at the disposal of the government is a matter of principle with him, it’s a new principle. This is the guy who boasted he’d privatized world peace and built Ultron because he decided on his own that it was up to him alone to save the planet. An unexplored irony in Civil War is that it’s Tony not the other Avengers who needs to be reined in, and it’s nice of Cap that he doesn’t bring this up. But even if Tony really has come to believe that about himself, when it gets down to it, he’s not really on the side of the government. He's on the side of assuaging his guilt. Which puts him, as usual, on the side of his own ego and vanity. To his credit, he seems to realize this, and it makes him almost as torn about what’s right as Cap.
His determination to get Cap to join him, though, is really a determination to get the better of Cap for once.
Again, and as always, vanity and ego. Tony’s fatal flaws.
That’s another theme. Tony’s and Cap’s fatal flaws mirror each other’s. Tony’s is his ego. Cap’s, his self-doubt.
Of the other members of Tony's team, only Rhodey is on the side he knows to be right...for him. Cap, Sam, and Rhoadie are the three soldiers. But Cap is a citizen-soldier. Sam is a disillusioned veteran of Iraq. Rhodey's the professional. Subordinating his judgment to that of civilian authority and following orders is right for him. He's being what he is, a good soldier.
Spidey is on the side of his idol, Tony, whom he assumes must be in the right, but what does he know? He's just a kid.
Vision is along to save everybody from themselves, especially Scarlet Witch. And of course Black Panther just wants revenge.
So what you have is a situation in which nobody's truly in the right and nobody is completely in the wrong.
This is what caused the breaking of the Round Table. (With luck, we're going to get some of that in Star Wars Episode VII.)
In short, what we're presented with in Civil War is the stuff of tragedy.
The makings of the tragedy have been in the Avengers movies since the beginning of the series when Tony announced “I am Iron Man” and declared himself a superhero before he’d proven himself in fact a real hero.
Presidential update: Ken and Oliver Mannion have pointed out that we do in fact know who the President is in the MCU and I should have remembered. He's an important character in Iron Man 3. I completely forgot one of the best scenes in that movie! His name's President Ellis and he's played by William Sadler, one of my favorite character actors. He's also a recurring character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but I don't watch the show which I know is supposed to take place in the same universe as the movies but so far that's been irrelevant to understanding and enjoying the movies.
Update to the update: Longtime blog pal and Mannionville's resident comic book librarian and archivist also reminded me about President Ellis. Gary also corrected me on the spelling of Rhodey.
Previously on this blog:
Thursday. April 7, 2016. Posted Monday, April 11, because I'm just so goddamn slow a writer these days.
I try not to let politics seep into our discussions in my Wired Critics class because I want to keep the focus on things like where’s the focus in scenes in the movies we’re watching, discussing, and writing about. But politics suffuses everything because politics is how people put together ordered, civilized societies or, as Uncle Merlin has said, politics is how people live together without settling every argument by reaching for a battle ax. Anyway, one thing has a way of leading to another, no matter where the professor intends for a discussion to go, and last week we wound up talking about, among other things, Donald Trump and Nazis.
Trump bulled into it because we were discussing how Muslims are depicted in movies like American Sniper, Argo, 13 Hours, and the movie we’re watching today, Zero Dark Thirty. The question on the table was how do you make a true-to-life movie---or in the cases of all four of these films a relatively true-to-life movie---in which the bad guys share a religion and ethnicity with a group of people who here in the United States are a minority subject to vilification and prejudice? This is where we ran into the Donald.
Who, you will be happy and relieved to learn, is not popular among my students.
The Nazis got into it, though, because I brought them into it, and not for the reason you might be thinking. I did it to bring the discussion back around to movies.
I did it by pretty much reciting my Trumpenvolk post from last month. My point then and today was that while a lot of people were calling Trump and his followers to fascists and making comparisons to the rise Hitler and Nazism, I didn't see it. Trump strikes me as as being in the line of Huey Long and George Wallace, American democratic---small d democratic, although both Long and Wallace were Democrats---demagogues who cheerfully and cynically exploited class and racial resentments, anger, and fear to get themselves elected to offices they did not intend to use to establish a corporatist-militarist-statist dictatorship.
Wallace they knew. Huey Long was a stranger to most of them and for the few who’d heard his name before that’s all they heard about him, his name. So I gave them a brief history lesson and a link to a website, and then asked if any of them had read All the King’s Men.
None of them had, but most of them had heard of it, although they weren’t sure where or when. Probably, I suggested, what they’d actually heard of was the movie adaptation starring Sean Penn. But maybe not since it came out when the oldest of them was twelve. I couldn’t recommend it because I haven’t seen it myself. But I did recommend they be on the lookout for the 1949 Oscar-winning version starring Broderick Crawford as the Huey Long stand-in, Willie Stark.
And there we were, back on track, away from Donald Trump and talking about books and movies, but then I returned to Nazis.
If you want to know what Nazis and Nazism really looked like---and, as I did in that post, I emphasized that how the Nazis looked was part of their appeal and strength---they should watch Triumph of the Will.
That one, by the way, many of them have heard of. A couple of them have even seen it.
And one of them beat me to it and brought up the new movie Race, and all of them have not just heard about Jesse Owens, they know what he did and what happened at the 1936 Olympics.
But wasn’t done. I had some clips to show them.
Which none of them have seen.
I gave them a quick summary of the plot, pointed out that although they may not know Liza Minnelli they certainly knew her mother and if they didn’t know Joel Grey they were probably familiar with his daughter, then I showed them this:
I explained to the students that much of film takes place in the Kit Kat Club where, despite the M.C.’s assurances that inside the club “Life is beautiful. Ze girls are beautiful. Even ze orchestra is beautiful,” things are rank, cheap, and ugly and the customers and the performers are twisted, mocking, cynical, lewd, decadent, and grotesque. The exception is Sally whom we worry about because we can see she’s in danger of being corrupted. But she seems to be having such a grand time it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun. And it is fun, for a while, but then like York’s character, Sally’s ambivalent lover, the writer and academic Brian Roberts, we start to wonder about it. It makes us uneasy, then it begins to sicken us.
So it comes as a relief when Brian and his friend Max leave Berlin for the day to take a drive out into the countryside where life truly is beautiful. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the hills and the trees are green. They stop at a beer garden and the people at the tables are handsome and wholesome-looking. There are families with children. Young couples in love. And then a young man---a very handsome young man---stands up and starts singing in a clear and lovely tenor voice. Everyone turns to listen, smiling and enraptured. At first we see only his face but then the camera slowly pans down and matter of factly reveals...well, watch.
It's a chilling scene. The most frightening moment to me is when that young woman jumps up and joins in. The look of anger on her face is terrifying. But that's just the beginning of the horror, as one after another, others in the crowd stand up and start singing, each with mixtures of anger and joy on their face.
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a perfect Nazi anthem in the way it blends the sentimental---the Nazis were notoriously and nauseatingly sentimental---and the martial: the lyrics are filled with cliched images of nature at its loveliest and most peaceful that lead into angry, defiant, and quasi-religious invocations of the “Fatherland”, addressing it as if it’s an actual Father and God the Father.
And that, I said, is what Nazism looks like.
It doesn't look like a roomful of goofy and bewildered middle-aged white people manipulated by a self-glorified game show host into limply raising their right hands and promising to vote for him. It looks like thousands and thousands of seemingly decent, intelligent, and civilized white people of all ages consciously and ecstatically giving themselves over to the subversion of the beautiful and joyful by what is essentially a death cult.
Here's Roger Ebert's Great Movies Review of Triumph of the Will.
Over the course of Smallville’s ten-season run, we watch a teenage and then early twenty-something Clark Kent discover, develop, hone, and learn to use responsibly the powers and abilities that when combined and mastered will make him Superman. The last of his powers to appear is flight. The first two are superstrength and superspeed. A theme of the show is that Clark is ambivalent about having superpowers, mainly because they scare him. He doesn’t feel in control of himself and he’s afraid he might hurt someone. But on the whole he likes being superstrong and superfast.
Being the first is useful when he does chores around the Kent family farm. His superspeed is useful too, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Routinely he’ll go for a run for the sheer, simple pleasure of moving faster than a speeding a bullet. We see this best in an episode in which Clark meets another kid with superspeed. The kid calls himself Bart Allen. He also goes by the aliases Barry Allen, Jay Garrick, and Wally West. Whatever his real name is, he’s going to grow up to be the Flash. At the end of the episode, Clark and Bart/Barry/the Flash have a race that’s just pure fun for the both of them.
In another episode Clark makes a run from his house in Smallville to Metropolis and back, a round trip of a couple hundred miles, to pick up a pizza and he gets it home still piping hot. He does it because he wants pizza and it’s the best pizza in the Midwest. But he also does it because he can.
Smallville is a 218-chapter origin story: How Clark Kent became Superman. Really how Clark Kent decided to become a superhero. In too many episodes there’s some highblown but empty speechifying about accepting his destiny, but basically the show is all about Clark trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up while having to deal with the emotional and physical turmoils of growing up. For the first several seasons his one over-riding ambition is to just be a normal teenager. He wants to have fun, be liked by the other kids, and fall in love. He actually manages all that. But having powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal adolescents presents challenges and temptations that are also far beyond those faced by normal teenagers. He isn't normal. And not just in the sense of being different. He's not a freak or a geek. He is, it turns out, what most every other kid dreams of being. He is a hero.
In the true sense of the word, not in the celebrified sense that’s tossed around in the news and the media as if all it means is someone celebrated for having done a good deed and earned media attention for it. Being a hero is a calling, a vocation, and a responsibility. Heroes put the powers and abilities they could use to enrich and aggrandize themselves to work making other people’s lives better. Heroes live their lives in the service of others. They see themselves as having a responsibility. They believe they have been given powers and abilities---talents, skills, and know-how---for a reason.
One of the goofier moves Smallville made was to have Clark convince his parents to let him try out for the football team. Of course he makes the team and becomes the starting quarterback. This seems not only unfair to the other kids---not to mention dangerous. People break their hands punching Superman in the jaw. What would happen to someone who tried to tackle him on the run or, worse, who got tackled by him?---but it would also seem to be incredibly stressful, not just because he’d have to expend a lot of mental and physical energy keeping his powers in check so he didn’t hurt anyone, but because he’d have to be always having to decide when it was ok for him to score a touchdown and when he needed to miss a wide-open receiver or throw an interception or let himself be sacked in order to give the other team half a chance, let his teammates contribute and not win every game single-handedly, and, most importantly, not make people suspicious. But apparently, among his other abilities, is the ability to shift into a lower gear so that he plays merely at the level of a high-school All-American. He becomes a star and a hometown hero in a way that allows him to feel as if he’s earned it like a “normal” kid. So he’s popular, admired, justly proud of himself, having fun and...unsatisfied.
Disappointed, as a matter of fact.
The writers and producers of Smallville had great respect and affection for all the incarnations and iterations of Superman that had come before, especially Christopher Reeve and his first two Superman movies, and I have to believe the Clark as football hero story arc, goofy as it is, was inspired by one of my favorite scenes in the first of Reeve’s movies. In that scene, on his way home from school, teenage Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but overdubbed with Reeve’s voice) outraces a train and is waiting by the driveway up to the Kents’ farmhouse when a car full of his classmates, including his crush Lana Lang and his football star rival Brad, who left school well before him, pass by. Lana’s impressed and Brad’s flummoxed and Clark gets a kick out of having done both. But his father---earth father---Jonathan Kent (a wise and gentle Glenn Ford) catches him feeling a little too pleased with himself.
Jonathan: Been showing off a bit, haven't you, son?
Clark: I didn't mean to show off, Dad. It's just that, guys like that Brad, I just want to tear him apart.
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, I know.
Clark: And I know I shouldn't…
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, you can do all these amazing things and sometimes you feel like you will just go bust unless you can tell people about them.
Clark: Yeah. I mean every time I get the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?
Jonathan:: No, no. Now, you listen to me. When you first came to us, we thought people would come and take you away because, when they found out, you know, the things you could do... and that worried us a lot. But then a man gets older, and he starts thinking differently and things get very clear. And one thing I do know, son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or whatever the reason is... Maybe it's because... uh... I don't know. But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns.
In the Smallville story arc, Clark figures out that Jonathan’s right. He isn’t here to score touchdowns. Not only that, scoring touchdowns for a living isn’t what he wants to do. At a certain point he realizes that he doesn't want to just be good at something. He wants to be good and do good. He wants to be good by doing good, which I guess is the tautological definition of good. And from then on the questions he wrestles with are on what scale should he do the good he wants to do and can he handle the responsibility---and the loneliness: he has to decide, Does he want to live his life entirely for other people?
And that’s his story for the rest of the series’ run, Clark figuring out what his responsibilities are and how best to meet them. How best to use his powers and abilities to help people. And learning to find satisfaction and fulfillment and enjoyment in being a hero and, not incidentally, a responsible adult. Clark begins to look forward to spending his life doing what he’s best at and what he wants to do.
There’s a word for people who find satisfaction and fulfillment in getting to live their lives doing what they’re best at and what they want to do.
The reason flight is the last of his superpowers to appear is that it is symbolic. It’s the ability that makes him Superman by allowing him to use all his other powers and abilities to do the most good and help the most people. It seems as if he’s given the power to fly as a reward for finally embracing his “destiny”---almost as if he’s literally graced by God. But, really, he’s had the power almost all along. He’s just had to want to use it. It’s like Glinda tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she could have used the ruby slippers to take herself back to Kansas at any time ( I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Dorothy Gale and Clark Kent both hail from Kansas, but if it is it’s one of those wonderful ones that give meaning to our appreciation of works of art), she just had to want to go home. It’s important that she doesn’t really want to go home until after she’s done all the good in Oz she can do. Clark could have started flying anytime. He just had to want to. Which is a way of saying he had to decide he wanted to be Superman.
Which raises a question.
Who wouldn’t want to be Superman?
The Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that’s who.
In Snyder's universe, Clark Kent never has fun having superpowers. In fact he's been taught to be ashamed of them. In Man of Steel, for a long time before he puts on the cape, he wanders the world doing good but secretly because he doesn’t want people to know he’s there. He’s afraid they’ll think he’s a monster not a hero. That’s because he thinks of himself as a monster. He doesn't like himself at all. Which, apparently, has caused within him a too strong desire to be liked by others. He’s conflicted about that too.
A favorite trope of writers of the Superman comics over the years has been to build What If stories around the question What would Superman be like if the Kents hadn't been the ones who found him and raised him. The answer is almost always "Not Superman", that is not the good guy we know and love. Man of Steel is a What If story too: What if the Kents hadn't been the Kents we know and love? What if they'd been fearful, paranoid, and neurotic? What if their love had been selfish? What if they'd taught young Clark that other people were just plain no good and not to be trusted?
If the first Christopher Reeve Superman includes one of the best father-son scenes in movie history, Man of Steel includes one of the most horrifying.
After junior high school age Clark saves a busload of his schoolmates from downing when their bus goes off the road and plunges into the river, Pa Kent scolds him for it. He could have been seen. The outside world might have learned there’s a dangerously superpowerful alien in their midst. Clark asks what he should have done instead, let those kids die? And Jonathan’s answer is…
Jonathan re-appears in Dawn of Justice to teach Clark a corollary: There’s no point in doing good for others anyway because every attempt to do good results in harm done down the road.
Snyder’s Jonathan is a disappointed and cynical man, deliberately alienated and lonely. His only solace is his wife Martha. ‘She’s my world,” he tells Clark, implying she’s his only reason for living, just what a kid wants to hear from a parent, but also that she’s the only person worth living for.
The Kents are their own little world, living entirely unto themselves and for themselves, owing nothing to anybody else.
Martha herself reinforces this notion:
Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did.
This is shocking to hear for those of us who took to heart Uncle Ben’s admonition to Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
Yes, that's Marvel, but I think it’s taken for granted that that was a line Stan Lee intended to tie Spider-Man to Superman. At any rate, it’s become a motto for all superheroes since. More than that, however, is that it’s an admonition for all us not to be bullies and an implicit instruction to do unto others because we have a responsibility to each other and for each other.
Zack Snyder’s Superman was raised to reject those ideas and ideals and to look out first and foremost for Number One.
Dawn of Justice continues Snyder’s What If story by asking the next question, What if a Clark Kent raised to be inward, self-protective, self-centered, and self-doubting became Superman before he was mature and wise and well-adjusted enough to handle the responsibility? Before he’d even accepted that he has that responsibility? In Superman, Clark doesn't go to Metropolis until he's thirty, having spent twelve years in the Fortress of Solitude being taught how to be a hero and a good person by Jor-el and Lara's ghosts. In Smallville, he arrives there still in his early twenties but wise and mature beyond his years, having spent the last decade working very hard on acquiring wisdom and maturity and a sense of grownup responsibility. Basically, in both the movie and the TV series, Clark doesn’t become Superman until he’s ready to be Superman. In Man of Steel, practically the day he puts on the supersuit for the first time he has to get right to work saving the world. From here on out, then, it's going to be on the job training for him. Of course he's going to make a few mistakes.
Like letting thousands of people die while he wrestles with General Zod.
In Dawn of Justice, he's still making mistakes and still not having much fun being Superman. And, apparently, he's taking too much satisfaction in being beloved.
He’s essentially Superboy and not yet Superman. He has that adolescent ability to demand that adults (like the movie’s Batman) live up to standards and according to ideals the demanding adolescents aren’t emotionally mature enough to manage themselves.
There’s nothing inherently wrong (from a purely dramatic point of view) with positing a still very young and emotionally immature Superman who at twenty-three or twenty-four has to learn lessons about growing-up most young adults learn when they’re around sixteen or seventeen. But that type of young men (plenty of whom exist in real life) tend to be both annoying and boring. It’s a trick to make them interesting and sympathetic as characters in a movie, a trick Snyder doesn’t pull off.
His Clark is boring. And he’s annoying. And he’s definitely no fun to be around. And it doesn’t help that he’s paired with another conflicted, neurotic, humorless, inward-looking, self-pitying, and self-involved superhero who’s also not having any fun being a superhero.
It’s hard to see how their becoming friends will make either of them any happier or content with their roles and responsibilities, unless each one looks at the other and sees a version of himself that horrifies him.
Dawn of Justice ends with the hope that Batman has regained a small measure of sanity and the sister hope---based on the possibility that Snyder has read Joseph Campbell and understood an important step on the hero’s journey or that he’s at least seen the original Star Wars trilogy and absorbed the lesson of Luke and not just of Vader---that Clark is finally going to become the Superman we know, love, admire, and need.
But there’s enough in the movie that suggests Snyder’s long-term plans for the future Justice League movies involve dashing those hopes and that he’s going to give us another Batman v Superman face-off, this time between a powerless, helpless, and totally alone Batman and a thoroughly evil Superman.
Fun for the whole family or at least for the sullen, selfish, and self-loathing teenager in the house who needs to know that it’s ok to be sullen, selfish, and self-loathing because nobody’s any good anyway and life stinks no matter who and what you are.
On a related note, but not worth its own brief:
Not only is Snyder’s Superman self-loathing and self-absorbed and entirely without a sense of fun, he’s also entirely without a sense of humor. Smallville's and Superman's Clarks have very good senses of humor They’re also pranksters. In Superman II, he even saves the day by pulling a prank. If the fascistic statue of Superman that figures prominently in Dawn of Justice had been erected in either of those Clarks’ universes, if it didn't disappear overnight after its unveiling, pulverized into dust and blown away with a blast of superbreath, the city of Metropolis would have to dedicate a line in its daily operating budget to scrubbing off the painted-on mustaches and cross-eyes every morning.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman kills people. He cuts them to pieces with the Batplane’s machine guns. He blows them up with rockets. He rams their cars with the Batmobile causing them to crash and burn. He beats a few so badly you have to think they couldn’t survive. He fries someone with a flame thrower. And, of course, he tries to kill Superman.
This is not Batman behaving like the Batman most of us know and admire, no matter where we know him from, previous movies, the comic books, the television cartoon shows, and one other venue.
As Adam Zucker-Scharff reminded his followers on Twitter, “Let’s remember a version of Batman exists where he would rather blow himself up than hurt some ducks.”
Over-heard after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: A father to his five year old son, "What did you think of the movie? Long and boring, wasn't it?"
The kid nodded solemnly in agreement.
The movie is two hours and thirty-one minutes long and I swear an hour of that is taken up with long, pointless panning and tracking shots overplayed with ponderous music that add nothing to the story or our enjoyment.
Nothing seems to be in the movie for anyone's enjoyment.
At one point, there's an artfully angled and lit shot of a dripping faucet that goes on long enough for us to start counting the drips and has no apparent purpose except to call attention to itself. I don't think this was intended as self-commentary.
But I suspect it wasn't only director Zack Snyder's diligent pursuit of dullness that explains that little boy's solemnity and his father's obvious disappointment on his and his own behalf. I would bet it was Snyder's relentless, remorseless determination not to allow us to have any fun or to like and even sympathize with either Batman or Superman.
It's not that there aren't any moments of fun to be found in the script, but Snyder treats them as chores to be done as soon as possible in order to move on to the next scene of gloom and doom and whenever he meets with a joke he stamps it out like it's a fire.
Gal Gadot is terrific as Wonder Woman---once she finally gets to be Wonder Woman---and she seems to be having a good time but I can't help thinking she only got away with it because Snyder wasn't paying attention to her. Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman suffer from too much directorial attention and look worn out and dispirited by the effort of playing their characters as worn out and dispirited.
But never mind what Zack Snyder’s thinking, giving us this grim, dark, brutal, neurotic, very kid-unfriendly version of the World’s Finest superheroes. What was DC thinking allowing him to do this to the mainstays of their franchise? "Hey, let's ruin Batman and Superman for an entire generation of kids!"?
If DC's lucky, parents around the world are showing their kids Bruce Timm's animated series and the Christopher Reeve movies and saying, "Forgive us for taking you to that. Here, these are the real Batman and Superman."
Perry Whites Ranked:
4. Lane Smith
Lex Luthors Ranked:
5. John Shea
4. Kevin Spacey
3. Clancy Brown
2. Gene Hackman
5. Alan Napier
3. Sean Pertwee
2. Jeremy Irons
7. Amy Adams
6. Noel Neill
5. Teri Hatcher
4. Dana Delaney
6. Val Kilmer
3. Ben Affleck
2. Kevin Conroy
1. Adam West
There’s nobody else, and all the other guys understand.
Fun movie trivia game is to list actors who turned down or lost out on roles in movies that turned out to be big hits, classics, and career-makers for whoever got the part instead and argue about how much they might still be kicking themselves over it. The problem with this game is an inherent misunderstanding of how movies work their magic. The premise assumes that the movie would have been the same movie with the disappointed not-the-star starring in it. In fact, it would have been a different movie with a different subsequent history.
Robert Redford as Michael Corleone? Jim Carrey as Edward Scissorhands? Tom Hanks as Jerry Maguire?
Actually, I’m not sure the last one wouldn’t have made the movie better.
But Ghosbusters wouldn’t have been Ghostbusters if John Belushi had starred in it as originally planned. Which is why I don’t care about the reboot. Ghostbusters is Bill Murray’s movie. You don’t have the thirty-four year old Murray playing Peter Venkman, you don’t have Ghostbusters.
All this adds up to something Warren Beatty told Mark Harris when Harris interviewed him for Harris' excellent book on the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967 Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood:
“Casting is destiny,” says [Beatty]. “Particularly in movies, because casting is character---and character is plot. Casting really controls story. One guy would do one thing, another guy wouldn’t. And if you’re the guy in the close-up, character acting isn’t going to help---you either are that guy or you aren’t.”
Beatty was talking to Harris about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, which Beatty produced, and Beatty wasn’t his own first choice to play Clyde.
He wanted Bob Dylan.
January 23, 2016.
Leonardo DiCaprio in what I think of as his first grown-up role even though he was playing a teenager, the brilliant and elusive young con artist Frank Abagnale Jr in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 true-life comedy caper Catch Me If You Can, the movie that, incidentally, made me think my thinking about Spielberg was all wrong.
There was never a time when I didn’t think Spielberg was a good director. Duel scared the willies out of me when I was a kid. But I didn't think he was one of film-making's great artists and for a while there I suspected he was a bit of a hack.
He'd certainly shown some hack-like propensities.
Whenever he didn’t know what to do or seemed to lose confidence he sentimentalized or reached for a visual cliche. In Amistad, not once, but twice, he poses Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in the company of a bust of Adams’ father John Adams as if in case we won’t get the connections and will fail to draw the right lessons from the history---”Hey, this guy’s old man helped get the American Revolution started!”--- and there’s a scene of the freed slaves dancing in celebration that’s cringe-inducing in how close it comes to crossing that line. And it didn’t just happen in some scenes in some movies. He made whole movies like that, cliched and sentimental from start to finish. That didn’t stop some of them from being good movies. Jurassic Park. E.T.! But it marred several and ruined more than one. A.I. is sentimental hogwash from start to finish.
And he’s made a couple that were pure hack work---Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, particularly. And, god help us, not having learned his lesson, he’s planning another Raiders sequel.---and a few that were out and out bad, although I’ve heard over the years that 1941 isn’t really as terrible as I and most everybody who saw thought when it came out. But all good directors have their failures.
There’s still no excuse for Hook.
But it was an interview I read in which he said that if he had Jaws to do over again, he’d take advantage of improvements in technology and computer graphics to show the shark more. I was dumbfounded. The shark's being an invisible monster for most of the movie is what made Jaws so frightening. I forget when this was. A good while ago, but after Jurassic Park. The reason the shark’s appearances are few and far between in Jaws is the special effects crew couldn’t get the mechanical shark to work right. It looked and moved like what it was, a machine. This turned out to be one of those lucky accidents that happen all the time in moviemaking and result in a shot, a scene, and even a whole movie turning out better than planned. Yet, instead of marveling gratefully at the serendipity, here he was seeming to wish he’d had better toys to play with.
I thought this showed a George Lucas-like tendency to think people came to the movies for the special effects.
Haven’t been able to turn up that interview online so it’s possible I’m misremembering it or misunderstood what Spielberg was saying---he may very well have meant that he was glad the technology wasn’t available to him at the time because if it had been, he’d have made use of it and that would have made Jaws a lesser film and kept him from learning an important lesson as a director. Here’s something I did turn up, in a story about the making of Jaws at Mental Floss:
When [special effects expert Bob Mattey] finally delivered Bruce [the mechanical shark], Spielberg began to panic. On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Within a week, saltwater had eroded Bruce’s electric motor, and he had to be refitted with a system of pneumatic hoses. Every night, Bruce also had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted. Even by diva standards, Bruce was high-maintenance.
“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
Seems unlikely a filmmaker as smart as Steven Spielberg would have unlearned a lesson from he took from Alfred Hitchcock.
The point is that at one time, for various reasons, I didn’t think as highly of his talents and abilities as I do now. Over time, despite the sentimentality and the cliches and the occasional bad movie, my appreciation for his craftsmanship grew, and there came a point when I began to think he might actually be a real artist and a pretty darn good one at that.. The movie that started me thinking along these lines wasn’t The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan. It was one that came after them and which I saw when it was in the theaters fourteen years ago and just saw again for the first time since, when we watched it here for Mannion Family Movie Night a couple of weeks back: Catch Me If You Can. A trifle of a film or it would be if Spielberg hadn’t gotten such fine performances out of Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, and in what I’d argue was his first truly adult role even though he was playing a character who for most of the movie is only nineteen years old, Leonardo DiCaprio.
You might think, how hard could it have been to get fine performances out of those three?
Countless directors have wasted the talents of their stars. Countless have not known how to harness their stars’ talents or to capture their best work on camera. Countless have simply been overawed or overwhelmed by a star’s determination to deliver a bad performance. (Again, there’s no excusing Hook.) But In Catch Me If You Can it’s not just that his stars perform well for him that impressed me. He’s always done well by his actors that way, and they’ve done well by him. It was the first I noticed that he does more than simply photograph them performing well. He uses their performances to create photographs. He uses them as bodies in motion or, often, not in motion, in suspended motion, to construct the imagery that makes up his visual storytelling.
When you admire a still from a movie that’s as beautifully lit and composed as a great photograph or painting, you can’t be sure whose work you’re actually admiring, the cinematographer’s, the designers’, the editor’s, director’s, all of the above? It’s only when as you watch the movie and see how the director moves the actors about within the frames that you can begin to judge how much the overall composition and visual effect are his doing and how well he’s done the job. And it’s only from watching him move the actors around can you appreciate how he’s using their movements to move the story along. And it’s only when you’re aware that the director is moving the actors around to a purpose beyond making things dramatic that you begin to think the purpose might be thematic.
In the climactic scene of Catch Me If You, FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) has tracked the brilliant and elusive teenage con artist he’s been chasing back and forth across the United States and now over to Europe, Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio), to the small village in France where Abagnale is hiding out and cornered him in the workshop he’s set up to print the counterfeit checks he needs to continue his increasing elaborate cons. The two men begin talking, like the almost friends they’ve become in the course of Hanratty’s cat and mouse pursuit, the cat being Tom and the mouse Jerry, as Hanratty tries to persuade Frank that the jig is at last up and he should surrender and come quietly. At first, we don’t see Frank. He’s hidden behind one of his absurdly many printing presses. Then Spielberg finds him for us and it’s a shock to see him.
Up till now, Frank has almost always appeared snappily and proudly dressed in the tailored suits and airline pilot uniforms that are the costumes of the various false identities he’s created for his schemes. But now he’s in work clothes, heavy baggy pants and a sleeveless undershirt, and he's sweaty and dirty and marked with ink and grease. His former confidence of body and manner are gone. He looks distraught, worn out, worried, and afraid, and not in reaction to Hanratty’s having caught up with him. This is what he’s like when he’s alone now. And he hates it. He wants Hanratty to save him. He wants to turn himself in but he can’t make himself step out from behind his machines. He’s trapped by them. He’s trapped inside the machinery of his own frauds and crimes and is in danger of being pulled in and becoming a human component in his own fraud-making machines like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
It’s a terrific scene and it surprised and thrilled me when I first saw it, not least because I realized that Spielberg had built it not just out Hanks’ and DiCaprio’s performances but out of a series of brilliantly composed pictures. Moving pictures. Pictures that were dynamic because of how Spielberg moved the actors around in his frames.
Another way of putting this was when it dawned on me that Spielberg knows how to draw and paint himself. He doesn’t leave the imagery up to his cinematographer and designers, and he puts the imagery into motion on the set and not just in the camera and the editing room.
Something else surprised me about Catch Me If You Can.
The women in the movie.
It was a delight to see the number of actresses I didn’t know when the movie came out who have since gone on to have significant careers: Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Pompeo, Amy Acker all pop up in fun and interesting small parts. Only Adams has more than a cameo or a bit part, but Spielberg treats none of them as throwaways or mere sticks to beat the plot along. He gives each a moment in which their characters get to shine.
Leaving aside The Color Purple and the movie he’d started his big screen career with, Sugarland Express, still one of my favorites of his movies and of Goldie Hawn’s---when anyone gets around to assessing Hawn’s career as one of the great lead actresses of the last fifty years, Sugarland Express should be high on the list of her best performances---Spielberg wasn’t known for showing much interest in female characters who weren’t mothers, wives, or children. He still isn’t, although Sally Field might take issue with that. He’s still not known for his the attention he gives to his female characters. Many of his movies feature virtually no female characters at all. It’s a point in his favor that he doesn’t use starlets as eye candy. But he doesn’t often portray women as having any sexuality at all. Men either. His heroes have generally been overgrown boys or the kind of men ten year old boys imagine themselves growing up to be, which amounts to the same thing.
Karen Allen’s Marian Ravenwood is the exception to almost all that, but I can’t tell you if that’s Allen doing Spielberg the favor, the way Princess Leia was Carrie Fisher’s gift to George Lucas, or another lucky accident for Spielberg---of it’s just built into the material: Marian is an unavoidable artifact of the kinds of old movie serials and comic strip adventure tales Spielberg and Lucas were using as their template for Raiders. Marian is a spunky kid sister to Lois Lane and Dale Arden.
It’s disappointing to note that neither of the female leads in the sequels are anything more than cliches or played by actresses nearly as talented as Allen and that when Marian returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it’s as a wife and mother and not as an action-adventure heroine in her own right.
But while Adams, Garner, Banks, Pompeo, and Acker each play a stock character---Adams a variant on the Farmer’s Daughter, Garner the Vamp, Banks the Dumb Blonde, Pompeo the not so innocent Schoolgirl, and Acker the Beauty Contest Entrant fooled by her own vanity and ambition into thinking she has real talent and is on the road to stardom---it’s clear Spielberg cast them because he recognized them as smart actresses who could turn their stock characters into real people. They are all also sexualized.
I don’t mean they’re sex objects. Like I said, Spielberg has admirably refrained from treating starlets as eye candy. I mean that each has a healthy libidio and her own particular romantic feelings and desires. Each responds to Frank’s seductiveness in her own, independent way and it’s clear that in that in their eyes he’s the object of desire.
And then it seems the case that their being stock figures is partly his doing.
A great deal of Frank’s success is his ability to manipulate his marks into acting the roles he needs them to play. This goes for then he cons as well as the women.
Frank’s schemes and the movie’s plot depend on his manipulating a top-notch FBI agent into playing the role of dumb and blundering movie and TV cop. Hanratty’s never quite reduced to an Inspector Clouseau but in their first several encounters, Frank is Top Cat and Hanratty comes away feeling as though he’s been played for an Officer Dibble. That the movie gets away with this, convincing us that Frank can outwit Hanratty and that Hanratty or any character played by Tom Hanks can be outwitted, is a measure of DiCaprio’s and Hanks’ performances.
Hanratty’s considerable intelligence and his imagination are limited by his lack of a sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness. He’s all work, all the time. His Boston accent isn’t a connection to the Hub’s Irish spirit but an echo from Massachusett’s Puritan past.
So that was another surprise in Catch Me If You Can: Spielberg taking a more sophisticated, nuanced, and ironic approach to character development and storytelling than I’d seen him take before even in his best movies to date.
Spielberg’s directorial efforts since have not amounted to an unbroken string of ever-greater artistic achievements. But they’ve included Munich, Lincoln, and now Bridge of Spies.
We watched Catch Me If You Can for family movie night to gear up to see Bridge of Spies again which is playing at the local second-run movie theater. But now I’m thinking it might be fun to go back and re-watch some more of Spielberg’s earlier films, the good and the not-so-good, in light of what he’s done since Catch Me If You Can to see what I missed in them.
I still expect I’ll find no excuse for Hook.
Here's the link to the Mentalfloss article on the making of Jaws I mentioned,Bill DeMain's How Steven Spielberg's Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business.
Seeing The Big Short this afternoon. Looking forward to seeing how they adapted that book. Critic and author Mark Harris rates Adam McKay’s screenplay as one of the best of the year. I hope McKay found a way to work in one of my favorite short scenes from Michael Lewis’ book. It involves the character played by Brad Pitt---Ben Hockett in real life; for some reason, Ben Rickert in the movie. Ben Hockett was not inclined to look on the bright side. Pessimist doesn’t begin to describe the bleakness of his doom and gloom-ism. Worst case scenarios were to him far and away the likeliest case scenarios. This attitude helped make him a very successful financial analyst. It made him obsessive and paranoid in his personal life, as illustrated in this scene:
[Hockett’s business partners] Charlie and Jamie preferred Ben to keep his apocalyptic talk to himself. It made people uncomfortable. There was no reason anyone needed to know, for example, that Ben had bought a small farm in the country, north of San Francisco, in a remote place without road access, planted with fruit and vegetables sufficient to feed his family, on the off chance of the end of the world as we know it. It was hard for Ben to keep his worldview to himself, however, especially since it was the first cousin of their investment strategy: The possibility of accident and disaster was just never very far from their conversations. One day on the phone with Ben, Charlie said, You hate taking even remote risks, but you live in a house on top of a mountain that’s on a fault line, in a housing market that’s at an all-time high. “He just said, ‘I gotta go,’ and hung up,” recalled Charlie. “We had trouble getting hold of him for, like, two months.”
The reason they didn’t hear from him is that he was in the process of selling his house.
Stories within stories. That’s what I enjoy most about the Star Wars movies. The old stories. The kind Sam Gamgee likes.
…the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
And there’s another story that if it didn’t influence Lucas directly is still in Star Wars because it was influenced by the same old stories and those stories are in there.
In creating Star Wars, George Lucas was inspired by countless old swashbucklers, tales of chivalry and legends of derring-do, and boys’ (and girls’) own adventure stories. The ones that mean the most to me and so the ones I’m most on the watch for and am most thrilled by and moved by when they show up in the movies---the original trilogy, the prequels, and now The Force Awakens---are the tales of King Arthur and his knights. Obviously. But this time out I picked up on another favorite influence as well.
The Three Musketeers.
The connections aren’t thematic or directly plot related. They aren't matters of characterization,either, although they have to do with the characters. But it’s not that this or that character is Athos, Aramis, Porthos, or d’Artagnan. I could make the case that Han is a bit like Porthos, a showoff and braggart, but that would be beside the point, my point and the point of Han as a character. And, as far as it goes, when we first meet him, he’s like all three of the original musketeers rolled into one, a rogue and a scoundrel, in it for the fun and the money and the easy living, redeemed by the example of the noble and idealistic country bumpkin turned hero. The connection is in Poe’s and Finn’s relationship to Rey and their place in her story. And as things stand, in that story, they're secondary characters and their roles are similar to Aramis’ and Porthos’ in d’Artagnan’s story. They’re there to help out. Han takes Athos’ place as the older (much older; Athos, the Comte de le Fère, is around 30), wiser, because heartbroken and bitter, guide and steadying influence on our young and impulsive hero. Athos is interesting because of his backstory but he’s important to the main story because of his relationship with d’Artagnan’s chief adversary, Milady de Winter. Aramis and Porthos are likable and fun and they have lots to do, but nothing important of their own to do. They're supporting players and in their own different ways comic relief. In The Force Awakens, Poe and Finn are likable and fun and have lots to do---Finn a lot more than Poe---but they're still supporting players and in their different ways comic relief.
The Force Awakens sets up the new trilogy as Rey’s story the way the original trilogy was Luke’s story. The whole saga, however, is still Luke’s story. That’s one of the things I liked about The Force Awakens, that J.J. Abrams didn’t try to change that. And it looks as though Luke’s story will end the way the stories of so many legendary heroes’---Arthur, Robin Hood, d’Artagnan among them---stories end, with the hero’s final failure and death. (This suggests that over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe things do not bode well for Captain America.) Things will probably change, but the way they seem headed, Poe’s and Finn’s stories aren’t necessarily integral to Rey and Luke’s story. They don’t have to be and I think shouldn’t be. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if they’re made to be.
I'll be more than fine with it if their stories are nearly entirely separate and are used to expand the new expanded universe. What I’d really like would be if Poe’s and Finn’s stories become Poe and Finn’s story and the plot of that story is inspired by (that is, is swiped from) the plot of the first book of The Three Musketeers.
It wouldn’t need to be that Finn and Poe fit the roles of any of the Musketeers. As they are, Finn could be d’Artangan in that he’s young, naive, unschooled, and undisciplined but talented and a natural leader, but then Poe is the idealistic one. Finn wants out. Poe can't imagine being anything but in. And he's a natural leader too. Doesn’t matter. It’s the plot of "The Queen's Diamonds" I want to see them caught up in.
The problem with that, though, is sex.
There’s no place for a Milady de Winter in the Star Wars universe as Lucas created it. No place for any Constances either, and there’s no sign in The Force Awakens that Abrams intends to change that. In fact, Abrams seems to have more of a problem with grown-up women characters than Lucas had. Captain Phasma is likely going to turn out to be Rochefort to Finn’s d’Artagnan, to whatever degree Finn is d’Artagnan. A true femme fatale or a lusty love interest seem out of the question. But who knows. The next installment’s being written and directed by Rian Johnson, who has shown---in Looper and The Brothers Bloom, at any rate---that he’s not afraid of grown up persons of the female persuasion.
Other than that, though, Poe and Finn needing to join together to go on a rogue mission to steal something while both good guys and bad guys pursue them, with some intrigue, maybe some romance if not sex---that could make for a story interesting and thrilling in its own right, apart from any place it might have within the larger adventure.
As long as what they’re stealing aren’t plans for yet another Death Star.
Previous thought awakened: The once and future Jedi.
December 24, 2015.
Saw it tonight and my first thought was that the sequels are going to need prequels.
My second thought was how fun it was to get one more good Harrison Ford action-adventure movie. J.J. Abrams understands the story of Han Solo better than Lucas and Spielberg understand the story of Indiana Jones.
But that's another post. Back to The Force Awakens.
Episode VII is all fallout from a plotline that’s going to have to be explained in Episode VIII in order for the story to move on to Episode IX and the original saga’s proper conclusion. Most of what happens is a matter of raising questions that can only be answered by looking backwards. Where are we and how did we get here? Who are these people and why should we care about them? And I expect Abrams knows he can’t just exposition them away in a couple of speeches. It will have to be dealt with in an extended flashback. That is, I hope so. I hope that Abrams has set up the new trilogy as its own Machete version.
Not that I really care.
I’ve never really cared.
I’m too old.
And I don’t mean that like Obi-wan I’m getting too old for this sort of thing. I mean that when the original Star Wars came out in 1977 I wasn’t a little kid so it couldn’t become a constellating myth of my childhood. I enjoyed it immensely. I didn’t think of it as a kids’ movie. But it wasn’t new or revelatory to me. I’d heard that story---those stories. Lucas borrowed from multiple myths, legends, and adventure yarns---before, many times, in different versions, and those were the stories around which my imagination had cohered. Star Wars mattered to me because it reminded me of those stories and called up the feelings and dreams they had always inspired. What I loved about it was how it made me love those stories again---stories that included Treasure Island, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and especially The Knights of the Round Table---stories I knew and loved from books, by the way, before I ever saw them adapted into movies, and books have always been more important to me than movies. And that’s all Star Wars was to me, a movie that captured some of the fun and excitement of those books.
In no way is this meant as a dismissal of Star Wars. Like I said, I enjoyed it and I enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. I was impressed with them as moviemaking achievements. I was impressed and (moderately) thrilled that Lucas had managed to pull off setting a traditional swashbuckling adventure yarn in outer space, although I was aware that the old Flash Gordon serials he was paying homage to had already done that. The point is, though, that The Force Awakens was only going to matter to me to the degree it was able to do what the original had done, invoke those old stories in a heartfelt way. And to a degree, it succeeded.
But at more of a remove.
I think it's pretty well generally agreed that as a villain Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. That even seems to be the point of the character. But as a villain in his own right he’s not particularly formidable. That also seems to be the point. He’s not the villain. He’s a representative. He’s not what caused the problem Rey has to solve. He is, like her, what’s left over. They are both effects.
Presumably, over the next two movies, they will both grow. But as things stand, neither is as important as whoever brought about their current situations, and none of whoever they were plays a significant part in The Force Awakens.
What I’m hoping is that some of them aren’t even mentioned in The Force Awakens.
What I’m hoping is that they’ll be introduced in flashbacks in Episode VIII and we’ll get the story of their downfalls. And I’m further hoping that that story isn’t simply a retelling of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall. I’m hoping it’s a retelling of the story of the breaking of the Round Table.
And I’m really hoping the Force doesn’t have much to do with it.
In the story I’m hoping to see told, Kylo Ren is not a leading character. He’s not Mordred. He’s Agravaine, Gawaine’s other anti-heroic brother, the one who sides with Mordred out of jealousy of Gawain and of Lancelot because of their place in Arthur’s affections. (Luke, of course, is Arthur.) This would mean that in the story I want to see told, there are at least three more important characters to be introduced---possibly, four: a Launcelot, a Gawaine, a Mordred, and a Guinevere. (Probably too much to expect a fifth and the movie gets truly adult by including a Morgause.) And in the story I’m hoping to see told, the breaking of the Round Table---the dissolution of the new Jedi order Luke tried to establish---would be brought about by a falling out between Luke’s two favorites, his Gawaine and Lancelot, manipulated and exploited by his Mordred (not necessarily his son but that would be interesting) but caused by ordinary human needs and desires that aren’t in themselves wrong or result in either hero going over to the Dark Side. What I’m hoping for, basically, is a real tragedy arising from the conflict between two heroic characters who both have right on their side but who handle it badly, that is, humanly.
It would be up to Luke, then, to settle things but that would require him to take sides against one or the other of his best friends. Which would break his heart.
That’s a wound that won’t heal on its own and that would send him into self-imposed exile.
And in that story, Rey would be Percival.
Percival, you probably recall, is Arthur’s greatest knight. Well, technically, he’s the second greatest. Galahad is the greatest, but he barely counts because he only shows up for the Grail quest and almost immediately becomes one with the Force---he dies and goes right to heaven---when he finds it. So for all intents and purposes, Percival is number one. (Lancelot is third and Gawain is fourth.) But he comes late to the Round Table, when Arthur and the others are nearing old age. He is a knight’s son---in some versions a king’s son---but when he was a baby his mother took him into the woods far from Camelot where she raised him with no knowledge of his father or of knights in general because she was afraid of what would happen to him if he joined the Round Table. He grows up a rude and ignorant bumpkin but strong, clever, resourceful, and brave. Then one day some knights on a quest ride through the woods and as soon as he sees them, Percival becomes aware of the Force flowing through him---that is, he knows himself to be a true knight and is instantly not only capable but the most capable with sword and lance.
Sounds like a bit of a male Mary Sue, doesn’t he?
Sounds like somebody else who’s being called a Mary Sue, too.
There’s something else about Percival that might sound familiar if you’ve seen The Force Awakens.
In some retellings, he’s the one who finds the Grail and uses it to heal the Fisher King.
Maybe J.J. Abrams understands those old stories as well as he understands Han Solo's...or maybe it’s that he understands Star Wars.
We’re going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this afternoon. Don’t tell me! I don’t know what to expect. I said, don’t tell me! The internet has been pretty good about keeping the secrets and surprises, and I’ve been careful to avoid just about every possible avenue for a spoiler to sneak through. What did I say? I haven’t even seen the trailers or looked closely at the poster. I’m not listening! But still, some hints and clues have gotten past my defenses. Nothing specific. Just the sense that there are a number of tributes and allusions to the original. That should be fun, if it’s done right. But what I’d like is if it turns out that Luke hasn’t become a version of Obi-wan or of Yoda, he’s Mace Windu, the most badass Jedi ever---don’t forget. Mace had Darth Sidius whupped. It was only because Anakin ambushed him that Mace didn’t finish Sidius off and end the revenge of the Sith right there. I want Luke that powerful and that mean. So here’s the scene I’d like to see, an homage to Obi-wan and Vader’s duel aboard the Death Star, with Luke confronting whichever new character has turned out to be the one who’s gone over to the dark side and become the reboot’s new ultimate bad guy.
Bad Guy: I've been waiting for you, Luke Skywalker. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.
Luke: Only a master of evil, Bad Guy Whose Name I Can’t Say Because That Would Be A Spoiler.
They set to it. Light sabers clash. Luke seems to be getting the worst of it but he recovers and they fight to a standstill, their sabers locked, just as it was with Obi-wan and Vader.
Bad Guy: Your powers are weak, old man.
Luke: You can't win, Bad Guy. If you strike me down, I shall become more...Oh, fuck it. I’m Luke Skywalker. You strike me down, I become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. I strike you down, you’re just dead.
Bad Guy: Aaagh!
Luke: May the Force forget you.
Sunday morning. December 20, 2015.
Rachel McAdams as Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer realizes that a “retired” priest who’s admitted to molesting children lives unsupervised down the street from a school in Spotlight, the movie about the Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse scandal that should have brought about the collapse of the Catholic Church.
The last serious conversation I had with a priest was nearly fifteen years ago and it ended with him calling Mrs M and me bad parents and me telling him to go to hell.
That was the day I was done with the Catholic Church forever. And it broke my heart.
By that point in my life I wasn’t much of a Catholic. I was barely a believer. But I had been both whole-heartedly when I was young. I was proud of having been raised Catholic. I was grateful for my Catholic grade school education. I had nothing but fond memories of being an altar boy. The priests I served with were great guys. The nuns who taught me were smart, progressive, demanding, and kind. Over the years, my faith and the practice of it brought me mostly joy. I was a lazy CAPE Catholic by the time we became parents, but when Mrs M decided she wanted to raise the boys Catholic, I was glad. And when the time came I was happy and proud to send them off to Catholic school. Which is where the trouble began.
In first grade, Ken’s physical and emotional development problems started to show themselves, his several learning disabilities and blocks began to take their toll. And we had no idea what was happening to him. All we knew was that a very bright, imaginative, creative, happy, and kind little boy who wanted nothing so much as to please his parents and teachers and other kids suddenly couldn’t do anything right. With his friends and in class, it seemed to be always the case that whenever he should have turned left, he turned right, whenever he should have pushed the on button, he pushed off. He was constantly annoying the other kids, exasperating his teachers, and frustrating himself. He became anxious, fretful, lonely, and desperately unhappy. Predictably and understandably, he acted out by misbehaving. Not by being naughty and disobedient, exactly, at least not usually. By either refusing to participate, getting silly, or by melting down in tears.
Having no idea what was wrong and therefore no ideas about how to help him, Mrs M and I turned for guidance and advice to the people whose job, we thought, was to look out for the children in their professional care, his teachers, the principal, the pastor, and eventually the head of the diocesan schools.
That last person was the priest who called us bad parents and I told to go to hell.
We got no help or guidance. The pastor and the principal made it increasingly clear that Ken was our problem to solve and the way they thought we should solve it was by taking him off their hands. We should have done it right then. We might have if we weren’t afraid he’d get lost in the public schools---the public elementary school in our neighborhood was one of the most chaotic in the city, with a reputation for a lack of order and discipline, and one thing we knew was that Ken did best in quiet, structured, predictable situations---and if we weren’t such still-loyal Catholics. We thought it was important that he get a Catholic education because almost unconsciously we believed that was the only kind of real and complete education there was.
Mrs M and I weren’t helpless. We didn’t throw our hands up in despair. We sought out specialists and counselors on our own. But it was slow going and led to many dead ends. Eventually, our family doctor got Ken in to see the top child neuropsychologist in town and he made the diagnoses of Asperger’s, ADD, and dyscalculia that got Ken the IEP and the special education he needed and essentially saved his life. But by then he was in fourth grade and well and good out of Catholic school.
Two-thirds of his way through second grade, in the spring of 2001, our pastor told us Ken would not be welcomed back for third grade. Not only that, he would have to finish second grade at home or somewhere else.
That’s when we made one last appeal to the head of the diocesan schools. That’s when he called us bad parents. That’s when it finally dawned on me.
While Ken’s situation was coming to a head, the molestation scandal was breaking. The Boston Globe’s investigative series that’s at the center of the movie Spotlight hadn’t yet begun to run but there’d been enough stories in the news in the Globe and elsewhere and over a long enough period to realize, if you thought about it, something even more heinous was going on than that a few bad priests here and there were sexual predators.
There were too many for the church higher ups not to have known. There were too many who weren’t defrocked for it not to be a policy not to punish them as they deserved. There were too many put back into regular parish work after a year or so of “counseling” and “therapy” for it not to be the case that pastors and bishops cared more about the deviant priests than about their past and future victims. There were too many of these predator-priests and too much official looking the other way for all the other priests who weren’t idiots or predators themselves not to know what was going on and too few of them on record as having tried to put a stop to it even by complaining to church authorities, never mind going to the police, for it not to be the truth that just about every priest was to some degree complicit.
Even the rare bishops who policed their own dioceses and punished the predators and protected their flocks were guilty of not doing more to stop what they knew was going on in other dioceses.
The Church was rotten from top to bottom, and while it was desperately protecting and enabling child molesters, it was throwing our child to the wolves.
It was hand-feeding other people’s children to monsters.
That was it. I was done. It didn’t feel like a momentous decision at the time. For the past few years, I’d only been going through the motions of being a Catholic anyway, and I’d only been going through those motions for the sakes of Mrs M and Ken and his little brother. But something else had happened it took me a while to notice, something more wrenching when I finally realized it.
In going through the motions, I’d been keeping what residual faith I had alive. When I stopped going through the motions, that last bit of faith died.
Sadder to me than that, though, was that all my joyful memories of my life as a Catholic were tainted and made suspect. I couldn’t go back to church physically in the present and I couldn’t go back in the past by remembering without anger and without mourning. There were priests in the background and foreground of all my memories and I had to wonder. Those great guys I served with, was one of them…? The priest who married Mrs M and M, was he…? How about the priests who baptized Ken and Oliver and gave them their first communions? And what about all the other children, my fellow altar boys, my classmates, Ken and Oliver’s friends…?
And then all around them and through them was the Church itself and weren’t all of us foolish and to an extent complicit too by turning our lives over to an institution that demanded obedience and loyalty but didn’t care about us even enough to protect our children in return?
This is one of the reasons I was so impressed and moved by Spotlight. It’s a terrific film, beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy working in a minor key and with a muted palette to create a world that is somber and sad and fallen but lovely for the warmth of the good hearts beating at its center, and brilliantly acted by a cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Live Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci. But it’s the screenplay, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, I want to talk about here.
The dialog isn’t packed with snappy one-liners. There are few big and meaningful speeches. No angry confrontations. No pithy back and forths. It’s realistically conversational. Characters simply talk to each other. And they reveal themselves, their personalities, feelings, thoughts, experiences as people tend to do in conversations in real life, indirectly, off-handedly, often unintentionally, in asides, in lead ups to making a point, or in expressing a concern or working out an idea or asking a question, or wrapped up in their points, concerns, ideas, and questions so that nothing they say doesn’t tell us who and what they are. And who and what the four journalists working on the story---the movie’s four lead characters, editor Robby Robinson and his team of reporters, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll, played by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and James---are all lifelong Catholics
All of them were raised Catholic and to varying degrees they’re believers, but none of them think of themselves as that connected to the Church anymore. Carroll attends his wife’s Protestant church. Pfeiffer regularly goes to mass but only as a favor to her grandmother who needs the ride and likes the company. Rezendes hasn’t been in years. And Robinson is more or less a social Catholic---he’s most Catholic when in the company of other Catholics and his ties to the Church are based on friendships, social connections, professional obligations, and nostalgia. And while of course as they investigate the story and uncover the breadth and depth of the scandal they are shocked, angered, and outraged, they are also...wounded.
To different degrees and in different ways they are shaken. Things they thought knew, things they thought they believed, their sense of who and what they are are called into question, become subject to doubt and rejection. Whatever pleasure, comfort, and joy they had gotten out of being Catholic is tainted, even lost, and it breaks their hearts.
Just as it did mine.
And Mrs M’s.
And millions of other Catholics’.
I can’t believe the scandal didn’t bring about the collapse of the Church.
Spotlight might not have been the best movie to see the weekend before Christmas.
I’m glad I did, though. I was forgetting how angry I was.
We’d never told our sons the story of my conversation with that priest. I finally did before we went to see the movie.
They wanted to know if I’d really said go to hell to a priest.
I told them no.
“I said, ‘Go to hell, Father.””
Once an altar boy...