The real fun in this post is in following the links.
To honor Mickey Rooney tonight, do not watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Instead, try The Black Stallion or Carl Reiner’s often overlooked The Comic starring Dick Van Dyke as a Buster-Keaton-esque silent movie star and Rooney delivering a terrific performance as his put upon but always devoted friend and sidekick, Cockeye.
One of my favorites of his performances, though, was on television, in an episode of Naked City called Oofus-Goofus.
Two of his movies I’ve never seen but would really like to are Pulp with Michael Caine and Baby Face Nelson. Yes, he plays that Baby Face Nelson. He plays a bad guy in each. He had a dark side he could call on and did as Scott Foundas details in this post for Variety, Mickey Rooney Appreciation: Noir Films Showed He Was More Than a Teen Star.
And for a good tribute, you can always count on the Siren. Read In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney 1920-2014.
And, ok, I admit it. For me, Rooney’s will always be the voice of Santa Claus.
Yeah, it’s schmaltz. Sing along anyway. You’ll feel better.
“Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” Whoops. Wrong movie. Wrong movie star…or maybe not.
I’m probably not going to see Sabotage---this is our Muppets Most Wanted weekend---but from what Tony Dayoub says it sounds like I’ll be missing out on a pretty good action-adventure-thriller and an actual acting job by Arnold:
[Director David] Ayer knows that this has been done before, so the only way to keep the viewer in the dark is to distract or divert their attention. He does so with the edgy expertise of a veteran action filmmaker. Chase scenes are shot from a first-person perspective inside the car. Gunfights frequently occur with the camera at either or both ends of the barrel depending on who Ayer wants you to feel has the advantage. At one point, Breacher's visit to one retired teammate is cut in such a way as to fool the viewer that the parallel action between the team leader and his former subordinate are occurring simultaneously when there's a very distinct reason it turns out that it's not. Viewers are enlisted into being part of the action from the get-go, both implicating them as accomplices in the crime and making them perplexed victims of the betrayal committed by one of the once trusted teammates.
Schwarzenegger is rarely called upon to give as complex a performance as the one he gives in Sabotage. Breacher is a man who sacrificed the stability of a regular family for the thrills of this volatile one and has begun to realize it was a horrible exchange. Save for an ill-advised, valedictory coda that comes across as a bit of a western spoof, the movie grants Schwarzenegger the chance to play the role of an action star's lifetime. Breacher may be Schwarzenegger's Rooster Cogburn…
Some day I’ll write a fuller post about a movie star’s Rooster Cogburn role as the last great showy part of his or her career that somehow sums up everything that went into making them a star and then adds a little something to our appreciation of their star power and their talent. Not every actor gets one. Bogart didn’t. Cary Grant didn’t. Henry Fonda’s was in a play, Clarence Darrow. Cary Cooper’s was High Noon, obviously. Spencer Tracy’s was in Inherit the Wind although a case can be made for Bad Day at Black Rock. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was his valedictory and that’s a different thing. Paul Newman’s came a little early with The Verdict. Redford might just have had his in All Is Lost. Wayne actually had two. True Grit and The Shootist.
Hollywood is usually done with its great actresses just before they’re at the point where they’re ready to deliver such a performance. Katharine Hepburn defied the sexist ageists, which is why we have hers in The Lion in Winter. Bette Davis remained a leading lady just long enough to do All About Eve. Helen Mirren’s, The Queen, re-energized and extended her career as a leading lady. Meryl Streep will likely have hers sooner or later, but maybe she already did and if so my vote is Julie & Julia.
At any rate, if Breacher in Sabotage is Schwarzenegger’s, then maybe I’d better re-think and make the time to see it.
However you feel, you should read all of Tony’s review at Cinema Viewfinder.
In Captain Phillips, the Navy Seals aren’t heroes.
They aren’t an awesome team of professional warriors.
The aren’t the embodiment of the might and majesty of the United States.
And they aren’t the cavalry rope-dropping to the rescue.
Nobody looks forward to their arrival. Nobody wants them there, least of all the United States Navy.
They are, simply, Death.
This must be understood going in or you might think you’re watching the wrong sort of movie, a simple true-life adventure at sea, which it is, in addition, or a triumphal celebration of America’s righteous wrath, which it’s definitely not.
Captain Phillips is a tragedy.
And Captain Phillips himself (in the person of Tom Hanks giving one of his greatest performances, his best in a very long time) isn’t the hero of the tragedy. He’s its witness. This is the tragedy of Muse, the chief pirate who, very briefly, takes Phillips’ container ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. Phillips is Starbuck to Muse’s Ahab, Marlowe to his Lord Jim. He’s on hand to watch as the hero magnificently but maddeningly pursues his self-aggrandizing obsession, to reach out on our behalf and try to pull him back, to offer both our sympathy and our censure and our warning, and then to mourn in advance as hubris and then fatalism and despair take hold and the hero embraces his fate.
This plays out beautifully in Captain Phillips but I’m thinking it might be obscured by the casting of Barkhad Abdi, who despite his own remarkable performance, in which he more than holds his own against Hanks, he often takes the screen from him, can’t take hold of our imaginations the way Hanks does by virtue of having become at this point in his career an icon.
Actually, I wonder if audiences might be so impressed by what good work Abdi does in his very first time in front of a camera that they might not notice what good work he’s doing, if you see what I’m saying.
While it was admirable and effective and the right thing for the filmmakers to have cast real Somalis to play Somalis, it might have been better from a pure storytelling point of view to have cast an actor with a more powerful movie star presence as Muse---Idris Alba, David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Or Omar Sy, whom, if you don’t know who he is, you owe it to yourself to see in The Intouchables.---someone who could take up equal space in our heads with Hanks.
Or they could have gone the other way and cast a star who was less of an icon and more of a character actor as Phillips. Would have made a fitting final bow for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But then, I suppose, without Hanks, the movie might not have gotten made.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Captain Phillips would have been a better movie with a different Captain Phillips or a different Muse. It’s a very good movie as it is. It’s hard for me to imagine how it could have been better. I’m just trying to call attention to the fact that there’s something else going in Captain Phillips along with its being a gripping tale of a true life adventure on the high seas featuring a tour de force performance by Tom Hanks and I don’t want anyone to miss it.
Captain Phillips is Captain Phillips’ adventure, but it’s Muse’s story and his tragedy. And it’s important to note that within that tragic story the Seals do not appear as the good guys. They barely appear as guys, that is, as human beings, at all. They’re mostly seen as shapes in the dark. They’re an outcome not a solution. They are, as I said, Death.
The closer they get to the scene, the more we dread their arrival. Director Paul Greengrass has us rooting for what we know happened not to happen.
Captain Phillips is the story of a brave, daring, resourceful, and intelligent young man who makes a fateful decision out of anger and vanity and finds himself trapped and forced to take on the role of hero as his only way out---“Look at me….Look at me…I’m the captain now.”---knowing he’s not up to it and more likely than saving him and his crew it will lead to their destruction.
My Lord Jim reference is apt in a number of ways, but here’s one: like Jim, Muse jumps. Unlike Jim, he jumps the other way, onto the ship, impelled by courage and a sense of duty (and ego) instead of fear and an instinct for self-preservation.
In the most thrilling scene in the movie, Muse skippers his small boat through the jets of water from the fire hoses that are the Maersk Alabama’s only defense against pirates and, while both boats are moving at full speed, he and his small band leap onto the ladders they’ve hooked to the larger ship’s side and scramble aboard. It’s as daring and audacious as anything you’d see in a traditional pirate swashbuckler made even more exciting by its being true.
But the reason Muse and his three-man crew are taking such a risk and going it on their own is that Muse is determined to show up a rival pirate with his courage and skill. It’s an act of vainglory and as soon as he makes it, the Seals are on their way and Muse has doomed himself and his men.
“You can’t win,” Phillips says to Muse at one point, trying to persuade him to take the thirty grand in the ship’s safe and go while he still can. “The Navy isn't going to let you win. They would rather sink this boat than let you win.”
What Phillips doesn’t grasp---what he can’t grasp---is that Muse starts from the position of having already lost, of having been born into that loss. There’s no winning for him in his life as it is or as it’s likely to continue to be. That’s why he’s a pirate.
It’s intrinsic to the story and to Muse’s and Phillips’ characters that Phillips, a kind-hearted, intelligent, well-meaning man, can’t get his head around what Muse’s life is like. He can’t imagine a life without options, without at least small wins on a daily basis. He can’t imagine what it’s like not to be an American.
Captain Phillips opens with Phillips at home in his picturesque farmhouse in Vermont as he’s packing up to head off to the airport and fly to Oman to take command of the Maersk Alabama. His wife Andrea (Catherine Keener in a brief but emotionally effective cameo in which her face is almost never shown) goes with him to the airport and on the drive they have a meandering but anxiety-ridden conversation ostensibly about how their kids are doing at school and their uncertain prospects for the future. But what they’re really talking about is their dread of separation. After twenty-odd years of marriage, they still hate it when they have to be apart because of his job and what we’re being told is, despite their worries, the Phillips have a happy marriage and a comfortable and comforting home and family life.
The scene switches to Muse’s village in Somalia, and we see at a glance that he has none of that. He has little to call his own, not even a few hours to himself to catch up on some sleep. What he has is work. On some days that means fishing. Today it means piracy.
Back again to Phillips as he arrives at his work. The Maersk Alabama is essentially a giant floating warehouse. The bridge is as clean, shiny, well-organized, well-staffed, and technologically up to date, not to mention as high up, as an office in midtown Manhattan.
Muse’s office is an open skiff with a balky outboard engine staffed by an unreliable crew of three, a frightened teenager, an easily irritated psychopath, and a competent but not noticeably intelligent mechanic and pilot.
(Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali.)
Later, when the highjacking is beginning to go awry and Phillips again tries to persuade Muse his best option is to get while the getting is good, Muse says he can’t give up now, he has bosses he has to answer to. Phillips, thinking he’s found a way to establish a sympathetic connection between them, says, “We all got bosses,” and it’s a wonder Muse doesn’t fall on the deck laughing.
Phillips’ bosses don’t arrive for breakfast meetings with teams of guards brandishing automatic weapons in armored SUVs trailed by trucks with mounted machine guns. They give Phillips his instructions by email and not at gunpoint.
Once Greengrass establishes this gap between the two men, he never tries to bridge it. Phillips and Muse never bond. They never even begin to like or respect each other. They don’t even connect through anger or hatred. They each have too much else on their minds that keeps them from truly caring about what the other is thinking and feeling, although Phillips has to pretend that he does in the hope Muse will respond in kind and so will be less inclined to harm Phillips’ crew and the pretending is easy for him because he’s naturally a compassionate man. Muse understands Phillips a little bit better because he understands what it is to be an American better than Phillips does and a lot better than Phillips understands what it is not to be one.
“There has to be more than fishing and kidnapping people,” Phillips insists, thinking he’s making a reasonable point.
“Maybe in America,” Muse replies with the movie’s most heartbreaking line. “Maybe in America.”
But basically they remain mysteries to each other.
Their inability to understand each other and form any sort of emotional bond, though, doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them.
One of my favorite moments comes when after the first attempt to take the Maersk Alabama fails because Muse’s rival gets scared off and Muse’s skiff’s engine stalls, he and Phillips lock gazes through their binoculars and both feel the shock of recognition.
They know each other on a fundamental level as fellow captains. Each recognizes the other as intelligent and competent and therefore formidable. But the real point of sympathy between them is their aloneness, how being in command isolates them.
Greengrass uses his camera to insist upon this. Abdi and Hanks rarely appear in close-ups with other members of the cast or with each other. When they are shown with people around them, it tends to be in long shots that emphasize the spaces between them and those people.
This aloneness is stressful, even frightening for Phillips but it’s a defining fact of his job and he’s learned to deal with it and can deal with it because he knows that when he needs help, it will come.
Part of what’s devastating about the utterly devastating final scenes of the film is Phillips’ realization that that help is not going to come in time.
But for Muse, aloneness is the defining fact of his life.
Whenever the camera isolates him, it shows him thinking. Abdi is excellent at conveying the intensity of Muse’s thinking and how it’s going on on several levels at once. And whatever else he’s thinking, there is always one level on which he’s thinking, How did I wind up in this mess? This mess being not this misadventure but his whole life. I’m too smart for this. I’m too ambitious for this. I’m too good for this. And we recognize that that’s not vanity. It’s honesty. He is smart and ambitious and too good to be a pirate. He is in spirit what he wishes he was in fact, a born American.
He’s exactly the kind of person we want to come here. Which makes for the wrenching irony of his ultimate fate.
It’s wonderful, then, the way Abdi and Hanks are able to interact given the inwardness of both their performances.
As Phillips, Hanks is quiet, self-contained, reined in but not repressed, laconic but not taciturn, dour, or sullen, not humorless or unfeeling but practical above all else, a definite There’s a time and a place sort. Muse, to the extent he understands Phillips, understands him as a typical American. We understand him as a typical New Englander.
I loved it when the British Naval Officer Phillips has contacted by radio to report that he think pirates are after his ship assures him, “Chances are they’re just fisherman” and Hanks submerges all his anger and fear in a sharply but still calmly delivered understatement, “They’re not here to fish.”
That’s a Yankee sea captain talking.
Captain Phillips is thrilling and suspenseful but it’s interesting how after the boarding of the ship and the taking of the bridge, which concludes the first act, there’s almost no more action.
In the second act, suspense builds as we watch and wait for Phillips to figure out how to get the pirates off his ship or for Muse to come to his senses.
In the third act, suspense turns to dread as we hope against hope that things work themselves out before the object of our dread arrives.
That object is, as I’ve been insisting all along, the Seals.
Which is to say, again, Death and the inevitable end of the tragedy.
Speaking of actors taking the screen away from Tom Hanks: He was very good as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but Emma Thompson was even better as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers. My review: Saving P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the saving grace of stories.
More on Barkhad Abdi from NPR: How Breakthrough 'Captain Phillips' Actor Connected To The Role
Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, and Catherine Keener. PG-13. Now on DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon.
At one point in Saving Mr. Banks, an exasperated Walt Disney, desperately trying to figure out what makes author P.L. Travers tick so he can get an angle on how to finally convince her to sell him the film rights to her novel Mary Poppins, asks her, “Where did Mary Poppins come from?”
And an even more exasperated but also angrily defensive Travers tries to deflect the question. “I don’t know. She just flew in through the window.”
Now, I don’t know if the screenwriters were using the line as an in-joke to show they’d done their homework or if the line was an inspired bit of improvisation by Emma Thompson. But, whichever and however it came to be in there, it’s also a missed opportunity.
Travers is telling the truth but the truth is not that one day she was suddenly and unexpectedly inspired as if Mary Poppins appeared in her imagination whole and in flight with her talking umbrella and bottomless carpetbag.
Mary Poppins flies but she would never be so impertinent or impolite as to come into someone’s house through a window.
She lands primly and properly on the doorstep and knocks.
But someone else flies in through windows, uninvited, and flies out of them too, with enthralled children in tow, leaving his shadow behind.
As a synecdoche for how stories inspire more stories, you can’t do better than Peter Pan.
And one of the themes of Saving Mister Banks is how people use stories to both understand life and to hide from it or at least disguise its true nature.
But as it happens, Peter Pan is the story---one of the stories---behind this story.
Saving Mr. Banks exists as a story to be told because the movie Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins exists because the novel Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins the novel exists because Peter Pan exists.
P.L. Travers, who began her adult career as an actress, was a great admirer of J.M. Barrie and when she sat down to write Mary Poppins she consciously used Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan as one of her models.
Travers wasn’t the only child whose imagination Peter carried off with him to Neverland or the only adult for whom he left behind his shadow.
Walt Disney always said it was a touring company production of Peter Pan he saw as a boy that inspired him to become a storyteller as well as an artist.
In real life, Disney would have recognized Travers’ allusion immediately and he’d have used it to try to make the connection he’s struggling to make in Saving Mr. Banks.
But in the movie, he treats it as merely the deflection she intends and continues to focus on the business at hand.
Disney’s failure to pause and take notice of what she’s just said is a...well, a synecdoche---Don’t often get to use that word even once in a blog post.---for one of the flaws of Saving Mister Banks, a generally enjoyable movie mainly enjoyable for Emma Thompson’s and Tom Hanks’ performances.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
Emma Thompson has been robbed.
She deserved to have been nominated at every venue this Awards Season, including and especially the Oscars.
Meryl Streep? Again? What is there, a California Law that Meryl Streep has to be nominated every year no matter what movie she does? And it wasn't even the actual lead.
And I adore Amy Adams as much as anyone but the only explanation I can come up with for why she was nominated for American Hustle is that after nominating Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, Academy members were worried she’d feel left out and nobody wanted to make Amy Adams cry.
Well, there you have me.
But if Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was the standard this go-round, then Thompson more than meets it.
As P.L. Travers, Thompson has a task similar to Blanchett’s as Jasmine. She has to carry a whole movie while playing a difficult, often dislikable, and, in a different way than Jasmine but still hard to sympathize with, destructive character. And she has to do it without the same or as many opportunities to act. Jasmine is an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. Travers is addicted to…tea. You just don’t look as dramatic spooning in the sugar as you can popping pills and tossing back a vodka martini.
Plus, Blanchett has help from a large and varied troupe of character actors. Thompson’s small company of supporting players, which includes Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Melanie Paxson, do a fine job but that job mainly consists of sitting there looking stunned as Travers alternates between bullying them, insulting them, insulting their beloved boss, and making impossible demands. The difference is the like the difference between a solo and a sonata. Blanchett has more to play off of and play with. Thompson has more scenes that depend on what she can do on her own.
Then there’s the fact Thompson has no lines that were written by Woody Allen.
Don’t get me wrong. Blanchett’s performance was edgier and riskier. Jasmine isn’t only her own worst enemy. She’s the enemy of just about every sympathetic character we meet, to the point she’s practically the villain of the story, and Allen and Blanchett constantly tempt us to turn completely against her.
Saving Mister Banks is always, if not always whole-heartedly, on Travers’. She’s unlikeable and disagreeable and abrasive and only some of that is warranted by her situation. But the movie takes a We All Have Our Faults view and so makes no attempt to punish her for her flaws and foibles. And it doesn’t take the position she should have just accepted that Uncle Walt knew best. She’s not expected to be able to see into the future and know that the movie she’s resisting being made out of her book will be a classic. We’re allowed to be amused when she objects to something that we know will turn out to be a favorite part of Mary Poppins but we’re not for a moment to think her objections are foolish or her suggestions are bad in themselves. We’re even encouraged to think she might have at least half a point as she’s busy trying to sabotage one of the most beloved movies of all time.
Still, it’s a tall order and you don’t have to take my word for it that Thompson carries it off brilliantly. Here’s Meryl Streep presenting one of the awards Thompson was not robbed of, the Best Actress Award from the National Board of Review:
Nobody can swashbuckle a quit-witted riposte like Emma Thompson. She’s a writer, a real writer, and she has a relish for the well-chosen word. But some of the most sublime moments in Saving Mr. Banks are completely wordless. They live in the transitions where P.L. traverses from her public face to her private spaces. I’m talking about her relentlessness when she has her verbal dukes up, and then it moves to the relaxation of her brow when she retreats into the past. It’s her stillness, her attentiveness to her younger self; her perfect aliveness, her girlish alertness.
What I said, about Thompson and the Oscars? Robbed!
Tom Hanks was robbed too. Not for Saving Mr. Banks. For Captain Phillips. Still, he’s very good as Walt Disney. More convincing as Walt Disney than Walt Disney was himself. Hanks plays the character Disney tried to play in his introductory scenes on The Wonderful World of Color. Kindly, genial, avuncular, with a touch of gruffness that lets you know he’s not someone you want mad at you but without the real Disney’s mean streak or will to dominate, an artist who can’t always keep his own creations under control, a Merlin with still a touch of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and that’s how he seems to think of Travers---as one of his own cartoon characters who’s come to life with a mind and will of her own. She baffles him, frustrates him, makes his blood boil, but, fundamentally, she amuses him and makes him a little proud. This mixture of vanity, condescension, paternalism, and solipsism keeps Hanks’ Disney from becoming just the loveable old Uncle Walt Walt tried to pass himself off as and helps keep us on Travers’ side. No matter how wrong she might ultimately be about how to make her book into a good movie, she’s right to resist being turned into a Walt Disney character along with her Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks is a slight film. You could argue it’s a dishonest film. I know you can because I’ve seen people do it. It’s dishonest not in the usual Hollywood way of leaving out facts or altering them or making things up to suit the needs of the plot, although of course it does that. But Hollywood and its audience long ago came to an understanding about that sort of dishonesty.
If you want to make the case Saving Mr. Banks is dishonest, its dishonesty is in its refusal to take its two main characters seriously, either as artists or as difficult, complicated, and problematic personalities. The movie presents it as a settled question that both Travers and Disney were genius storytellers, with Disney being the greater genius, of course, or at least the broader-thinking one. And the serious defects in each of their characters are glossed over or treated like harmless eccentricities.
By 1962, when the movie takes place, Walt Disney hadn’t been an artist in his own right in years. He had ceased to be a great entertainer or even a showman. He was a salesman selling Disney-ness, not as a brand, but as a way of life, almost as a place to live, with the theme parks being model neighborhoods.
But the possibility that Disney was a showboating fraud and a ruthless corporatist who made his name and his dough exploiting true artists like Travers, either because that’s what he’d become or that’s what he’d always been, is never considered.
And, as I said, Hanks leaves out his mean streak. And left out of the script is his appalling sexism. Meryl Streep again:
When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter, in a woman, an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own, considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.
Streep could imagine it, but the movie doesn’t, not really. In the few moments when Disney's sexism is allowed to surface, it’s presented comically, as the understandable bafflement of a typical man of his time having to deal with an individual who refuses to conform to his idea of how a typical woman of the time should behave. And he’s immediately set straight by his executive secretary. In this, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t just reflect the times. It’s practically an apology for them.
On the other side, the fact that the real Pamela Travers could be a ruthless go-getter in her own right who exploited and abused others as she needed on her way to a level of success and personal happiness that always eluded her is also never considered. Neither is the possibility that she was a posturing mediocrity, a poetaster (and poet-chaser) who’d luckily hit on a late-blooming career as a children’s author by shamelessly mimicking the works of her literary idols.
The opposite isn’t there either. Travers isn’t set up as a champion of artistic integrity (as opposed to a defender of her own artistic creation) opposing a one-time fellow genius who could no longer distinguish between a work of art and a commodity.
Travers doesn’t like what Disney sells and she’s sharply critical of what about it she doesn’t like but she offers no real critique of it, either in what she says or what she does. She is not, as Streep would like to imagine, the least bit “dismissive of his considerable gifts.” And for his part, Disney is certain of Travers’ talent because his daughter loved Mary Poppins when she was little and the judgment of children is always pure and never wrong.
Neither one doubts or questions his self or herself as an artists. Neither doubts or questions the other.
In short, they don’t talk about Peter Pan.
They don’t discuss or even bring up how it inspired both of them but in very different ways to very different purposes.
At any rate, you could make the case that in leaving all that out or in giving it short shrift, Saving Mr. Banks is a dishonest movie if it was a movie for grown-ups or just for grown-ups.
Saving Mr. Banks is a movie for children who love the movie Mary Poppins and for those children’s parents and grandparents who loved Mary Poppins when they were children themselves and as such it’s not meant to be realistic.
It’s meant to be something of a fairy tale, like Mary Poppins, Disney’s movie and Travers’ novel.
Saving Mister Banks is a just-so story about stories and about how stories come into being or, in this case, how a story almost didn’t come into being.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t have a full-time narrator, but it opens with a short bit of narration spoken by a voice we'll come to recognize as that of Travers' wistful, romantic, and soul-tortured father.
Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can't put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what's to happen / All happened before.
Which happens to be a variation on the opening lines of both Disney's Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.
Behind every story is another story, a true story. And behind that story is another story. Sometimes the hidden story is a funny one about grownups behaving like children, like the story you’re watching now. And sometimes the story is a sad one about grownups and children who are unhappy and in pain, like the story behind this story, which, as it happens, thanks to the magic of movies, you’re also watching at the same time.
That other, sad story is the story of Travers’ less than happy childhood in Australia where she lived an emotionally and financially precarious life with her younger sisters and their alcoholic but charismatic and doting father (Colin Farrell) and their emotionally fragile mother (Ruth Wilson) who probably would have had a hard time coping even if her husband had been more reliable and their life more stable.
But despite her father’s inability to make himself reliable or provide that needed stability, he is still a hero to his eldest daughter and he passes along two great gifts.
A faith in the power of stories to make life bearable and beautiful and a confidence in her own abilities as a storyteller.
The problem that past creates in the present, that is the complication that sad story causes in the plot of the comic story Saving Mr. Banks is telling is that Travers has come to see all her stories, including and especially Mary Poppins, as bound up in her very mixed feelings about her father. Basically, she can separate her story from his story and, as Saving Mr. Banks has Walt Disney intuit, she can’t let go of Mary Poppins the way he needs her to in order to make his movie (tell the story he wants to tell) because in her mind Mary Poppins is her father’s story and in letting go she’d be betraying him.
And as soon as Disney realizes this, he hits on the solution.
The still floundering and exasperated Disney tells the still angry and defensive Travers a story. The story of his childhood and his relationship with his father. I should say a story. An alternative story. It’s a true story but it’s not the story because it’s not the story Disney has chosen to be the story of his life. He could have made that story a story about being cold and alone and put-upon and exploited and neglected. He could have made his father the villain of his life. Instead, he calls his father “a good man.”
Any armchair psychologists want to speculate on what the young Walt would have made of the fact that the actor playing Mr Darling also played Captain Hook?
Same thing a lot of children make of it, I’d wager.
Now of course Walt Disney would have had more reason than most people to think his life worked out ok not just in spite of what he had to endure as a kid but because of it. But his point is that the story of a person’s life is the story as she tells it to herself. Travers, he’s implying, is letting the story tell her. She sees it as a story about how she failed her father. And because of that, she sees her own novel as a compensatory fantasy. That’s why she’s so defensive of it. It’s her defense against guilt and self-loathing. It’s not working that way. But it’s all she’s got. She thinks. Disney figures out that she’s stalled, as an artist and as soul. She’s not frigid, as at one point another character accuses her of being. She’s frozen in place. And Disney blames it on her getting her own story wrong. It’s not the story of her father’s and her own failures. It is, in his view, the story of her success.
Well, he would.
But his point is that that story, that success, is Travers’ creation of Mary Poppins. “Finish the story,” he urges. And the finish is that she gives Mary Poppins to the whole world by selling him the film rights.
Well, he’d see it that way too.
At any rate, that’s what I liked about Saving Mr. Banks. Here’s what Emma Thompson herself liked about it (This is from her speech accepting the award Streep presented.):
I’d like to thank Kelly Marcel for writing someone so relentlessly unpleasant. Actually, it was an artistic chance to let out my real and true inner self. It was such bliss torturing all those young men, and I include Hanks, obviously, in that category. He’s always looked like he needed a good smack.
And Alison Owen, who produced a film about a 60-year-old woman which wasn’t about her being a wife or a mother. When does that happen? Never. Extraordinary.
And, of course, John Lee Hancock, who corralled a group of actors who would literally sell their internal organs to get the laugh. We would do anything to get a laugh, and he managed to make us look quite poignant in the end, which was extraordinary, I thought.
The end, but one more thing before they all lived happily ever after, which they didn’t and the movie, to its credit, doesn’t try to make us believe they did.
I still wish upon a star that more had been made of the Peter Pan allusion.
I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to two hours of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers arguing about art, the nature and uses of storytelling, and the corrupting influence of the Almighty Dollar.
That might have made an interesting two-character play, although not necessarily a more true to life story.
But a couple of lines that would have let Thompson and Hanks play the moment would have done the trick.
It would have been fun and funny to see the shock of recognition on both their faces.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't exactly the cinematic equivalent of the best creative non-fiction, but from reading Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson, I was pleased to learn it's a lot more true to the facts than carping commentary on the internet led me to expect. Here's an interview Lawson did with the Chicago Tribune.
And from Smithsonian.com: How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?: Historian Amy Henderson searches for the spoonfuls of sugar-coated truth in the new film, "Saving Mr. Banks".
Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Kelly Marshall and Sue Smith. Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Annie Rose Buckley, and Melanie Paxson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters but coming to DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon on March 18.
I thought Ellen did a fine job. Kept it light, kept it relaxed. Didn't try too hard. Let the jokes sell themselves.
She remembered her real audience wasn't the stars and bigwigs in the hall but people watching on TV.
She played to the camera not the room. Movie stars and comedians are trained to pretend the camera isn’t there. Ellen didn’t just look at the camera. She looked into it. She looked at us.
Then she made the stars look at us too.
That was the brilliance behind the selfie.
She had them breaking the fourth wall in an unironic way.
She got the stars involved without making them have to clown it up. They looked human but still kept their movie star dignity. That was the point of the pizza bit. It was a natural follow-up to the selfie. There was no payoff because there was no joke. It wasn’t a bit. It was an exercise. Instead of leaving them to go back to just sitting there as isolated objects of desire and envy to be gawked at by us, Ellen had them up and moving around and mingling with each other and by extension at that point with us. She’d brought us into the room.
It was a Carson-level job of hosting but she did it on her own terms and in her own style. It wasn’t incidental to his hosting of the Oscars that Johnny Carson was the greatest talk show host ever. Ellen made the Oscars a special episode of her talk show.
The Glinda costume might have been a bit much.
And I still want to know if the pizza delivery guy got his tip.
But the main thing she did right---and I loved the guy to death the first couple times he hosted---was pretend Billy Crystal never existed.
Adapted from my Twitter feed, very early Monday morning, March 3, 2014.
Had a shocking realization during the Academy Awards last night that's going to ruin a lot of movies for me from here on out.
If Mrs M and I had a daughter, she'd look like Jennifer Lawrence.
She could be Oliver and Ken Mannion's sister.
So from now on whenever I see her in a movie, instead of thinking what a great actress she is, I'll be thinking:
"Watch your mouth, young lady!"
"Stop that, right now!"
"Put some clothes on!"
Or, worse, I won't actually be thinking these things, I'll be thinking I should be thinking these things, if you know what I mean.
The gremlins that have taken up apparently permanent residence in our plumbing kept me busy all weekend so I wasn't able to follow through with my ambitions for pre-Oscar blogging. Not that you lose much by that, except one or two of my planned posts might have given you something to while away the time during an interminable acceptance speech or another inexplicable appearance by Cirque de Soliel. But don't worry. I still got you covered.
Every year the question gets kicked around Is the Best Picture winner ever really the best picture? I think the consensus is it never is. Some are less Best than others though and this leads to lists along the lines of Best Best Picture Winners of the Past and Worst Best Picture Winners of the Past. At BuzzFeed, Kate Arthur has done it a little differently and ranked all 85 Best Picture Winners so far against each other.
Her best Best Picture is All About Eve.
Her least best, which is to say the movie she thinks is the worst Best Picture of all time?
This riled up the Self-Styled Siren who has come to Gigi's defense.
Meanwhile, Tony Dayoub has been trying to catch up with all the past Best Winners he's never seen. He was posting his thoughts as he went along on Facebook, but now he's collected them all on his blog, Cinema Viewfinder.
As for this year's Best Picture nominees? Well, as I've said, I haven't seen most of them. I don't have a strong rooting interest in any of the three I have seen, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and American Hustle. I didn't like American Hustle anywhere near as much as a lot of people. I'm with Oliver Mannion who likes to quote the Honest Movie Poster he saw at College Humor, "It was...good?" The other two I thought were fine but from what I've heard 12 Years A Slave is way finer. Of the others I haven't seen yet, it doesn't seem like there's one I'd really hate to see win, except maybe The Wolf of Wall Street. But I'll never know because it's almost certainly not going to win and I'm almost certainly not going to see it even if it does.
Just doesn't interest me.
I think Leo's likely much better movie this year was The Great Gatsby.
You may remember Roy Edroso liked it and he had me about persuaded I should see it. But Tom Watson did not like it. No, siree. Not one little bit. And he explains why in his first ever article fo Ms Magazine.
The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t really about money or greed or the broken American financial system.
It’s about gender.
Martin Scorsese used the convenient cover of the public distrust of Wall Street institutions to sneakily deliver a lowbrow bacchanal that doesn’t rise to the level of Caligula, the 1979 film it clearly sought to emulate. Yet, Tinto Brass produced better social commentary. Worse, Bob Guccione had more respect for women. And Caligula had better acting.
The relentless, endless, repetitive, underlying message of Scorcese’s Wolf is simple and brutal: women are commodities to be bought and sold.
Don't hold back, Tom. Tell us what you really think.
Or you tell him and me after you read the whole article, Is a Vote for Leo's "Wolf" a Vote for Sexism?
The Monuments Men looks and feels like George Clooney’s homage to the hokier war movies he and I and everybody else our age watched as kids on TV. Battle of the Bulge. Kelly’s Heroes. Darby’s Rangers. Fireball Forward. The Bridge at Remagen.
Come on. Kelly’s Heroes is hokey. I’m sorry, I love it, but it is. One of its saving virtues is it knows it’s hokey. That’s what Donald Sutherland is doing in there.
Hokeyness is not necessarily a bad thing.
The story director, star, and co-writer Clooney tells in The Monuments Men is intrinsically hokey. Almost all movies about World War II told from the Allies’ point of view are---Good guys versus really, really bad bad guys. Good guys win---as long as you ignore inconvenient truths about some of the things the good guys did to win, like Dresden, which The Monuments Men very peculiarly does. You’d think it would have to come up in a story about saving the great artistic and cultural treasures of Europe from theft and destruction that, for no military reason, we incinerated a city that was essentially in itself a work of art.
Can’t put the whole war in one movie, but that’s a strange omission, considering. Maybe Clooney thought it would throw things off tonally if along with those other movies he had the audience thinking of Slaughterhouse Five.
Those other war movies are definitely referenced, visually, thematically, dramatically, musically. It’s a good way to keep the War in the backs of our minds in a war movie about soldiers who saw very little combat. The Monuments Men tended to get to the scene after the fighting or, now and then, have to get in and out ahead of it. It’s an alternative to resorting to news reel footage. We don’t need to see the battles if we can imagine them and know Telly Savalas is nursing his broken down Sherman into place to relieve Bastogne and drive back Robert Shaw’s Panzers and George Segal is up ahead leading his exhausted platoon in a last ditch charge to chase the Germans off the bridge.
Maybe that’s just me.
At any rate, it’s a good way acknowledging the movie’s hokeyness and half-apologizing for it and also of excusing its fictions. The story is true in that the Monuments Men actually existed, although not as the single, cohesive unit the movie centers around, they really did hunt the stolen and threatened works of art shown and find them in the places the movie shows them finding them in, and incidents like the ones portrayed did happen along the way, just none of it happened to these characters because they’re all made-up. Some are composites, some are wholly invented. But, says Clooney, with his allusions and quotes, we’re working within a tradition here.
Of the movies I mentioned, the This All Really Happened Just Not Exactly in the Way We’re Showing It and Not These Characters aspect of The Monuments Men reminded me most of The Bridge at Remagen, the grittiest and least hokey of the bunch, probably because it’s the one most aware of itself as a war movie, that is as a movie about human beings, good and bad, being forced to make unforgiveable choices and do unspeakable things to one another.
They’re structurally similar and they share a similar flaw that could have been fixed with a slightly bigger budget allowing the casting of a few more stars or familiar character actors who could have relieved the rest of the cast from having to double and even triple duty in scenes in which their characters realistically don’t belong.
In both movies, the plot doesn’t really kick in until at least halfway in. The first part of each are alternately expositional and episodic with each short episode the equivalent of an anecdote that’s part of the of the history behind the plot but doesn’t advance the plot or warrant developing into a subplot of its own.
The result in Remagen, a good movie, by the way, is the main characters undergo some jarring personality changes not entirely explained away by the characters’ being mentally and physically exhausted.
Clooney keeps his characters consistently themselves throughout The Monuments Men, but the movie’s episodic nature still results in a stuttering in the pacing.
Many of the episodes are entertaining and dramatic as stand-alones---an accidental confrontation with a scared and desperate young German soldier that’s defused by cigarettes and the invocation of John Wayne, an emergency visit to a dentist that leads to the recovery of a stolen collection of post-Impressionist masterpieces, among others.
But they interrupt the flow of the main story while having no flow of their own and there’s no character development to offset the lack of narrative drive with an emotional dynamic. We already know the characters as well as we’re going to and the familiarity of the actors playing them makes them seem even more familiar. The effect is like listening to your favorite uncle telling war stories with his buddies at the bar at the VFW. They’re good stories, told well, but you feel like you’ve heard them before.
Maybe Clooney’s models shouldn’t have been those war movies or not just those movies.
Oliver Mannion, who liked the movie “ok”, thinks the story would have been better told as a TV mini-series, like Band of Brothers or From the Earth to the Moon (Neither of which Oliver and his brother have seen. I’ve got to fix that.) with some cross-over character and plotlines and George Clooney’s character connecting each episode to a whole, overarching narrative but with each episode telling a full and complete story of its own.
So, for example, you’d have had:
An opening episode told from the German and French and Italian points of view laying out the Nazis’ schemes and local efforts to thwart them. An episode introducing the Monuments Men and outlining their mission and including their training and recruitment. An episode focused on an undercover Monuments Man in Paris before its liberation trying to convince a wary member of the Resistance who doesn’t trust the Americans not to steal the art the Nazis stole for themselves to show him the list she has of where the Nazis shipped hundreds of paintings and sculptures. An episode devoted to a disgraced and self-loathing Monuments Man who redeems himself trying to save Michalangelo’s Madonna. You get the idea.
All of these stories are told but with significant abbreviation in The Monuments Men.
But I’m thinking another way to have gone would have been to give up on a narrative thread and let the episodes build on each other to create a pattern that once discerned would tell the story.
The model to follow would have been Paris Je t’aime and The Monuments Men could have been an anthology of mini-movies each with its own tone, story arc, cast of characters, and stars.
Along with Oliver, I liked The Monuments Men “ok” too. It’s hokey but it’s hokeyness lies in the uplift that comes from knowing that in the midst of the most horrific and systematic on civilization---on the very idea of civilization---there were people willing to die to save a statue both for the sake of its own beauty and for the culture that had cherished it for over four hundred years.
Of course I don’t really know if Clooney was consciously borrowing from those old war movies. Movies set in Europe during World War II are going to look like each other in that they’re all going to look like Europe during World War II. The shot of Remagen Bridge that looks like a direct quote from The Bridge at Remagen may have been based on the same historical photos the production designers for The Bridge at Remagen worked from. The historical drama I wish Clooney had made more use of as a model is his own more tautly-directed, more tightly-scripted, more suspenseful Good Night, and Good Luck. That movie was also basically structurally episodic but the episodes were woven into each other in a way Clooney doesn’t manage in The Monuments Men.
But then Good Night, and Good Luck also had the compelling figure of Edward R. Murrow and David Strathairn’s brilliantly saturnine portrayal of Murrow at the heart of it. There’s no Murrow-figure or Strathairn-level of acting in The Monuments Men.
As the leader of the Monuments Men, Frank Stokes (based---loosely based, Wikipedia warns---George Stout, the head of the art conservation department of Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art at the time), Clooney brings heart and warmth and a persuasive intelligence and air of leadership to the part, but history itself works against his being as powerful and narrative-driving a presence as Strathairn’s Murrow.
Another difference is that in Good Night, and Good Luck Clooney didn’t seem to feel the need to prove his story’s historical significance. Here, he doesn’t trust us to grasp the importance of the Monuments Men’s mission and accept that saving these works of art was worth the risk and price in blood. He takes every chance he gets to push that point home and one of the ways he does it is to have Stokes deliver little lectures on the subject every chance he gets. This is after the movie opens with a full-fledged lecture by Stokes, standing in front of a projected map of the European theatre, in which he outlines the progress of the war to Franklin Roosevelt as if the (by the way map-obsessed) President might not have been paying attention to what his armies were up to.
The risible implausibility (and impertinency) is made more ridiculous by the actor playing Roosevelt doing a rotten impersonation. This is inexcusable under any circumstances but especially so when Clooney already had a pretty good FDR impersonator on hand. Pretty good as in he might have been nominated for an Academy Award last year if Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't set the bar impossibly high for anyone else playing a dead President.
I understand why he didn’t, but I think it would have been a kick if he’d let Bill Murray, shown only from the back, sit there with his cigarette holder and quiz Stokes with questions Murray would have made clear with his properly wry tone the President knows the answers to better than Stokes does himself.
But speaking of Murray...
He and Bob Balaban, as Sergeant Richard Campbell and Private Preston Savitz (the ranks are important. The characters are based on real life Monuments Men Robert Posey, an architect, and Lincoln Kirstein, a writer and art connoisseur who was an early American patron of George Balanchine and co-founded what became the New York City Ballet) blend likeably as comedy team playing off Balaban’s fussiness and little man’s defensive vanity and Murray’s infinite capacity for amused and affection tolerance for other people’s insanity, a quality he first revealed as Todd the Nerd on Saturday Night Live and made the most of in his portrayal of FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson.
John Goodman as sculptor Walter Garfield (based on Walker Hancock who, among other works, designed the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial whose Angel of Resurrection I hold dear to my heart for always being there to greet me when I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on a visit to the blonde at the Blonde Family Manse back in the days of our youth) doesn’t have as much to do and most of what he does riffs on the incongruousness of John Goodman as a G.I. Joe.
His funniest moment comes when Garfield learns the D.I.s have been firing live rounds over his head in Basic Training. His best moment is when the camera finds him sitting silent and still in the back of a truck with a dead comrade cradled in his arms, the unwitting and heartbroken model for his future Angel.
Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville seem to have been brought in mainly to remind us Americans we didn’t win the war on our own.
Dmitri Leonidis makes a quiet but profound impression as, apparently, the one young man in the United States Army. Murray, Balaban, and Goodman are all at least twenty years older than their real-life counterparts were at the time, but the whole supporting cast skews older, an odd thing considering that the War, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, was a mainly a children’s crusade.
Clooney, though, is just about the right age to play his part, and admirably he lets himself look his age. And as Stokes/Stout, Clooney demonstrates a key to his appeal that I think gets overlooked because he manages it so naturally, his ability to be an Everyman despite his incredible movie star handsomeness. He can play a museum director with a Ph.D., an astronaut, a corrupt politician, a fishing boat captain, a bank robber, or an overwhelmed dad dealing with a pair of out of control daughters, all of whom just happen to look and sound George Clooney.
Matt Damon is an Everyman too but of a different sort. Since he’s more ordinarily good-looking than Clooney---these things are relative---he can be as self-deprecating without to employ as much irony. As James Granger (based on James Rorimer, who after the war became the first director of the Cloisters and then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a whole), Damon plays the closet character The Monuments Men has to a hero, though, of course, being a self-deprecating sort, he doesn’t see himself as one. He gets to go undercover behind enemy lines, meet up with the French Resistance, sneak into Paris, and romance Cate Blanchett, a damned dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Meanwhile, Blanchett does that thing she does, making us distrust our own impulse to like and sympathize with her. It’s that note of neurotic self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. As Claire Simone, the wary Resistance member who kept track of all that stolen art (based on Rose Valland who really deserves a movie of her own) and who the movie has it is suspected of being a collaborator as thanks for her efforts, she almost seems to suspect herself of being one too. What she wants from Granger, more than she wants his promise that he’ll make sure any artworks he recovers will be returned to their rightful owners, is absolution, as if what she’s done is the opposite of noble and heroic. Of course what she really wants to be forgiven for is not having died in the war. Claire is suffering from a very attractive (to Granger) case of survivor’s guilt.
Although they don’t have any scenes together, Clooney’s reuniting with Blanchett in a movie set in the rubble of World War II brings to mind another, more recent war movie Clooney might rather we forget.
In Steven Soderbergh’s dreary and enervated The Good German, Blanchett and Clooney each gave one of their most unappealing performances. I don’t mean they played unappealing characters, although they did. I mean that neither found a way to bring life to parts Soderbergh seemed determined to treat as part of the rubblized Berlin surrounding them, cold, gray, broken, and almost impossible to imagine as restorable or, basically, as good walking dead. The only energy, fun, and sex appeal in The Good German was brought in by Tobey Maguire clearly having a ball getting away from playing the goody-goody and conscience-oppressed Peter Parker.
Fun as it is to see Murray and Balaban and Goodman at work, they’re old men now, and while many of the real Monuments Men were too old to have been drafted, most of them weren’t too old to serve---Clooney’s, Damon’s, Murray’s, and Balaban’s real-life counterparts were already in uniform when the Monuments Men were formally assembled and the mission got underway in 1943.---and the energy could have used the energy of more stars in their primes like Maguire.
Much as I enjoyed Balaban in the part, I think I might have been more engaged by watching Maguire, playing off a more age-appropriate partner, as the effete little ballet guy who becomes the most gung-ho member of the team.
Balaban gets a laugh when he says, “So, we get to shoot some Nazis?” the joke being that the little ballet guy thinks of himself as a killer. Maguire might not have gotten the same laugh, but he’d given us more of a thrill, and a chill, since Spider-Man can kill as many Nazis as Captain America if he wants to.
In other words, with more members of the cast who looked like they really could have fought in the War, Clooney might not have needed as many old movie references to remind us there was actually a war on.
The…um…maturity of his supporting cast makes me wonder if Clooney might have had another favorite movie from our TV watching kidhood in the 70s in mind along with those war movies. A Western.
That would mean Clooney’s starting to see himself as Walter Brennan.
He’s self-deprecating. But he can’t be that self-deprecating.
At Smithsonian.com: The True Story of the Monuments Men by Jim Morrison. Includes a great interactive map.
Mannion on the Clooney beat: My review of The Ides of March, Watching Souls Curdle.
And speaking of Bill Murray again: My review of Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray's Broad Shoulders.
The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Brett Witter. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Dmitri Leonidis. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Now in theaters.
…and I’m just not ready.
I’ve only seen three of the Best Picture nominees. American Hustle. Dallas Buyer’s Club. And Captain Phillips.
Gravity I deliberately avoided because 1. there’s no IMAX nearby and it seemed that was one movie that really needed to be seen that way, and 2. it would have scared the willies out of me.
Nightmares for weeks.
I also gave The Wolf of Wall Street the skip because…
Well, just because.
The others---Philomena, Her, Nebraska, and even 12 Years a Slave---came and went at the local art house one right after the other so fast it seemed they were all shown in the same week.
The upside for you regular readers is that this means I don’t have a bunch of second-run reviews to re-post or excerpt in the lead up to the Oscars Sunday night.
What I’m going to do instead is post all-new reviews of movies I’ve over the last few months but for one reason or another haven’t yet typed up my notes on. These will include Dallas Buyer’s Club and Captain Phillips but also The Great Gatsby, which is going to be a doozy of a post, full of art and literature and pseudo-intellectualizing of all sorts, and, the one I’ll be starting with, The Monuments Men, which I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t be on anybody’s Oscar list even if it had come out in time for consideration this awards season.
The fun gets underway tomorrow morning, bright and early.
This morning, bright and early, I’m off to Syracuse to talk movies and fairy tales with my students.
Same difference, right?
Meanwhile, here’s one of the best things I’ve read on this season’s crop of nominees, The Oscars’ Addiction to Lame Historical Dramas, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has mapped out an admirable post-basketball career as an activist, writer, filmmaker, and public intellectual. His choice for Best Picture? Philomena.
Also, the In Memorium segment of the Oscars ought to be livelier and less maudlin than the producers make it, if only because the people being remembered devoted their working lives to one of the most heartening and cheering endeavors going. This year the tributes to Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar alone should be lots of fun, but add to that there's now Harold Ramis to be remembered. If only Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray would take the stage to lead the crowd in singing the Ghostbusters theme...Ah well. There are many good pieces about Ramis online and here's one I really liked, by Mary Elizabeth Williams writing at Salon, Why Harold Ramis "Groundhog Day" is a perfect guide to life.
To gear up for their next big writing assignment, my students in Media Criticism for a Wired Age had to find and post the links to two movie reviews they particularly liked as pieces of writing that just happens to be about a movie and not because they seconded their own opinions about movies they liked or hated. They followed instructions (mostly) and came through with an impressive array of reviews on an interesting selection of movies.
I also asked them to include a sentence or two about what they thought was particularly well-done in the review. Being honor students, they couldn’t limit themselves. They just had to do more than the assignment called for. The result is that their comments on their links alone are worth the price of admission, popcorn, and a large soda. Please check it out our Facebook group page, Wired Critics.
And feel free to join the group and join the discussion as some of your fellow Mannionvillians like Ken Houghton, Janelle Dvorak, and Chris Galdieri already have, bless their virtual hearts.
In contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Lancaster Dodd is relaxed, smooth, and almost totally without gimmick. It’s the most natural portrayal of a completely artificial man you’ll probably ever see. The founder of a quasi-religion and self-help movement vaguely resembling Scientology, Dodd is an obvious fraud, such an obvious fraud, in fact, that it’s hard to believe anyone, even a madman like Quell, would buy the snake oil he’s selling. But he’s also such a genial and charming rogue and is enjoying his own con game so much that people can’t help wanting to join the fun. Nobody, not even Dodd, knows what’s going to happen next. Brought back from a hypnotic “trance” in which Dodd has supposedly placed her in order for her to re-experience a past life, one of his dupes or disciples---same difference---eagerly prompts him for the right responses to his questions as if she’s afraid she might spoil the game by making up the wrong answer. Dodd’s own son tells Quell that Dodd is making it up as he goes. But that’s part of the fun.
But along with the fun and games, Dodd is making something else up as he goes or, rather, somebody. Himself.
It’s more than that Dodd is caught up in his own con to the point of forgetting it is a con. He is the con. That is, the object of the whole charade is to create the persona of Lancaster Dodd. Dodd calls his movement the Cause. But the Cause is the cause of his existence. It brings him to life. We don’t know what would happen to him without it, if people stopped believing in the Cause and in him, except that he would cease to be Lancaster Dodd, and whatever not being Lancaster Dodd is, Hoffman lets us see that it’s horrible enough to terrify him in moments of doubt and repellent enough that the slightest doubt on the part of any disciple enrages him.
---from my review of The Master, Caution: Genius at Work.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is great but that seems to be more of a matter of him being Philip Seymour Hoffman and not due to Nichols or Sorkin giving him anything special to do, and there's a desperate, angry edge to his performance that doesn't seem to be coming out of his conception of the character of Gust Avrakatos as much as out of Hoffman himself as he tries to catch Nichols' attention and impress upon him how important Avrakatos is to this story.
---from my May 2008 review of Charlie Wilson’s War.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking more like a real baseball manager---and more like Art Howe, for that matter---than the real Art Howe, plays Howe with a self-satisfied smirk and a malicious glint in his eyes that, if it’s possible for an expression to be an act of libel, ought to have the real Art Howe suing Hoffman, Miller, and the movie’s producers.
In refusing to start the players the numbers have told Beane to acquire or play them the way the numbers say they should be played, Howe seems to be deliberately sabotaging the team’s chances to make the playoffs. Neither the script nor Hoffman’s performance tell us if this is what Howe’s up to or why he’d do that. We can’t tell if it’s a gambit in contract negotiations. Howe is looking for an extension of his contract. We can’t tell if it’s a matter of pride. Beane is Howe’s boss but there’s an understanding in baseball that general managers leave the handling of the players and the day to day managing of games to the manager and his coaches. We can’t tell if it’s that Howe just doesn’t agree with Beane and trusts his own judgment more than he trusts computer spreadsheets. We can’t tell if he’s just not smart enough to follow the plot. Hoffman plays him, cagily, as a guy who’s maybe too cagy for his own good.
---from my October 2011 review of Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s Field of Dreams.
Hoffman has a gift for disappearing into a role. A while back I watched Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead practically back to back and by the end of The Devil Knows You’re Dead you could have convinced me that those movies had starred four different actors. Here, Hoffman disappears into the part by not disappearing. He makes Zara into a guy who happens to look, talk, and shamble about like Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is just to say a smart, practical minded, hardworking middle-aged pro with a justified confidence in own talents but without much pretense or vanity. Here, we think, is somebody who is what he appears to be. Then, in one of Hoffman’s best scenes, Zara delivers a speech on loyalty that is so self-flattering and self-serving that we thrown back in our seats. Damn, we think, another one who’s too good to be true.
---from my October 2011 review of The Ides of March, Watching Souls Curdle.
Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thomspon) on the defensive as she squares off against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in negotiations over the film rights to Travers’ novel Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks, a sentimental just-so story New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik calls “The Birth of a Nation of family movies.”
It takes a special breed of literary snob to argue the world would be better off if the movie Mary Poppins had never been made and the only way we knew of the world's most famous nanny was through P.L. Travers’ novels alone and instead.
On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done. The story, if you have missed it, concerns the “Mary Poppins” author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, coming to Hollywood to resist allowing Walt Disney to adapt her books (though, at last, she is persuaded). Emma Thompson is so good as the author, and Tom Hanks is so good as Disney, that it seems surly and ungrateful to point out that the tale the movie tells is a lie, and an ugly one. (Hanks, as Disney, gives the most subtle performance of his career, making the cartoon-meister one of those handsome, dark-souled, mid-century middle-Americans who built amazing empires but were never truly at ease, even in worlds they had wholly made for their own pleasure, while dominating their employees with coercive, first-name intimacy.)
The moral of the movie’s story is not that a poet’s art got betrayed by American schlock—as, actually, it did—but, instead, that a frigid Englishwoman got “humanized” by American schmalz. My sister Alison, who is not given to emotion or excess in her opinions, writes that “Travers realized that the movie was going to be, as it is, an utter and obscene travesty, turning all the points of the books upside-down, and the idea that she was a cranky woman made to realize the value of friendship etc. by Disney is a bit like saying that Bulgakov would have realized that all his problems were due to his father if only he’d talked to Stalin a little more.” There are a couple of nice songs (minor-key waltzes, appropriately) in the movie—but the rest is schlock that betrays Travers’s intention with every frame. The movie is saying, basically, that Disney did P. L. Travers a favor by traducing her books. They didn’t. He didn’t.
That's Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker. And it’s Saving Mr Banks he’s calling schlock there at the end of the second paragraph. Mary Poppins,the movie, he dismisses as schmaltz, although he sometimes seems to be conflating the two, the schlock with the schmaltz, Banks with Poppins. That's his sister calling Mary Poppins an "obscene travesty" but Gopnik seems to agree or at least see her point. Even if he meant it as a hyperbolic joke, The Birth of a Nation crack shows Gopnik is too much of a white guy for his own good. His sister’s comparing Walt Disney to Josef Stalin makes me wonder what she thinks Walt did that was the equivalent of mass murdering millions of people. Walt Disney was far from being an American saint, but Stalin had Isaac Babel shot, Disney made P.L. Travers rich.
Well, more famous.
However good you think Travers’ book is, however much better than the movie you might believe it is, you’ve got to admit, it’s still read by many more people, children and adults, than would be reading it if the movie hadn’t been made or if it had been made the way Travers had wanted it made.
Ok. I suspect Gopnik of trying his hand at some Slate-like trolling. “You all love Mary Poppins, do you? Well, it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down!” I don’t think he out and out wishes the movie hadn’t been made.
He sure doesn’t like it though.
It surprises me he still liked Saving Mr Banks. Seems to have surprised himself on that count, as well.
I enjoyed Saving Mr Banks and for the same reasons Gopnik enjoyed it despite himself. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Especially Thompson who has been repeatedly robbed over the course of this awards season. But I don’t think the movie portrays Travers as a frigid Englishwoman in need of humanizing by the Disney touch. I think the filmmakers are on her side the whole way. They treat her as very much humanized on her own. Maybe a little too human for her own good. But her problem is that she’s taken what the movie---and the audience---can’t help seeing as an indefensible position. She’s out to stop a beloved classic movie from being made.
Of course she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing. She can’t see into the future. And the filmmakers don’t expect her to. Mary Poppins could have been a terrible movie (Believe it or not, more people than the Gopniks think it is.) or at any rate a much less than great one. At the time Mary Poppins was going into production, Disney Studios was concentrating on live-action movies, some of which were pretty good, most of which were so-so, all of which had a Disney look that hasn’t dated well and probably looked a little cheap to audiences back then as well. I’m not sure but I think many of them were actually made to be shown on The Wonderful World of Color and only made the rounds of the theaters to give them some artistic cachet at a time when television was still regarded as a second-rate medium. They included Old Yeller…
Come on. Admit it. Who cried when Old Yeller dies?
Like I said. Some pretty good ones, some somewhat less than pretty good. But all with that Disney look.
Travers couldn’t have predicted that Mary Poppins was going to become a classic, but based on those movies she would have had some compelling clues as to what an adaptation of her book was likely to look like.
We’re not required to be familiar with all those films ourselves. All we need to know is that Travers had an idea of what a Disney movie was and she didn’t care for it. And her idea isn’t treated as ridiculous or wrong.
She also couldn’t have known ahead of her visit to Disney Studios that the movie in the works was going to have a lot more in common, visually and stylistically, with Disney’s great cartoons.
That might not have mattered.
Saving Mr Banks has it that Travers didn’t like cartoons in any form and so wouldn’t have regarded Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the rest as great. I can understand that. I’m not a real fan of any of them. I don’t love any of them, at any rate. I happen to think the Golden Age of Disney animation began with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and continued through the 1990s finishing with Mulan and Tarzan. Sue me. But the last three full-length animated features Disney had turned out before Mary Poppins wrapped were Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone.
Whatever you think of the first one, the second two are not top-notch. But if you want to imagine what an animated Mary Poppins might have looked like, 101 Dalmatians is probably a good model.
Travers arrives in California at the end of her professional rope. She’d rather not sell the rights to her book to anyone let alone Walt Disney but she needs the money. She feels lost and alone in hostile territory. She knows what she’s going up against too. On top of this she’s haunted by memories of her childhood in Australia and her adoration for her lost soul of a father, a drunk and a dreamer who bestowed upon her, his favorite, the mixed blessing of a faith in the power of imagination to get her through life. It’s not clear if these memories and the attendant guilt and self-reproach, have plagued her all her life or if they’ve been triggered by the prospect that she’s about to give away the work that has been her imaginative connection to her long-dead father. It doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s unhappy and in pain and she’s angry and defensive because of it, and we’re meant to sympathize and root for her.
We understand she doesn’t need humanizing or friendship, which she does happen to get, the friendship I mean, but not from Walt Disney. She needs release. And that’s something she has to get and the movie lets her get for herself.
She gets caught up in the spirit of things, thanks to the genius and patience of the composer-songwriter Sherman Brothers, but then she believes she's been lied to by Walt Disney himself and, furious at him and herself for falling for his sales pitch and mistaking it for a sincere offer of artistic collaboration, she takes her book and goes home. She changes her mind again but not because she’s humanized by American schmaltz. The schmaltz hasn’t gotten off the drawing boards yet. Disney apologizes and using the example of his own life with a difficult father, who unlike Travers’ father sounds like a bully and a sadist and not someone who sounds like a candidate for sympathy or forgiveness, persuades her not let someone else’s story, even though you are a character in it, become your story.
She saves herself by letting go of the ghosts who have taken over her stories, her own and Mary Poppins’.
It’s a sentimental just-so story, but hardly a “fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand”.
What it is, though, is not the story Gopnik would have preferred.
He wanted a tragedy about how commerce defeated art, which isn’t what happened. Travers’ book didn’t get removed from the bookstores and libraries. It gained a great new audience (even though it didn’t include me) and Travers followed it up with more Poppins books.
To believe that’s what happened you have to know that a faithful adaptation of the novel would have been a better movie or believe that no adaptation at all would have been the better outcome so that all the generations of children who have come of reading age since 1964 would have only known Travers’ Mary Poppins and they’d have taken her to heart the way J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter’s been taken to heart.
I don’t think I want to know what Gopnik thinks of the Potter movies or of the books.
But that brings me to this:
With that calm verdict in mind, it is at least possible to return again to the original “Mary Poppins” books, which reward grown up re-reading as much as they please kids. They are, outside of the work of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and T. H. White, the most distinguished poetic literature ever written for children.
I dislike Travers’ Mary Poppins. Always have. When I was a kid I outright hated it. But then I read it after seeing the movie. When I got a bit older I realized that was unfair, that books and movies were different and you shouldn’t judge one by the other. So I tried again.
Still didn’t like it. But I just figured I was too old to appreciate a book for children.
But when I was truly older and had children of my own and we were introducing the young Mannion boys to the world beyond picture books, I tried reading them Mary Poppins and they didn’t like it.
Wasn’t because they were picky or lacking in taste either. And they hadn’t seen the movie yet.
There were just too many works of “distinguished poetic literature” they liked better. Because they were better. Much better, in the judgment of this grown-up unrewarded by re-reading Mary Poppins.
Even if you accept that T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King for children and ignore that Tolkien wrote more than The Hobbit and that more has come close to subsuming The Hobbit and is decidedly not for children and let it slide that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is...um...a little weird, if you put those authors' works at the top, between them and Mary Poppins come a shelf-ful of books by (in no particular order except that’s how they’re occurring to me as I’m typing this) Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, C.S.Lewis, L.Frank Baum, Raold Dahl, Norton Juster, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.L. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, J.K. Rowling. and Lemony Snicket.
And,by the way, those few nice songs Gopnik mentions but doesn’t name? Chim Chimney. Feed the Birds. A Spoonful of Sugar. Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
A few nice songs. Sheesh.
Maybe Gopnik was trying to be funny again. Hard to tell. I hope so. I wouldn’t know what to say if he was just being dismissive.
Come to think of it, I know exactly what to say.
It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
Be sure to read Gopnik’s whole column, Behind Two Good Movies, Two Great Books. And for the record? In the first half, Gopnik convinces me I’d rather read The Mayor of MacDougal Street than see Inside Llewyn Davis.
Because everybody loves a post with a reading list.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), lost in another daydream, momentarily escapes from the cold, corporate grayness threatening to swallow him up, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fortunately not very faithful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story.
Not sure what did it. Might have been the look on Ben Stiller’s face as he studies his checkbook and sees he has enough money to cover the deposit on his mother’s new room at the assisted living center and a few of his own immediate expenses but nothing left over for anything else.
The look includes half a smile and it mixes sadness, frustration, satisfaction, relief, and a determined good humor. It’s the perfect look for a man with a lot to be down about resolving not to let it get him down because, hey, things could be worse and, anyway, today is ok, problems are taken care of, at least for now.
It’s the look of someone whose life is circumscribed by responsibilities he has only a limited power to meet on his own. He can only do so much and the rest is up to luck and the charity, mercy, forbearance, and competence of other people, most of whom don’t know or care he’s alive. And the ones who do care have their own worries and problems.
In short, it’s a look that marks Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, right away as an Everyperson.
He’s us. Most of us. The most of us who aren’t rich and extremely lucky but who are lucky enough at the moment not to be poor, sick, miserable, and totally without means to help ourselves. The most of us who can console ourselves with the thought Things really could be worse but then can’t help thinking But they could be a lot better and when we start wishing they were feeling vaguely guilty about that.
That look captures the mixture of wishfulness, frustration, guilt, and mustered faith and good cheer with which most of us live our lives and identifies Mitty as our hero.
But it also warns us not to expect too much of him.
His heroism will be of an ordinary and limited kind. We’ll be rooting for him not to triumph but to just get by on our behalf.
Whatever it was, that look or something else, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Stiller as well as starring him, had me choking up from practically its very first shot.
There have been a few movies that have done that to me, had me on the verge of tears from beginning to end, and all of them have been about the muddling through of ordinary people beset with the usual amounts of sorrow and care contriving to find satisfaction and enjoyment (even joy) in their less than wonderful lives, The Dead chief among them, a movie I insist earned its director, John Huston, a thousand years off in Purgatory.
Of course, even if I hadn’t known it from the trailers, I’d have been fairly sure The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn’t going to continue in this vein. Hollywood isn’t in the habit of lavishing big budgets on movies about the inescapable melancholy of ordinary life. That’s why Hollywood exists---to give us a momentary escape from ordinary life. But I was impressed with how long Stiller let the melancholy persist and how deep into his story he allowed it to seep.
Maybe too deep.
When, inevitably, Stiller switches gears in order to have Walter start living the kind of life Hollywood does like to make movies about---adventurous, romantic, heroic, thrilling, funny in a laugh out loud way and not a rueful, shaking of the head, boy, do I know what that’s like way---it feels like he’s cheating himself. And us.
I felt cheated, at any rate.
I felt like a sap for investing real emotion in what comes before the adventure begins and then like a cynic for not getting into the spirit of things as the plot takes over and the movie works its way towards a happy and triumphant ending, even though the ending isn’t that happy and triumphant and Walter’s adventure isn’t that Hollywood movie-level implausible. In fact, the middle section of Mitty reminded me a lot The Big Year, an overlooked movie I liked from a couple years back, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three rather ordinary men who manage to have a satisfying adventure chasing a bird-watching record that doesn’t require them to lose their ordinariness. The adventure in The Big Year is realistic because real people undertake the same one every year. Walter’s adventure is not realistic in that way. But ignoring that time has to essentially stand still for him to pull it off in the very few days he manages to do it in, he doesn’t do much more than a real person (with a company credit card and no boss watching) couldn’t do.
So the cheat isn’t in the adventure. It’s in how Stiller begins to push Walter as a hero. Inexorably, it becomes clear that we’re not going to be left to see one of us rising to the occasion in a way we hope we’d rise. We going to be expected to cheer at his triumph, a triumph not on our behalf, but on Walter’s own. A movie that starts off being about how an Everyman manages to muddle through despite the cares and woes wearing him down turns into a movie about how wonderful it is to be Walter Mitty.
I suppose that by extension it’s about how wonderful it is to be the rest of us Mitty-esque Everypersons or at least how wonderful we could be if like Walter we find a way to break free from our ordinarily dull and dulling lives, shake off our inhibitions, unburden ourselves from unnecessary guilt, and put our too restricting senses of obligation aside, at least now and then, and…go for it!
But for the first third, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t just suffused with wishfulness and melancholy. It’s close to heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard of anyone complaining Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t faithful to the James Thurber short story it’s based on, possibly because few people read the story anymore. Which is too bad. It’s one of the great American short stories. But it’s easy to understand why Hollywood wouldn’t wan to ante up for a faithful adaptation.
As funny as it is on the surface, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a very dark, bleak, and depressing story. And its themes are antithetical to everything Hollywood stands for. In the story, ordinary life isn’t melancholy. It’s miserable. For Thurber, as much as for Sartre, hell is other people and there’s no exit. Romance is a fleeting illusion, love is a trap, and marriage is literally the equivalent of death.
And if that isn’t enough, Thurber makes it plain that the kind of escape from dreary reality movies offer is no escape at all. His Mitty’s daydreams are pastiches of movie clichés. The alternative heroic selves Mitty imagines are as ridiculous and empty of meaning and purpose and devoid of true heroic possibility as the self he inhabits. On top of his other problems, Mitty lacks a real imagination that would allow him to see his way out of his predicament or at least put his troubles in perspective. His ability to think for himself or about himself has been supplanted by bad movies. Hollywood does his dreaming for him.
Stiller’s Walter can think for himself. He has an imagination and he dreams real dreams. That’s one of the reasons he’s so sympathetic and why his situation is saddening. He’s self-aware. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad don’t get carried away showing us their Walter’s daydreams. They give us just enough glimpses of the adventures and moments of romances occurring in his head to let us know how he’s compensating and sublimating and distracting himself at the moment and then cut them off before they turn into stories and mini-movies in their own rights---which is what happens in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical adaptation. Stiller’s Walter is made of sterner and less silly stuff than Kaye’s. His daydreams are just passing thoughts, not alternative realities. Walter’s mind wanders but he doesn’t get lost in his imagination. He’s too responsible to let that happen. Too tough and too brave for that matter, as well. Besides, he doesn’t want to live a different life. He just wants a little more out of the life he has.
It’s not too bad a life.
He has friends. He’s close to his mother and his sister who love him and depend upon him. He has a job he’s good at, that he’s proud of (to a degree), and that means something (although not as much as he wishes it did). He has some financial worries and he’s lonely. There’s a woman at work he has a crush on but can’t bring himself to ask out, partly because he doesn’t want to risk rejection, partly because by habit and temperament he can’t bring himself to do things that will make him happy when, in his own opinion, he should be trying harder to make his mother happy. But there’s nothing awful about his life at the moment. The worst that could happen happened twenty-six years ago when he was sixteen and his father died. He’s still feeling the effect of that all these years later, however; he’s stuck on the day after his father died when he decided to put aside all the dreams and ambitions his father had encouraged and helped prepare him to realize to become…responsible.
What happens, of course, is circumstances come along that force him to become irresponsible.
That is, he’s suddenly deprived of the means to continue to be responsible, which leaves him desperate enough to do what he’s afraid is the irresponsible thing, run off on an adventure.
It’s at this point Stiller begins to cheat. Like I said, the cheating isn’t in the adventure itself but in how Stiller tries to force us to cheer for the hero the adventure reveals Walter to be and to keep on cheering past the point there’s any more reason to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly become The Public Apotheosis of Walter Mitty, but that’s not for want of trying on Stiller’s part.
Stiller the director, I should point out. Stiller the actor plays things more honestly and ironically.
For the better parts of the movie, that’s how Stiller directs it too, in the visual equivalent of a minor key quietly punctuated by comic and melancholy grace notes---one of Walter’s laid-off friends rescuing his potted plant from the moving men cleaning out the office, the car rental agent in Greenland’s pride in being able to offer Walter a choice of two cars, a red one and blue one, the care with which Walter carries a cake his sister has dropped off for his birthday, a pickup soccer game in the snow on the slope of a mountain. And it’s a beautiful looking film.
The dullness and numbing routine of Walter’s too ordinary and joyless life suggested by the grays and pale, cold whites of the magazine offices where he works are tricks of light. Look closely. They’re not grays and whites. They’re chromes and silvers in shadow. All it would take is for the light to shift and they’d shine and sparkle, an effect stunningly realized in the rocky and snowy landscapes and oceanscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas when Walter takes off on his adventure and shifts the light shining on his life for himself.
In style, tone, and theme, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded my of Stranger Than Fiction. Both movies are stories of an Everyman trapped in the drab, gray routine of a too ordinary life, although Will Farrell’s Harold Crick is trapped by his addiction to his routines and Stiller’s Walter is trapped by his overburdened conscience. If Walter’s addicted to anything in his life, it’s to self-denial. Both our heroes are offered salvation by the sudden insertion (assertion) of art in their daily lives. Harold, of course, has to come to terms with the idea that he is art, somebody else’s art at that. But he then learns to make his own art. Art’s role in Walter’s salvation is less direct and less obvious. Ultimately, he has to wake up to the idea that what he does for a living is a form of art, but his adventure begins with running off to rescue someone else’s work of art. It’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing, though, because he thinks he’s just trying to save his job.
Stranger Than Fiction is a work of magic realism and yet seems more true to life for that. There’s magic in Walter Mitty’s world but it’s out there. It can’t be touched and doesn’t touch us directly. It can be felt and it can be glimpsed through things, wonderful things, like the sighting of a snow leopard, or fairly ordinary things, like the appearance of a friend coming to help you out just when you need him.
Both movies share the theme that a life doesn’t have to be like a movie in order for it to be worth the effort. You just have to make the effort. And if the effort’s made, then love, romance, beauty, joy, even a bit of adventure are all attainable.
A big difference between the two movies as movies is that Will Farrell shares the screen with a couple of acting powerhouses in showy roles given most of the best lines, Dustin Hoffman (“Dramatic irony, it’ll fuck you every time.”) and Emma Thompson. Thompson is in fact the second lead. Then there’s Queen Latifah, more understated but far from fading into the background. And as Ana, Harold’s love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal is given a character to play who is more than just the love interest. Ana has a life and a sense of herself apart from her place in Harold’s story, and she doesn’t need him to rescue her in any way, except from himself in his role as the auditor of her unfiled tax returns.
Stiller almost never has to share the screen with anyone (characters or actors) capable of taking the focus off him and, when he does, it’s not for very long. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely cameo as Walter’s mother. Sean Penn appears just long enough to have made me wish there were more straight-forward heroic characters in his filmography. Patton Oswalt appears exactly when we need him. But I’d be surprised if you tallied up their collective screen time and it came to more than ten minutes. And as Cheryl, Walter’s love interest, Kristin Wiig is less of a person in her own right than the character she voiced in Despicable Me 2, Gru’s love interest, the overly enthusiastic secret agent Lucy Wilde, and she’s given fewer laughs. Her main job is to look like the kind of person Walter would find it nice to come home to. Cheryl has her own ordinary sorrows and cares as she’s also stuck in a life circumscribed by responsibilities she’s barely able to meet. But her predicament is too carefully contrived to be one Walter Mitty is perfectly suited to rescue her from.
I’m still not sure what to make of Adam Scott’s corporate weasel who becomes Walter’s antagonist at work. With his impossibly black and glossy Elvis pompadour and lumberjack beard, between which his baby face peeks like an infant’s who’s been dressed up for Halloween as his hipster dad by his comically-minded and too easily self-amused parents, Scott looks less like he’s been sent by corporate to play the villain on their behalf than like he’s been dreamed up by Walter himself, an imagined, cartoon version of such a person too silly to be a real threat.
Maybe that was the intent. The weasel has Walter pegged as a dreamer and is contemptuous of him for that. But it may be that he’s the real fantasist and has dreamed up a macho, hairy, swaggering bully of an alternate self to disguise the weakling toady and flunky he really is. This would be more likely if there were other characters in the movie daydreaming their way through their own lives.
But the key difference is that Stranger Than Fiction stays true to the theme that a worthwhile life doesn’t have to be like a movie and thus earns its payoff in its wonderful bit of closing narration:
As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s not Bavarian Sugar Cookies, it’s citrus cake.
Unfortunately, Stiller, the director again, flinches and backs away from this idea almost to the point of backing up into the opposite idea, that a life is only worth living when it is like a movie.
While I'm thinking of it, my reviews of The Big Year and Despicable Me 2: Life is for the Birds and Not enough minions turns out to be just the right number of minions.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, screenplay by Steve Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber. Starring Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, and Sean Penn. 1 hr and 54 minutes. Rated PG. Now in theaters.
This description of Mrs Varden from Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge pretty well describes a side of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle. I don’t know if Lawrence or her director David O. Russell or Russell’s co-writer Eric Singer was influenced by Dickens. But they don’t need to have been. All individual human natures are variations on a few themes and a type that turns up in a novel published in 1841 can turn up in a movie made in 2013 because that type will have turned up in real life over and over again in all the years before Dickens invented Mrs Varden and in all the years since. We all know this person or somebody very much like them:
Mrs Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper--a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable. Thus it generally happened, that when other people were merry, Mrs Varden was dull; and that when other people were dull, Mrs Varden was disposed to be amazingly cheerful. Indeed the worthy housewife was of such a capricious nature, that she not only attained a higher pitch of genius than Macbeth, in respect of her ability to be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in an instant, but would sometimes ring the changes backwards and forwards on all possible moods and flights in one short quarter of an hour; performing, as it were, a kind of triple bob major on the peal of instruments in the female belfry, with a skilfulness and rapidity of execution that astonished all who heard her.
---from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.
Here’s a movie I’d like to see: A movie about a couple, he’s the owner of as struggling small chain of dry cleaners, she’s a former stripper who’s talked her way into a secretarial job at a fashion magazine that glamorizes a lifestyle she’ll never be able to afford on her salary, brought together by their mutual out of date---it’s the 70s---love for the music of Duke Ellington and a shared dream of a life of sophistication, elegance, culture, and taste---they dream of being the kind of people who dance to the music of Duke Ellington.
This is a common working class variation of the American Dream. It’s an ambition more than a wish not to be rich but to be better. Nicer. Smarter. Classier. And usually what happens is that people who dream this dream realize it through their children. They get them library cards. They find a way to pay for music lessons. They go to every concert, recital, and play. They fill their homes with books. They send the kids off to college. The trouble for this couple is they are impatient and they don’t have superior amounts of self-discipline and they are vain---of their looks (comical in his case) but more of their intelligence. They know they’re smarter than most people, including and especially greedy people with money. And they’re crooks. They figure they can steal and con their way to the honest life they dream of. Ironically, together they are too good at that. They inspire each other to more brazen cons, more reckless gambits. They start performing for each other and they get careless.
Enter the FBI.
An ambitious, ruthless, and vain agent has come up with a plan to use them to advance his own career.
This movie could be called American Hustle, and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other two movies about working class dreams of a better life and a better self, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.
If it starred Christian Bale and Amy Adams as the couple and Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent, so much the better.
Here’s another movie I’d like to see: A politician, a mayor, for instance, of a mid-sized city in the industrial Northeast fallen on hard times, falling apart except where the mayor, who was born here and grew up here and loves the place and its people like he loves his own family, has been able through wheeling and dealing to hold things (neighborhoods) together and even fix them up a little.
Trouble is the mayor’s got a little larceny in his heart. And he’s vain---of his love for his city and of his efforts to do good on its behalf. He sees himself as a working class hero, even a bit of a saint, so he feels entitled to reward, not himself, his family and friends for his good deeds. He’s a practitioner of what used to known as honest graft. Nothing gets done without his friends and associates making money out of it. But things get done. Good things. Schools get built, roads get paved, people get jobs. So what’s the harm?
But despite the love and devotion of his wife and kids and the adoration of his constituents, he’s a little lonely. He doesn’t have any real friends. Every adult he knows outside his family he knows through politics, his kind of politics, so they’re all either crooked or know he is and both types treat him accordingly. What he wants to be treated like, though, is an intellectual, of a sort. A politician who is philosophical about what he does, who has ideas, who has a vision. Someone who thinks about the good life and how to live it and how to bring it about for himself, his family, his city. And it’s not simply a matter of bringing more money to town. It’s culture too. (He has a son who’s an artist and of whom he’s inordinately proud.) He dreams of being a better, that is, a more cultured, nicer, classier person.
Enter this guy who seems to have the same dream.
They hit it off.
They become pals.
The mayor and his wife welcome the guy and his wife into their family.
The thing is, this guy is offering the mayor a deal.
He knows people. People with money to invest in cities like the mayor’s and who are looking to invest it. The guy can put the mayor in a room with these people. He promises the mayor these people will be eager to “help” the mayor finance his most cherished and ambitious dream for the city’s redevelopment.
The thing is these people are criminals.
The thing is, so is this guy, the mayor’s new best friend.
The thing is he’s working for the FBI.
Definitely a movie I’d like to see. It could be called American Hustle and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other films about large urban, ethnic, working class families united by their shared dreams of a better, that is, more cultured, elegant, and nicer life but strained by their clashing ideas of what that means and how to get there and by their conflicting eccentricities and difficult personalities, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.
If it starred Jeremy Renner as the mayor and Christian Bale as the guy, each sporting ridiculously elaborate hair styles that Bale’s character thinks makes him look like Burt Reynolds and Renner’s thinks makes him look like John Travolta, so much the better.
Here is the movie I thought I was going to see: American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, based on a true story, or as loosely based on a true story as Hollywood movies claiming to be based on true stories usually are, about an ambitious FBI agent who coerces a couple of real con artists into helping him pull off an overly complicated sting operation designed more to advance his own career than to bring down the corrupt politicians he’s targeted but who self-destructs---self-corrupts---through his attraction to the woman and the seductiveness of the easy-living, easy-money lifestyle they adopt in order to play out the con.
I expected a movie that had elements of the two movies I would like to see and elements that would make it a companion piece to Russell’s other two movies about out of control eccentrics struggling to realize their dreams of a marginally better life, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and it would have something to say about the time period, the 1970s, but mainly it would be a straight-forward heist movie with comic undertones and some, I hoped, not too heavy-handed lessons about the fallibility of even the best-intentioned human beings.
This is the movie I saw:
A movie called American Hustled directed by see above, starring see above again, that shows as if it needs showing that Christian Bale is a great character actor with absolutely no vanity.
A movie that showed that Bradley Cooper is a very good actor who wants to be a great actor but is maybe trying a little too hard right now but doing a good job of shedding his movie star vanity.
A movie that shows that Amy Adams is in spectacular shape and…and…what was I thinking before the macramé swim suit scene? Oh yeah…a very good actress who happens to be able to do an excellent imitation of someone who can imitate an English accent less than excellently but just good enough to fool people who’ve never been closer to England than their TV screens on a Sunday night when Upstairs, Downstairs is on Masterpiece Theatre.
A movie in which Jennifer Lawrence takes advantage of another opportunity provided by David O. Russell to use an ostensibly dramatic role to show she’s on her way to becoming one of our best comedic actresses.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock.
Many of the best dramatic actresses have also been among the best comedic actresses.
Hepburn. Stanwyck. Russell. Dunne. Fonda. Streep.
Saying a great dramatic actress is also a great comedic actress is a redundant way of saying someone’s a great actress.
(The same is true of male actors but less demonstrably so. See note below.)
I saw a movie a lot critics and fans of Martin Scorsese have enjoyed and admired for its cheerful, affectionate, and respectful nods to to Scorsese’s genius, which means I saw a movie a good part of the enjoyment of which is being able to give the person next to you in the theater a nudge and whisper out of the side of your mouth, “Goodfellas.”
But I also saw a movie a lot of other people disliked for all the times they nudged the person next to them and sighed, grumpily, “Goodfellas, again.”
This means I saw a movie many of whose strengths and weaknesses someone like me who isn’t a Scorsese buff and hasn’t seen Goodfellas in nearly twenty years---and didn’t commit it to memory at the time---can’t appreciate or deprecate. So, you know, when it comes to the homage thing? So what?
I saw a movie that was more stylized than stylish. A movie that captured the look of the 1970s down to the last extra button on Bradley Cooper’s suit coats but didn’t seem to be actually taking place in the 70s because nothing about the story or the characters was particularly of the 70s. There was no reason to set it in 1978 except that’s when the historical events American Hustle’s barely based on (A title card at the beginning of the film cheekily announces, “Some of this actually happened.”) took place.
American Hustle has a terrific soundtrack that includes a number of hits from the 70s but from the early 70s---Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live and Let Die, among others---and when they were played I grew instantly nostalgic for the wrong half of the decade. As advertised, it’s supposed to be 1978 but there are only two disco numbers, no punk, and no new wave (Remind me again. What was the name of the Talking Heads' first album?). Those songs were still on the radio and maybe what Russell wants us to hear is music his characters prefer to listen to, which marks them as out of step with the times, just as do the scenes of Bale and Adams dancing to Duke Ellington and Jeremy Renner leading a roomful of the mayor’s cronies in singing along with Tom Jones singing Delilah, and that would be part of the point. These people are living in the past, dreaming of better futures that are like the past, while the 80s are looming over them ready to overwhelm their small-time dreams with large-scale dreams of real MONEY and real POWER. That’s another movie I would like to see, a movie about some old-fashioned petty grifters and cheap hoods stunned by a confrontation with the sort of sociopaths who took control of Reagan’s America.
I actually suspect that if the inclusion of those songs on the soundtrack had any point other than that Russell really likes them, it’s to highlight the fair warning we were given at the beginning of the movie: Some of this actually happened. The rest? All made up and therefore fantasy. In other words, folks, don’t take any of this as realism.
There are elements that connect it to The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook---beside the cast---because there are elements of the two movies I would like to see and the movie I thought I was going to see. But those elements come in such a rush, one on top of the other and often all at the same time, that it wasn’t just hard to focus on any one, it was a distraction and a waste of time. If I got to thinking about one scene too deeply, I missed the next two.
What this all adds up to is that none of it adds up. Or at least I couldn’t follow the math in my head. It seemed to me that American Hustle was mainly about Russell having a little too much fun bringing together some of his favorite actors and letting them go to town, failing to rein them in when they needed it, allowing their improvisations to wander and go on too long, leaving too much of what he got a kick out of in the finished film instead of saving it for the deleted scenes segment of the bonus features on the DVD. I enjoyed it, in pieces. My enjoyment alternated with my disappointment and as the movie went along the periods of disappointment began to outnumber and outlast the periods of fun. As the saying goes, it’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts.
But many of its parts are good and the best of those good parts are provided by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, singly and together.
Bale makes his Irv Rosenfeld, who ought to be a repugnant figure from the top of his appalling comb-over to his pot belly-strained polyester shirts and down to the zippers on his ankle boots, into a deeply sympathetic human being. He does this by giving Irv the intelligence and imagination to see what ought to be happening at the same time he sees better than everyone else what is happening. And what ought to be happening doesn’t just mean how the con ought to be working. It means how it ought not to be working as well, that is, Irv sees that life would be nicer and more pleasurable if his marks were better enough people that they didn’t want what he’s pretending to sell them and if he himself was a better enough person not to want to pretend to sell them anything. It’s not so much that he has a conscience as that he has a dream he knows he’s getting in his own way of realizing by being a crook.
But some of Bale’s best work in American Hustle comes in scenes in which he plays straight man to Jennifer Lawrence, who as Rosalind Rosenfeld, Irv’s seemingly crazy wife and mother of Irv’s little stepson whom he’s devoted to, steals the movie. Roz uses the kid the way she uses everything within reach, as a prop in the wacky drama she’s made of her life. She’s a genius performance artist with an audience of one, herself. She doesn’t make a move---bat an eyelash, light a cigarette---without calculating its dramatic effect. She’s apparently careless, thoughtless, reckless, heedless, and even perverse---tell her do one thing and she’ll do the opposite even and especially when doing the opposite puts herself or people around her at risk. Warned not to talk to a gangster’s chief henchmen, she starts an affair with him. Warned not to put metal in her new microwave, her very first attempt to use it involves putting metal in it and setting the kitchen on fire, which a brilliant throwaway line---that is, a line brilliantly thrown away by Lawrence---lets us know is a routine occurrence in the Rosenfeld household. The only way to engage with her is to enter her little dramas, accepting the role she’s assigned you and playing the character as she’s written it.
Of course, this is how Irv works his cons, by manipulating his marks into playing parts in a play they don’t know he’s written for them. Which makes Roz as much a con artist as Irv, possibly even a more talented one. And he’s aware of this. He can even appreciate it, on a professional level. He just can’t think of any way to outmaneuver her.
As I said, Bradley Cooper maybe tries a little too hard here, but he’s wonderfully without vanity playing a man consumed by his own vanity. And as I said in my review of Man of Steel, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actors now in their primes, but she’s an elf and as an elf she has basically three modes: good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia), wicked elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter). Here she goes for a blend, a conflicted elf who wants to be and sometimes is a good elf but is more often a wicked elf who can pretend to be a good elf so well she fools even herself.
It’s good to see Jeremy Renner back at work playing a real human being after a run of playing superheroes (The Avengers) or essentially superheroes (The Bourne Legacy). Elisabeth Rohm shines as the mayor’s large-hearted wife who, maybe unwittingly, maybe not, encourages his scams and his schemes on behalf of the city through her absolute faith and devotion---the mayor can’t help thinking, A woman like this wouldn’t give her love and loyalty to a crook so I must not be a crook. Louis C.K. plays Cooper’s sad-eyed, put-upon boss who at first appears to be the only reasonable and wholly honest person in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area but who may actually be one of life’s willing and self-assigned victims, a masochist who gets satisfaction from allowing himself to be bullied and manipulated because he knows that in the end he’ll be able to say, “Told you so.”
Like me, Oliver Mannion enjoyed the movie while he was watching but he was also disappointed and his disappointment grew as it went along. He expected a different movie too, based on the trailers, although he wasn’t sure if it was going to be a more realistic, deeper, and more heartfelt drama or more of an out and out comedy. Either way, he was expecting it to be more about the con than about the characters as characters or, rather, about the lead actors’ performances as characters. The only likeable character, Oliver thought, was the mayor, and he thinks that if you’re going to make a movie full of unlikeable characters you should go one of two ways.
Either you do a serious exploration of what makes them tick or your exploit their flaws and foibles for laughs. Russell left most of his cast somewhere in between, but Jennifer Lawrence went for the laughs and that’s why she was Oliver’s favorite part of the movie.
Mine too, adding that often a smart and well-done comic performance can be more illuminating than the most emotionally wrought, Oscar-baiting serious ones.
Following up on what I said above about great dramatic actresses being great comedic actresses, as well: Male movie stars don’t get as many opportunities to show their comedic skills. When they take on “non-serious” roles it’s usually in action-adventure films. Crime and cop dramas in the 30s and 40s. Westerns in the 40s and 50s. Crime and cop dramas again in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Blow-em up, high body count action movies starting in the 80s.
These days there’s a second-tier of male romantic leads who get to play opposite female stars in their comedies. Comedies with male leads usually star clowns and comics.
Then there’s Ben Stiller. Coming up: My review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
And from way back in 2012, my review of The Fighter, The wounded family pride of the Pride of Lowell.
American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, and Paul Herman. 2 hours and 9 minutes. Rated R. Now in theaters. Soundtrack available at Amazon.
Not Roy Edroso. And as far as I know, not his cat either. But a link to his review of the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (above) and the cat (above) is below.
As regular visitors know, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with the blogging because my back problems make sitting at a keyboard for extended periods a challenge. (See below.) Slowly but surely though I’m coming to the end of my review of American Hustle. I should have it done this afternoon. I’d finish it up this morning but I have to spend the next few hours sitting with the car in the shop. (See a different below.) But I’ve got good news for those of you who are in the mood for some Monday morning movie reading.
Roy Edroso’s on the job.
Roy’s best known around these parts for his hilarious reports from the Right Wing territories of the internet, but as his fans know, he’s a terrific writer, one smart cookie, and a guy who knows his way around the cineplex. In short, he’s a very fine movie critic and recently he’s written about the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in posts that make me really sorry I’m probably not going to be able to see either.
Anywho, here’s Roy on The Wolf of Wall Street, And The Wolf That Shall Keep It May Prosper.
And here he is on Inside Llewyn Davis, Man of Constant Sorrow.
Temptation of the hero-hobbit: The Ring begins to work its evil on Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
[M]ost people [forget] that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s shed by the deserving*)…
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.
----from Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
One of my most disappointing reading experiences occurred the Christmas Santa left me a copy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham .
This was when I was in seventh grade. My youngest sibling, Laura Mannion as was, is nine years younger than me so Santa came to our house until my senior year of high school.
I was thrilled when I saw that book under the tree. That was the year I’d read The Lord of the Rings, all three books in three days, and I couldn’t wait to get back into Middle-earth. I took it with me to Church and started reading as soon as we got into the car after Mass to go to my grandparents’ for Christmas dinner. I’m pretty sure I had the manners and the sense not to keep reading during dinner---if I forgot my manners, Nana Mannion, who, love me as she did, I don’t believe ever thought I had much sense, would have reminded me, sharply.---but I read continually enough to have finished both novellas before we got home. That in itself was disappointing, that they were quick and easy reads. I thought that as a reader of “grown-up” books now, it should take me a good while to get through a book. That was supposed to be one of the rewards of having outgrown the Hardy Boys. More time spent happily lost inside a good story. But I went to bed sort of ticked at Santa and wishing he’d thought to bring me a new Allistair MacLean or Agatha Christie instead for two other reasons.
The first disappointment was they struck me as stories for children. I didn’t know Tolkien intended them as jokes for adults. The Lord of the Rings certainly wasn't a children’s story. But neither was The Hobbit. Not in the way fretful adults think of children’s stories. The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.
The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hear The Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.
Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.
The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.
It’s about blood.
Things were looking pretty bad again, when suddenly Bilbo reappeared and charged into the astonished spiders unexpectedly from the side.
“Go on! Go on!” he shouted. “I will do the stinging.”
And he did. He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting, and dared not come very near, now that it had come back. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just as when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.
There’s nothing like the battle with Shelob’s children in either Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major. There’s nothing dark or threatening or scary. No danger. Nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to not be afraid of, which means no reason to feel brave which is what most children want to feel. Brave. Because they know. The world is a scary and dangerous place. There's no hiding from it by staying snug and warm and apparently safe in you Hobbit hole. The world will show up on your doorstep, force its way in, and drag you out and carry you off to face trolls and goblins and dragons.
In the real world, the eagles never come and the dragons never sleep.
There are no goblins in those novellas. No trolls. There’s a dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham but compared to Smaug he might as well be Puff. There are no orcs, no Wildmen, no white wizards who turn against humans and their wizard friends, no heroes who can be corrupted by their desire to be greater heroes, no hobbits who can have their hearts turned and their minds unhinged by just the barest contact with power. No blood. No evil.
And that, I felt, was wrapped up in the second reason for my disappointment.
Neither story is set in Middle-Earth.
I was shut out of the place I wanted to get back to. And I didn’t just want to go back to re-visit favorite tourist stops and historical landmarks. I wanted to explore new territories, meet new characters, fight new battles, and encounter and brave new dangers.
All these years later and I still feel that disappointment even just thinking about Smith’s and Farmer Giles’ stories, and I now get the jokes.
Which, by the way, aren’t funny.
So you can see why it wouldn’t bother me in principle that Peter Jackson hasn’t made an absolutely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit.
He’s using The Hobbit to do what I’d hoped to do with Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham and what I have done in many subsequent re-readings of The Hobbit and my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, make his own way on another long explore of Middle-earth.
Of course, in doing so he’s showing that The Hobbit isn’t a children’s story in that way. He’s letting the blood show. He couldn’t help that. Do away with the narration and audiences can’t pretend they don’t see what children who aren’t fooled by the narrator’s diversions hear. Everything dark, violent, evil, scary, and strange that connects The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings---and that’s what Jackson’s trying to do with these movies, make the connection---is there in the book. That’s a given. The real critical questions are where does he take us in Middle-earth and what does what he finds there have to do with making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a good movie?
Tolkien created a world and then lost control of it. He couldn’t comprehend the whole of it himself and his son Christopher, working feverishly in his wake, just kept expanding it. It was as if he’d imagined his way through to another universe and left the door open behind him. Or, to borrow an image from his friend C.S. Lewis, his books are the wardrobe that has let millions find their way to Middle-Earth which is endlessly open to exploration and adventure. Narnia is much more circumscribed. Its precincts come into being only when Lewis needs something to happen there as opposed to here. And nothing happens in Discworld Terry Pratchett hasn’t put there. But Middle-earth’s boundaries can be expanded, its population added to, its geography reconfigured and remapped, its history extended forwards and backwards and sideways in time, revised and rewritten by the imaginations of anyone and everyone who visits.
Given all that Jackson could have added, it’s worth noting how little he actually has invented. A lot of what some persnickety fans of the book and irritable film critics with too much on their plates because it’s December and the studios are releasing all their award season hopefuls in a rush dismiss as “padding” to fill out what they think should have been one two-hour movie instead of three nearly three-hour ones is the inevitable result of Jackson the filmmaker having to put into explicit images what Tolkien the writer could get away with implying and even leaving entirely to his readers’ imaginations. More movies should leave more to the imagination, but there’s a limit to that. The camera has to show something.
A picture is worth a thousand words if the words are the work of a mediocre writer and the picture is very good and stands still long enough for us to give it a good look. When the writing is good, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
Jackson may not have needed a thousand pictures for every one of Tolkien’s words, but Tolkien’s words conjure up pictures that don’t stand still and that take time to present on screen. Then there’s the problem of turning into dialog conversations Tolkien was content to summarize.
So the issue isn’t whether Jackson’s added scenes, characters, and dialog. You can’t make a movie out of a book without doing that.
And it’s not whether what he’s added is true to Tolkien if not to the published version of The Hobbit.
It’s whether what he’s added actually adds to the story he’s telling, which isn’t The Hobbit. No one was going to give Peter Jackson millions of dollars to adapt The Hobbit. It’s The Lord of the Rings as told for the screen by Peter Jackson. This Hobbit trilogy isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s the first three chapters of what will be an eighteen hour movie that until last year was only half finished.
And when you think of it that way, then the orcs are there, Legolas is there, Radagast and his birds and rabbits are there, and the White Council does meet because something terrible is brewing at Dol Goldur. Jackson isn’t inventing. He’s showing what’s implied by what’s already been filmed.
But it doesn’t matter that Legolas is in there because, well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Mirkwood is his home. The wood-elf king is his father. As prince, wouldn’t he have taken part in the Battle of Five Armies? It makes storytelling sense, then, to get him on the scene ahead of time and not have him show up just to be glimpsed leading a charge of elves against the orcs.
What matters is that he appears to have something more to do than make a connection to The Lord of the Rings. Considering the wood elf king’s---Legolas’ father’s---antipathy to the dwarfs, his deciding to take part in the Battle of Five Armies has always seemed like a nakedly thematic choice on Tolkien’s part. Self-interest often wins out over prejudice in real life and in the book the Battle of Five Armies is not meant to be taken as glorious or heroic. It’s a clash of tribal egos and ambitions and greed. But something else is going on if it’s Legolas’ doing that the elves join in.
Something else again if they join despite him.
What also matters is that Legolas appears to be different from how he is in The Lord of the Rings. He’s more vain, more arrogant, crueler, and much more a hero in his own right than the hero’s perfect lieutenant which is his role as part of the Fellowship. The question is what softened him and when did it happen?
I suppose I could be misremembering what Legolas was like in The Lord of the Rings. It could be that Jackson or Orlando Bloom or both misremembered. It could be that Bloom, with ten years’ more experience as an actor in his quiver, didn’t want to repeat himself and figured out how to avoid it. But I hope more than that’s going on and we’re going to see him learn lessons in wisdom and humility in the next movie and I have a sinking feeling I know how he learns those lessons. Jackson is going to give us a reason somebody isn’t in The Lord of the Rings besides the fact Tolkien didn’t put that somebody in there.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jackson has found things and characters in Middle-earth Tolkien didn’t put there or didn’t know were there himself.
It doesn’t matter that Jackson has concocted the character of the female warrior elf Tauriel all on his own and given her a torch to carry for Legolas and then burdened her with a compensatory crush on Fili, the handsomest, swashbucklingest of the dwarfs after Thorin. That seemed forced to me but I still kind of liked it because it prefigures the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
What matters is whether Tauriel more than an avatar for girls playing the video game spinoffs. She isn’t as interesting a character as Eowyn who is more than her unrequitable love for Aragorn and her ability to fight like a boy. But that’s so far. She has potential but we’ll have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again to find out where Jackson’s taking her.
It doesn’t matter where Jackson got all the backstory he’s piled on Bard the Bowman. All of it could have come straight from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make Bard interesting and give us a rooting interest in him. It’s always bothered me that in the book Bard isn’t much more than an attitude and there isn’t any reason to care he’s the one who’ll fire the black arrow except that somebody has to do it.
Judging how well all of this, invented outright or mined from other Tolkien sources, works depends on how Jackson follows up in next year’s next installment, which means that at least a third of The Desolation of Smaug is setup for There and Back Again.
I’m not saying that The Desolation of Smaug is just a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again or that it isn’t at all faithful to the book (or books). It’s very much a continuation of the story and it is faithful to the book, much more faithful than it and An Unexpected Journey have been given credit for, particularly in the three set-pieces at the center of the part of the book The Desolation of Smaug is taken from: the battle with Shelob’s children, the barrel escape from Mirkwood---I mean from the point when Bilbo hatches his plan to when he finds himself in the river without a barrel of his own. The orcs chasing the barrels and the elves chasing the orcs chasing the barrels is another question. But the moment when Bilbo realizes he’s forgotten to arrange his own escape is a gem---and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug.
But these scenes aren’t good simply because they’re faithful to Tolkien. In fact, if all they were was faithful they’d be dramatically flat. What I liked best about them is what Jackson does with Bilbo and to him with them.
And not just to Bilbo.
I should say to our understanding of Frodo.
As I said last Hobbit season in my review of An Unexpected Journey, one of the things I'm enjoying most about Jackson's adaptation is how, with considerable help from Martin Freeman, he's establishing that Bilbo is a hero. The hobbit hero. And Jackson and Freeman are doing it in a way that I think will carry over into all future viewings of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo isn't Ian Holm anymore. Holm is Freeman's shadow.
For all his protesting at the beginning of An Unexpected Jouney that he's a Baggins of Bag End and therefore very much a stay at home sort of Hobbit, Gandalf has Bilbo’s number. There is a strong strain of adventuresome Took in him and it's coming out in The Desolation of Smaug.
Bilbo is getting to like adventuring. He's coming to like being in danger because, like children reading the book, he likes feeling brave. He's enjoying his role as the Burglar because to pull it off he has to solve problems---riddles---think for others, make decisions on their behalf, come to their rescue, and, when you get right down to it, take over from Thorin as the leader of the company.
In other words, he's getting a kick out of being a hero.
This is a good development in its own dramatic right for this set of movies. But it's good for Jackson's whole project because it calls attention to what he did with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Now of course Bilbo had to change in order to become a hero. But in The Desolation of Smaug we're beginning to see how the change works on itself. Being a hero is changing him. Bilbo has started to look for opportunities to be heroic. He is growing into his role as hero, which means he is growing ambitious.
Frodo is not ambitious, because Frodo is not a hero.
I think a lot of readers who find their way from The Hobbit straight into The Lord of the Rings tend to see Frodo as Bilbo all over again.
Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass understood that. That's why in their cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King---which are both pretty good, The Hobbit especially, considering the limitations Rankin and Bass had to work within.---they drew Bilbo and Frodo as lookalikes and had Orson Bean provide the voices for both.
Jackson's Frodo is very different from his and Tolkien's Bilbo, and the scene that encapsulates that difference is Arwen's Ride in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the book, Frodo makes the ride alone. And on his own he turns his pony and draws his sword to face the Nazgul and dares them to come and take the ring. He acts the part of a hero, just as Bilbo would have done in a similar fix.
But in the movie Frodo's in no shape to play the hero. He's close to dying from his wound (Note to myth watchers: a wound that will never truly heal.), barely conscious, and essentially helpless. He needs Arwen to protect and save him. Jackson didn't make this change just to give one of his very few female characters something important to do. It's a motif. Jackson's Frodo is always in need of saving. He needs Arwen and Gandalf and Sam and the other hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship to do the fighting for him. That’s the job of the Fellowship, to protect Frodo. And not simply because the journey's dangerous and there'll be minions of Sauron all along the way trying to take the ring from whoever's carrying it. It's because it's Frodo's job to carry the ring, and it's his job because he's not a hero.
He's a saint.
Carrying the ring is a burden and he's the only one up to taking it on. He's the only one up to enduring the suffering that goes with it and capable of resisting its temptations as well. Bilbo has already failed at that second part. In The Desolation of Smaug we see that failure begin, which means we see Jackson setting up a theme in his Hobbit movies that will tie it tight to his Lord of the Rings.
We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.
Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure.
The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf.
With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.
This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway.
Oddly, with all this intensified focus on Bilbo, it seemed to me that Jackson kept losing track of him. Even in scenes in which Bilbo ought to have been our main focus, the camera seemed to have a hard time staying with him.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw An Unexpected Journey. The second time we went and when we watched it on DVD I didn’t notice it. The explanation I came up with then was that Jackson filmed it in 3D but we saw it on the screen in 2D which means Jackson had the camera focused on points that shifted in the translation. The second time we went my eye knew better where to look. That probably happened again this time out. We saw the 2D version. This might explain something else, as well.
There’s no point complaining anymore that Jackson didn’t need to make three movies out of a story that could have been told in one, which, by the way, I’m not so sure is the case. I think he would have had to rush things. Two movies, then. Two three hour movies, for sure. But he didn’t so we have what we have. And what we have so far are two two-hour and forty minute or so movies that I think could have benefited from being edited down to two-hours and thirty minutes or even two-hours and twenty. There seemed to be a lot of repetition within scenes. Images repeated each other. Dialog went on past the point where anything important or interesting was being said. Whole seconds went by at a time (and a second is a long time within a single shot) when nothing appeared to be going on. And I wonder if it was the case again that I just wasn’t seeing what the 3D camera was supposed to show.
This is either a reason that you should see The Desolation of Smaug in 3D or more evidence that 3D is a waste of time and gigabytes.
As for the movie as a movie apart from its place in Jackson’s grand scheme of things, it’s generally a rip-roaring good time with as much humor as An Unexpected Journey though with less comedy, if that makes sense.
The video game Jackson made of the barrel escape is fun and exciting because of the addition of the orcs and the elves and because it is integral to the plot. But the video game that ends the film is just a video game, and a routine one in which things appear and disappear just because they’re needed at the moment or they force the characters to continue on to the next level. Worse than that, however, is that coming where it does and going on and on as it does, it erases the effect of the great and key scene before it, Bilbo’s game of wits with Smaug.
And speaking of Smaug…actually, speaking of Smaug speaking, it was terrific news that Jackson had cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and face and body behind the motion capture) of Smaug. But went and made a huge mistake by not letting Smaug speak with Cumberbatch’s real voice. He’s distorted it so that Smaug roars and growls and snarls his way through his speechs in ways that could have been the work of any actor and that pretty much reduce Smaug to the level of a special effect like the orcs Azog and Bolg rather than a performance like Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
Smaug isn’t any old fire-breathing monster. He’s a highly intelligent dragon and, as these things go, a cultivated one. How much more appropriate and disturbing and frightening would it have been then if he spoke in Sherlock Holmes' plummy, seductive, and very human baritone? Plus, it would have been a treat for Sherlock fans to hear Freeman and Cumberbatch sounding like Watson and Holmes but talking to very different purpose.
So Cumberbatch’s kind of wasted. So is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn the skin-changer, although in his case it’s because his whole character is wasted. Beorn’s chess set is more interesting than he is. I expect, though, he’ll have more to do in There and Back Again.
But Lee Pace is definitely not wasted as Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the wood-elf king. Pace is marvelously and gorgeously languid and decadent and yet still sinister and menacing as a once upon a time noble warrior corrupted and weakened in spirit and will by fear, hatred, and, it appears, boredom resulting from having lived too long to no special purpose. Pace gives him an extra note of self-loathing that Thranduil nurses by making arbitrary decisions and doing and saying things that disgust him, which gets to back to why Legolas’ presence comes across as necessary. Pace’s Thranduil is another lost father or father-figure like Denethor and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings who needs to be saved from himself by his children, which, by the way, is maybe what Thorin ought to be doing, saving his father, who is wandering Middle-earth mad and lost, instead of pursuing his ambition to take his grandfather’s place as king. (That he’s not, turns out to be on Gandalf who is playing Realpolitik and using Thorin to use Bilbo to use Smaug to unite dwarfs, elves, and men in alliance against you know who.) At any rate, the question raised here that I presume will be answered in There and Back Again is whether Thandruil is redeemable like Theoden or irredeemably lost like Denethor.
Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin continue to the good work they started in An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. As Radagast the Brown, Barry Humphries has toned down the eccentricity and we can begin to see why Gandalf trusts Radagast.
Evangeline Lilly’s effectiveness as Tauriel will depend on what she does with what Jackson does with her in There and Back Again. As Bard, Luke Evans is suitably grim but his grimness has reason. It the book it’s just his temperament. Here it’s both a mask and a shield. There’s much more to Bard than he dares let on if he wants to protect himself and his family from the political intriguers who run Laketown. Still, like Lilly, most of what he’s doing in The Desolation of Smaug is setting up what he’ll be doing in There and Back Again.
Stephen Fry is having a high old time as the oily, craven, and debauched Master of Laketown, but he seems to have wandered in from another sort of movie. I’ve noticed this is often the case with Stephen Fry. Some of this is the effect of his being so much bigger and broader than the other actors around him. But I think a lot it is that he always seems to be having much more fun than everybody else as well.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien . Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Bell, and Lawrence Makoare. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Peter Jackson didn’t invent the eccentric woods-dwelling wizard Radagast the Brown and the cutsey and cuddly Disneyesque birds and animals that go with him for the The Hobbit movies. He just went to town with it. Radagast is a Tolkien creation. His original name, Aiwendil, means “Bird-friend” and Tolkien made him the wizard in charge of protecting Middle Earth’s flora and fauna. Terry Pratchett is obviously up on his Tolkien lore and makes use of it in his Discworld novels. So I got to think Sir Terry had Radagast in mind when he came up with Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University:
Unseen University had had many different kinds of Archchancellor over the years. Big ones, small ones, cunning ones, slightly insane ones, extremely insane ones---they’d come, they’d served, in some cases not long enough for anyone to be able to complete the official painting to be hung in the Great Hall, and they’d died. The senior wizard in a world of magic has the same prospects of long-term employment as a pogo stick tester in a minefield.
However, from the Bursar’s point of view this didn’t really have to matter. The name might change occasionally, but what did matter was that there always was an Archchancellor and the Archchancellor’s most important job, as the Bursar saw it, was to sign things, preferably, from the Bursar’s point of view, without reading them first.
This one was different. For one thing, he was hardly ever in, except to change out of his muddy clothes. And he shouted at people. Usually at the Bursar.
And yet, at the time, it had seemed a really good idea to select an Archchancellor who hadn’t set foot in the University in forty years.
There had been so much in-fighting between the various orders of wizardry in recent years that, just for once, the senior wizards had agreed that what the University needed was a period of stability, so that they could get on with their intriguing and scheming in peace and quiet for a few months. A search of the records turned up Ridcully the Brown who, after becoming a Seventh Level Mage at the incredibly young age of twenty-seven, had quit the University in order to look after the family’s estates deep in the country.
He looked ideal.
“Just the chap,” they all said. “Clean sweep. New broom. A country wizard. Back to the thingumajigs, the roots of wizardry. Jolly old boy with a pipe and twinkly eyes. Sort of chap who can tell one herb from another, roams the high forest with every beast his brother kind of thing. Sleeps under the stars, like as not. Knows what the wind is saying, we shouldn’t wonder. Got a name for all the trees, you can bank on it. Speaks to the birds, too.”
A messenger had been sent. Ridcully the Brown had sighed, cursed a bit, found his staff in the kitchen garden where it had been supporting a scarecrow, and had set out.
“And if he’s any problem,” the wizards had added, in the privacy of their own heads, “anyone who talks to trees should be no trouble to get rid of.”
And then he’d arrived, and it turned out that Ridcully the Brown did speak to the birds. In fact, he shouted at birds, and what he normally shouted was, “Winged you, yer bastard!” ---from Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
Aren’t three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen a part of every normal suburban family? Former villain turned good guy father and jam and jelly maker, Gru, deals with fallout from the household help’s helping out too much in Despicable Me 2.
[This week’s feature for Family Movie Night, Despicable Me 2. Now out on DVD and available for streaming. This is adapted from my dual review of Red 2 and Despicable Me 2, Bald-headed action-adventure heroes in retirement, which I posted in August when they were both still in the theaters.]
Red 2 isn’t as restrained or realistic as Despicable Me 2. Or as funny.
But in both Red and DM2 we have a bald, middle-aged retired action-adventure hero trying to live a normal life in the suburbs who gets dragged back into a world of mystery, danger, and suspense by the uninvited and unwelcome appearance of ghosts from his exciting past.
The difference is that, unlike Red’s Frank Moses, Gru isn't bored or alienated. He's quite happy, in fact. He has a new line of work, making jams and jellies in the underground laboratory and factory where he used to build the weapons and devices for his evil schemes. He fits in and gets along well with his neighbors---Most of them, at any rate.---and they like him. The mothers in the neighborhood, particularly, look out for him. They see Gru as a normal single dad doing an admirable job of raising his three adopted daughters on his own. And that's just it. Frank is lonely. Gru has Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They adore him, he adores them and would do anything for them, including, if the situation is desperate enough, dressing up as a fairy princess now and then.
But then those ghosts come calling. Gru, as reluctantly as Frank, although reluctant for very different reasons, gets back into the game and puts the old skills to work to save the day.
And that's about as far as the Red-Despicable Me 2 parallels go, because...
The temptation for makers of sequels, especially for makers of sequels to movies that didn't really need sequels, is to deliver more of the same with emphasis.
If something worked once in the original, then you can count on it being tried twice in the sequel. Or three times. Or four. Or four dozen. (See above.) As you might expect, in Despicable Me 2 that means more minions.
Now, as a fan of the minions, I might have been inclined to feel you can't have too many minions. But directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud don't test that. They give us more but in a way that feels like less. Not less as in not enough. Less as in always leave 'em wanting more.
The minions get more scenes and more to do. There's more minion slapstick. More minion singing and dancing. More minion involvement in the plot. But we see them more on their own terms. They have lives, you know.
Freed from having to spend their workdays in the underground lab---it doesn't take as many minions to make jams and jellies as to build shrink rays and rocket ships--- Gru's core group of minions, Dave, Stuart, Lance, Jerry, Carl, and Kevin, have assigned themselves key jobs in the running of the Gru household and are, generally, handling things so well that Gru has learned to take them and their efforts for granted. In fact it's not until the WiFi goes out and Kevin doesn't come running to fix it that Gru starts to suspect there's trouble brewing at home, although his first thought is that Kevin has taken another vacation day without putting in for it.
But because Gru takes the minions for granted, we do too. They don't exactly sneak into scenes. It's more the case that their being there is such a given that it takes a minute to remember that three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen aren't a part of every normal suburban family.
There's another temptation for sequel makers, the temptation to undo the happy ending of the original in order to redo it in a slightly different but still safely familiar way, and this one Despicable Me 2 avoids completely.
Gru doesn't fall back into his evil ways. He's truly reformed, a really good good guy. The girls aren't taken from him, so he doesn't have to prove his worthiness as a loving and loveable father all over again. The moon doesn't need to be stolen again. Vector, thankfully, doesn't return as the villain.
Despicable Me 2 quietly picks up Gru where Despicable Me left him, cheerfully and contentedly at home, a devoted family man with three loving daughters, the foundations of a full and happy life safely laid, lacking for nothing except---
No, not adventure.
Enter Lucy Wilde, an overly enthusiastic rookie agent for the Anti-Villain League who arrives to forcibly recruit Gru in an effort to track down and thwart a mysterious new supervillain whose evil scheme will eventually involve cupcakes, chickens, a threat to the minions, and a lot of purple.
Lucy is voiced by Kristen Wiig but that hardly matters any more than it matters that it’s Steve Carell doing the voice of Gru. Like Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 is very close to being a silent movie. Not that it is very close to being silent. But it could be and we’d still get it. Almost all its humor is visual and much of its exposition is delivered visually too. Lucy looks and moves funny, but what she really brings to the story, which Despicable Me lacked, besides a grown-up female lead, is a visual complement to Gru.
I like the style of both the original and the sequel. They don’t look any other CGI cartoons. I can’t identify all their influences, but Gru is clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and in Despicable Me he was alone in that. But Lucy could be one of Gorey’s ballerinas, slender, apparently boneless, and liquidy, except cheerful and always in motion instead of at rest or frozen in mid-plie. Actually, she never rests. And in her company Gru never rests either. He becomes graceful. I should say, more graceful. Together they’re paired in a continual slapstick tango.
I don’t think you need to have seen Despicable Me first in order to enjoy Despicable Me 2, although it’s probably better if you did. But coming out of the theater, I had the feeling that I liked Despicable Me 2 more than the original. Not a lot more. But more. I’m not sure why. It may have been that all the sentimentality of Gru’s reformation and adoptive fatherhood was gotten out of the way. It may have been that I was just glad Vector wasn’t back. He was a truly annoying villain. It may have been that Lucy really was exactly what was needed to complete things. It may have been that Gru makes an even better hero than he did a villain.
It may have been the tortilla chip hats.
It may have been that it was simply a better made movie all around.
Who am I kidding?
I know what it was.
From July 2010, my review of the first Despicable Me, I’ve got to hire me some minions.
Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, screenplay by Ken Dorio and Cinco Paul. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, and Kristen Schaal. 98 minutes. Rated PG. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Hugh Jackman, acting with every muscle in his body, snarls, growls, slashes, claws, and dances his way through The Wolverine, an X-Men movie with more in common with The Bourne Identity than with the other X-Men movies.
When I was kid blowing what was left of my allowance and lawn mowing money after blowing it on baseball cards, Hardy Boys books, GI Joe equipment on comic books and deep enough into superhero legend and lore that I could spend an afternoon with my friends debating who would win in a fight, Batman or Daredevil, Aquaman or Submariner, I wasn’t much interested in spending an afternoon in debating who would win in those fights or any matchup of DC and Marvel superheroes.
I couldn’t get worked up over an argument that as a staunch DC fan I felt was over before it began.
We had Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. Over and done.
Marvel’s best hope was in having Reed Richards on its side and I figured that proved the point. In order to have a chance Marvel would have to resort to…science? Come on. Play fair.
The kid in me still influences my thinking on this and I still put the odds in DC's favor when it’s a matchup of superheroes.
But when it’s a matchup of actors who play superheroes?
Whole nother ballgame.
Of course, at this point Marvel has the advantage of having produced many more movies.
But you can still work up some intriguing matchups that produce decisive DC wins.
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman vs Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon vs Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson.
Heath Ledger as the Joker vs William Dafoe as the Green Goblin.
And a couple of no-decisions:
Diane Lane as Martha Kent vs Sally Field as Aunt May.
Michael Caine as Alfred vs Paul Bettany as Jarvis.
Kidding on the last one.
Caine wins on points.
But as far as the heroes go:
Henry Cavill or Brandan Routh vs Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans?
Ryan Reynolds vs anyone except Halle Berry (who can be paired off against herself and lose either way. It’ll be interesting to see Ben Affleck’s Batman opposed to his Daredevil, which in comic book fan heaven is the ideal matchup)?
Even DC’s Great Bat-Hope, Christian Bale, enters the arena a sure loser as he has to go up against Robert Downey Jr.
To be fair to Bale, Christopher Nolan fixed the fight against his own boy here by losing interest in Batman and Bruce Wayne in the last two movies and leaving Bale nothing to work with but uninspired lines of exposition that it didn’t matter Bale growled his way through unintelligibly.
At any rate, there’s nothing to be gained for DC in taking this any further. Even excluding Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as the ringers they are, Marvel’s bench is just way too deep.
A happier and more satisfying waste of time is to imagine matchups between stars of the three main Marvel franchises, the Avengers, Spider-man (and for the purposes of my argument I’m treating the Maguire-Rami trilogy and the reboot with Andrew Garfield as one and the same), and X-Men.
Actually, it’s inspiring, just making a list of the great and good actors appearing throughout the Marvel movie universes who aren’t there to camp it up but to act.
The Avengers: Downey, Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Tobey Jones, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier they’re adding Robert Redford.
Spider-Man: Maguire, Dafoe, Field, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Hayden Church, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, and, coming up, Paul Giamatti, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Cooper.
X-Men: This was the weakest until the reboot brought in Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Kevin Bacon. It wasn’t that the acting was bad. It was just that the casts have been mostly made up of male and female starlets who’ve gone nowhere and second-tier character actors without star power of their own. Brain Cox is terrific but he’s no Tommy Lee Jones or Stanley Tucci. (Like I said, I disqualify Stewart and McKellan as ringers.) There’s been one magnificent exception and, based on the title of this post and the picture up top, you’re already ahead of me on this, aren’t you?
By now, just about everyone with taste and judgment and a sense of fun who loves movies outside the Hollywood award-giving community and a few of the more effete of the elite film critics takes it as a given that a part in a comic book movie is a respectable gig and that it’s possible for the actors in one to deliver performances that are as nuanced, convincing, and true to life as in any reverent biopic, sentimental foreign import, or Scorsese-directed or influenced cinematic opera.
Christopher Reeve set the standard, but I’d make the case that it was Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, with an assist from Bruce Willis as John McClane in the first Die Hard, who showed that that comic book heroes or what are essentially comic book heroes could be played as grownups, by grownups, for grownups.
The travesty that devolved from Tim Burton’s Batman could have derailed the trend. Thankfully, Marvel decided that DC’s failures had nothing to do with them and along came X-Men.
There was some necessary cheating for respectability with the casting of Stewart and McKellan seeming like a doubling of what George Lucas managed to pull off having Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars, as if Lucas had also managed to sign Lawrence Olivier for the part of Grand Moff Tarkin. But, also like Star Wars, zippy storytelling and the director’s faith in the material carried the movie. But, also again like Star Wars, the movie was made even better by the fortuitous casting of a charismatic and savvy actor as a secondary character who used the part the way Harrison Ford used Han Solo to turn himself into a star.
Hugh Jackman became to the X-Men franchise what Ford was to Star Wars. And, still following Ford’s example, this time as Indiana Jones, Jackman showed that playing a live-action cartoon character wasn’t just a launching pad to stardom. It was a job for a star.
A star who could and did act.
As Wolverine, Jackman set the scene for Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, and, ultimately, Robert Downey Jr.
With that, you could say Jackman’s work here was done.
If you bothered with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you’re probably thinking, Too bad Jackman and Marvel didn’t see it that way and leave well enough alone.
You can also understand, though, why four years later they’d want to try again with The Wolverine.
And if you’re a fan, you’ll be glad they did.
But here’s the real news. You don’t have to be a fan---of Wolverine, of Marvel, of superhero or comic book movies in general---to enjoy The Wolverine. I’m assuming you’re a Hugh Jackman fan because who isn’t, but you don’t have to be a fan of him either. The Wolverine might make you one, but you don’t have to be.
The Wolverine is only technically a superhero movie. It’s only nominally connected to the previous X-Men movies and there’s little in it to connect it with next summer’s Days of Future Past. In style, tone, narrative structure, and overall effect, it has little in common with any superhero movie that’s come before it and a lot in common with simpler, more straightforward, and---these things being relative---realistic action-adventure movies like Taken and The Bourne Identity. In fact, it’s very much like those two films. A lone hero with a very special set of skills has to stay alive and save the girl while running a gantlet of bad guys. The difference is Wolverine doesn’t have to find weapons or improvise them as he goes. He is the weapon.
The fate of humankind isn’t at stake. There’s no cackling supervillain bent on world domination or destruction. Backstory is minimal which means so’s exposition. The story’s told mainly through visuals, character development is done on the fly, and our rooting interest in the hero depends on his being played by a star who can carry the plot and convey everything we need to know about what the character’s thinking and feeling while implying depth and emotion the script doesn’t actually provide without having to say very much. In a way, these movies require a dancer in the lead role, and while you might not think of Liam Neeson or Matt Damon as dancers, Hugh Jackman is one. A song and dance man, at any rate, and his Wolverine is as athletic and balletic as Gene Kelly.
Somewhat less cheerful, of course.
Here’s all you need to know about Wolverine going in. Logan, the name he’s known by to friends and his more intimate enemies---I can’t recall if he’s ever referred to as Wolverine in The Wolverine---is a mutant, a human being with abilities that are essentially magic powers explained away by genetics, the next step in evolution, yadda yadda, science. Logan is superstrong, super-agile, superquick and has the ability to heal from just about any wounds almost instaneously. Shoot him, stab him, beat him, pin-cushion him with arrows or burn him up in a nuclear firestorm and you’ll slow him down for a second or two while the holes you put in him close up, the bruises fade, and the burnt skin sloughs off, then he’ll come back at you again.
Time’s passage is a continual wound or series of wounds but Logan regenerates and rejuvenates without pause, so he’s pretty much immortal as well as close to invulnerable.
He also has a pair of retractable claws that shoot out of the knuckles on the backs of his hands and are made of metal not bone. Don’t worry about it.
Once you accept that his claws are like other action-adventure heroes’ guns and his ability to take a bullet like their ability to dodge one, the superhero aspect is practically ignorable.
When we meet up with him at the beginning of The Wolverine, Logan’s cut himself off from his superhero friends and teammates and, as for all they matter to this story, from the previous X-Men movies. He’s retreated to the great north woods to be alone with his demons and his grief. Time can’t touch him physically, but it weighs heavy on his heart and his soul. The woman who haunts his dreams is a character from the X-men (comics and films) but you don’t need to know who she is. In fact, it’s probably better you don’t know, and if you do know, try to forget because who wants to bring her back to life? What’s important is she’s the love of his life and she’s dead. He’s not trying forget the past, though. He’s avoiding his future, desperately trying to live in an eternal but imaginary present in which she is still alive. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the past and the future to come calling together in the person of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a henna-haired female ninja who can swing a katana with as deadly effect as Logan can use his claws. She’s been sent by an old friend of Logan’s, a former Japanese soldier whose life Logan saved during the bombing of Nagasaki now an extremely rich old man dying of an intractable disease all the money in the world can’t cure. The old man wants Logan to come to Japan to say goodbye and to thank him again for his long and prosperous life by giving him the gift of the thing the old man believes Logan wants most.
The trip is a trick. The old man’s idea of a gift is selfish and perverse. Logan prepares to return home to get back to his brooding. But…there’s a girl.
And she needs saving.
Soon Logan is slashing and clawing, smashing and brawling his way up and and down the Japanese archipelago, taking on Yakuza and ninjas and leaving a trail of blood that to his amazement includes puddles of his own. Somehow his power to rejuvenate has been arrested. His wounds aren’t healing. Each new fight leaves him weaker and more demoralized.
He keeps going, of course. Having someone else to fight for gives him something to live for. This is the closest The Wolverine comes to expressing any comic book subtext. Logan doesn’t come out and say, Oh that’s right, I’m a superhero! This is my job! But we know that’s where his thinking’s headed.
It’s just a question of his living long enough to get there.
Even if Logan was inclined to talk about his feelings, he doesn’t have anybody to talk about them with, which is another way of saying that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have anybody to play off of in The Wolverine.
The most interesting supporting character---who is practically the only other character with a character. The rest are mainly attitudes, poses, and plot points---Fukishima’s Yukio keeps disappearing from the plot for long stretches at a time. Tao Okamoto, who plays Moriko, the damsel in distress, is there to center the camera and give us something calm and lovely to focus on so that we’re not too dizzied by the storms of violence and mayhem filling up the screen around her. The bad guys and their henchmen are obstacles and targets. The only real interplay between Logan and any of them is a dance on the top of a bullet train, an almost comic pas de deux in which Logan and his opponent have to take cues from one another and follow each other’s leads in order not to bet knocked off or blown off the train in between exchanges of kicks, punches, and body slams. The result is that all the acting in the movie is left to Jackman. And he delivers, despite not having a lot to work with.
On the page, Wolverine isn’t much more than a snarl, a growl, and the snick-snick sound of his claws coming out. But even if he was a more talkative type and had somebody to talk to, chase movies can’t slow down to give their characters time to soliloquize. What Jackman does, though, is give us an extended visual soliloquy, Logan’s To be or not to be expressed in movement instead of words, words, words. Like I said, it’s a dance.
Jackman puts every muscle to work. It’s not just that he has fifteen different ways to frown and a dozen more to grin menacingly. He can make a twitch of a deltoid do the work of a frown or a menacing grin and put as much expression into a bunching of his shoulders as the best Shakespearean actors have in their voices. Which, of course, is the mark of a true movie star. Movie stars know how to move. And this is why stars should play superheroes. It’s not a matter of filling out the costume and striking the right pose. Superheroes dance. Which is why Robert Downey Jr is the best of the stars playing superheroes. Sure, he’s good with the wisecracks. But when he puts Tony Stark to work at a virtual keyboard or with a sledgehammer, he’s dancing.
Jackman is dancing in The Wolverine.
You don’t have to be a fan to get caught up in The Wolverine. If you’re not, the only question that will concern you is Will Logan save the girl and in the process save himself?
If you’re a fan, there’s an added question: Does The Wolverine save the Wolverine as a character?
If you’re that kind of fan, there’s one more.
Who would win in a fight? Robert Downey’s Iron Man or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine?
The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Starring Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, and Haruhiko Yamanouchi. Rated PG-13. 1 hour and 26 minutes. Now available on DVD and to The Wolverine at Amazon.