Thursday, January 30, 2020
One of the best surprises of the year, highlighted by two amazing performances: How wonderful to see Hopkins gleefully rediscover skin-crawling creepiness and Pryce get to play a genuine hero for the first time in years (though both popes turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.) (It’s fascinating to compare Pryce’s performance here to “Game of Thrones” where he got to play the evil version of the same character, and did an equally good job.)
Tip: Give them a Fit Bit
The play, as far as I can tell, just consists of two men, a pope and a pope-to-be, sitting in a room and talking for two hours. The movie has to “open the story up”, and it does so in various expected ways (It adds little moments away from the confrontation, it dramatizes the stories Francis tells about his past, etc.) but it also uses a trick I found amusing: Benedict is wearing a Fit Bit, and, as anyone married to a Fit Bit user knows, it’s constantly telling him he has to get up and walk around, so the two keep having to get up and walk from room to room (and of course these are some of the most spectacular rooms in the world). It’s a good humanizing detail, and it livens up the visuals at the same time.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Tip: Give Them Ironic Motivation
This movie does something interesting. It gives Chapman a personal motivation for his mission (which felt a little contrived): if he succeeds he may save his brother’s life. Despite knowing that, MacKay, worried for his own life, says maybe they should refuse orders. Then the movie kills off Chapman halfway through the mission. MacKay didn’t feel he owed it to Chapman to help save his brother when he was alive, but he does feel that obligation once Chapman is dead. That’s nicely ironic.
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
This is, in many ways, a great film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (Oh how I wish I could take this movie’s cinematography and transfer it over to Harriet!) The performances are great (though in almost every case, the performances in the 1994 version were even better), but it never drew me in all the way.
What ultimately alienated me from this version is the timeline-rearranging. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why Gerwig did it and I never came up with an answer. The plot turns in the book are so moving, so why spoil them all up-front? And it put Gerwig in the position of having to work hard to differentiate Beth’s two illness, which now play out simultaneously. She did so with the tired trick of color-tinting one blue and the other gold, which drew attention to itself and still didn’t work.
As for the big change to the ending of the story, it’s fine. Alcott intentionally chose to disappoint the reader, and by doing so she made a powerful statement about women’s choices in the 19th century, but Gerwig (like lots of modern readers) couldn’t accept that disappointment. She wanted a more heroic ending, and she cleverly found it by borrowing from Alcott’s own life-story. As it turns out, that does indeed make for a satisfying ending, and one can hardly criticize Gerwig as not being true to the 19th century, when this is the version that really happened. It’s a neat trick. (Of course, at some point we’ll get a fifth version which acknowledges the real possibility that Jo is lesbian and/or trans, and then this one will look dated.)
Monday, January 27, 2020
The score (by the usually great Terence Blanchard) is ham-handed. The cinematography is very flat. This was obviously going to be a very hard movie to light, since Tubman’s whole trick was that she would travel through the woods on moonless nights, and thank god they didn’t shoot it day-for-night (You scoff that they never would have done that, but X-Men: Apocalypse had a day-for-night scene set in the woods at night, and that movie came out just three years ago), but their solution is just to have big blue flood lights on at all times, so bright that even when people light lanterns those lanterns cast shadows. How I wish this movie could borrow the cinematographer from Little Women. Even better, imagine this movie had been shot like The Revenant (another big-19th-century-foot-trek movie).
But ultimately, my big concern is Tubman herself, both in writing and performance.
Cynthia Erivo is fine, and I don’t mind that she got an Oscar nomination, but ultimately I wanted a performance with a little more interiority. Ten years ago, I gave this advice to actors and actresses: Always look like you’ve got a secret. Harriet Tubman was a woman with a lot of secrets, but Erivo plays her as too much of an open book.
In terms of the writing, I feel like the major turning point in Tubman’s life was the moment when, after years of asking God to change her owner’s heart, she reluctantly asked instead that God take his life, and the man unexpectedly died the next day. That, understandably and correctly, convinced her that she had superpowers, and she acted accordingly from that point on. The prayer is in the movie, but the camera isn’t even on Tubman at the time, it’s on her owner’s son. And we don’t see her find out that the owner is dead. We never get that “Holy shit, God does what I say, this changes everything” moment. That’s Tubman’s secret, and I wish it fired up the movie more.
Sunday, January 26, 2020
Ford vs. Ferrari (As with all my write-ups, this will have spoilers)
A great old fashioned man’s-man sports movie, thrillingly shot, scored, and edited. I’ve always found Mangold to be overrated (I didn’t like Logan, as you’ll recall), but this felt like a real breakthrough for me (at least in the coveted category of “pleasing Matt Bird”). You all know from my previous lists that I love Bale and Damon, and their riveting performances here (in roles that aren’t very showy) show why they’re my favorites.
Tip: Sports Heroes Should Win By Losing or Lose By Winning
You know I love irony, right? That’s come up before. Of course, sports movies always risk being unironic. Trying to win and then winning is unironic, but trying to win and then losing just feels like a bummer. The solution, of course, is to find a more ironic (and thereby satisfying) choice: Either win by losing or lose by winning.
The writers of this movie found a true story with a wild ending that’s packed with irony. They spend the whole movie (including the title) preparing us for a big showdown with Ferrari …but then Ferrari is eliminated before the final race ends! So then what the hell movie are we watching? But then Bale must confront his real demon: his self-destructive pride. His corporate bosses make an outrageous demand of him, and he at first refuses to comply, but then he realizes it’s time to let go of his pride and share the win. In the end, he officially “loses” the race, but he’s won by losing. Agreeing to share the win shows that he’s not a jerk anymore.
Thursday, January 23, 2020
Next, as has become a recent tradition, I will spotlight just some of the movies that are pointedly not on the list. If you have no wish for negativity, come back on Sunday when I will start celebrating the best!
Not on the List: The Irishman
- The onscreen title of this movie is “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which is also the title of the book. Clearly, somebody changed the title at the last second, but why? And of all the thousands of titles they could have chosen, why that one? They cast an Italian-American in the lead role. He is in no way conveying the fact that he is playing an Irishman. That’s fine—I have Irish relatives that look enough like De Niro—but then why call it The Irishman? Why call attention to something they are not conveying in any way?
- Not since WB hastily removed Superman’s mustache has a CGI job looked this bad. This movie might best be described as “Polar Express Meets Goodfellas”. As with Justice League, an unpaid fan has used free Deep Fake technology to improve the effects greatly and posted the results on YouTube. I realize that Hollywood is terrified of Deep Fake, but if you’re going to keep making movies like this, you have to embrace it. What really hurt is that it was released the same year as Captain Marvel, which became the first movie to flawlessly de-age a major character for the whole runtime. But, to be fair, Samuel L. Jackson wears his years a lot of lighter than Robert De Niro does.
- At one point early on, buried in the avalanche of voiceover, De Niro casually mentions that, between scenes, he left his wife and family for another woman. This is in a 3 and a half hour movie! You can’t devote ten minutes to the everyday tragedy of that? Take a look at the first ten minutes of Up! You can pack a lot of emotion into ten minutes! I felt very gratified that De Niro did not get an Oscar nomination, because his character is utterly uncompelling. He gets 45 minutes of build-up before the real plot begins, and then another 45 minutes of wind-down after the plot ends, but all the non-Hoffa screentime is just inert, because De Niro is giving us almost nothing. I want my 3 ½ hours back.
Not on the List: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
- I’ve always thought Leonardo DiCaprio is our most overrated actor. He was great in Titanic and Catch Me if You Can, but he’s only convincing in boy-ish roles, and any time he tries to play a grown man it feels like a middle-school production of “The Iceman Cometh”. Has he ever been more miscast than he is in this movie? Washed-up cowboy actor, reduced to playing TV villains, finds a second life as a Spaghetti Western star? Why would you cast someone who can’t grow a convincing beard in a Spaghetti Western? I didn’t buy it.
- Pitt is fine, but he’s not digging deep. I’m not going to find anybody bad-ass when the movie is trying so hard to make him seem bad-ass, even having him beat up Bruce Lee! I hope the ghost of the real Bruce comes back and kicks the asses of both Pitt and Tarantino.
- The most excited I got while watching this movie was when Maya Hawke from “Stranger Things” Season Three was on screen for two minutes. That season was great cinema. This was not. Great soundtrack though, as always.
Not on the List: Frozen II
- I’ve just discovered that, when my father built that dam for the indigenous tribe north of us, he didn’t have their best interest at heart. And so, immediately upon hearing this, I will run over and destroy the dam without asking anyone in the tribe if that’s okay with them. Equity achieved!
- I thought everything about this movie was pretty dreadful: The songs, the personal arcs, the character work… The massive new mythology was way too indebted to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” but it suffers mightily from that comparison.
Not on the List: Avengers: Endgame
- Unlike the above 3, I adored this movie and I love that it beat out Avatar to become the most successful movie of all time. There’s just one thing keeping it out of the top 10: They should have just restored things back to the point of the snap! Yes, it would have felt odd for Tony to wipe his own kid out of existence, but refusing to erase five years of horrific trauma for everybody in the entire universe is worse, Tony! And I spent the whole movie distracted, thinking “This five year gap is gonna totally screw up every movie they try to make from this point forward!” And then the latest Spider-Man movie came out and yeah, it was totally screwed up by the five year gap. Just undo the snap! A terrible decision marring an otherwise-great film.
Sunday, January 19, 2020
The Secrets of Story Podcast · Episode 15: Should Novelists Follow Screenwriting Advice, featuring Parker PeevyhouseHi everybody, we’re about to do our year-end wrap-up, but first we’ve got a new podcast, and it’s a good one! We have a special guest appearance from novelist Parker Peevyhouse! She has two acclaimed novels and a third one that’s coming out this week, and she proposed stopping by with a juicy question: Should novelists follow screenwriting advice? The result is a pretty great episode where we really get to the heart of what this podcast is about! (And James has a proposed addition to Believe Care Invest!)
Monday, January 13, 2020
- The Indian Province of Kerala in 1992: 29 year old Rahel returns after many years away to help her troubled twin brother Estha. She quickly becomes overwhelmed with memories of different times, including the death of a girl named Sophie Mol when Rahel and Estha were 7.
Believe: It’s easy to believe in the reality of this world because every line of the book explodes with vivid, unique imagery that literally brings this world to life: The first line is, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” then we hear that “the countryside turns an immodest green.” Months brood, colors have feelings—everything is alive in this world.
But what really makes the novel seem so utterly real us is the way it intimately captures the crazy logic of childhood. Our own childhoods may not have been as traumatic as Rahel’s, but Roy captures with startling intimacy the way a 7 year-old thinks. To read the book to is to feel like a child again, not in an aw-shucks kind of way, but in an “Oh, right, childhood was weird” kind of way. Rahel is convinced that she would have gotten free bus rides for life if she had been born on a bus, and she’s convinced that the government pays for your funeral if you die in a zebra crossing. That’s harmless enough …but she’s also convinced that Sophie is still alive in her coffin, which is less so.
Care: It will take us a while to understand every trauma that happened in those terrible two weeks in 1969, but we do get just a sense in these first ten pages of each of the various traumas that still have both Rahel and Estha in their grip:
- The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did something to Estha (which we can already correctly guess to be molestation)
- Their cousin Sophie Mol drowned, and perhaps they’re to blame
- A man named Velutha seems to have been killed by the police because of Sophie’s death, and perhaps the kids are to blame for that as well due to some further sin of theirs.
- As a result of all of the above, the closer-than-close twins were sent to live in different cities until now.
- Estha stopped speaking not long thereafter and has never spoken since.
- In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
- Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
- She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
- She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
- And these are only the small things.
Invest: Like any good hero, Rahel shows up on page one on a heroic mission. Her brother has finally come home, there’s something wrong with him, and she must come home as well to try and fix him. Most of the pages will be devoted to her fractured memories of what happened to them in those two weeks in 1969, but we will regularly check in on her modern day attempts to get through to Estha, which she will do …in a fashion. It is only because we are invested in this modern-day mission that we are willing to do the hard work of piecing together their past.
But of course, as with most literary fiction, we are really rooting for Rahel to deal with her own pain. As she and we sort through the shattered pieces of her traumatized psyche, we feel a shared sense of accomplishment. We have to struggle to piece together a coherent story, which can make for a frustrating reading experience, but ultimately, those who do the work the novel requires will feel all the more bonded to the heroine, because she is undergoing the same struggle. She and we are working together to make sense of her life, and we feel a shared sense of accomplishment as the jigsaw pieces slowly click together. Of course, as with any old jigsaw puzzle, we’ll never find all the pieces, but we’ll have enough in the end to get a sense of the total picture.
Thursday, January 09, 2020
- A rural area outside Cincinatti, Ohio in 1873: Escaped slave Sethe is haunted by her baby’s ghost. Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law who originally owned her house, has died and her two sons have run away in fear of the ghost, leaving her alone with her quiet 18 year old daughter Denver. Paul D, an old acquaintance from her plantation days, stops by and quickly realizes the house is haunted. He banishes the ghost and becomes Sethe’s lover.
Believe: Morrison has a lot of big jobs in front of her. As with any novelist, she must describe thing with unique similes we haven’t read before (a gravestone is “pink as a fingernail”), then she must make the 19th century come to life with details unique to that century (slop jars, a kettleful of chickpeas, the house’s “keeping room”), then she must make the horrors of slavery come alive (the scars on Sethe’s back are in the shape of a “chokecherry tree”) and ideally she can do all three in one phrase, such as when we hear that one of Sethe’s memories is “as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”
Morrison’s utter unique character descriptions are perfect models of efficiency. Here’s how Paul D. sees Sethe: “A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.” Here’s how Sethe sees Paul D: “Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed.”
One way to make characters feel unique is to give them things they won’t normally do, and then we know the significance of a change in that behavior. Denver notes that Paul D. is “someone her mother wanted to talk to and would even consider talking to while barefoot.” Sethe has unique values that define her, and then she makes an exception, showing how these events are shifting her world.
Already in these first ten pages, we totally believe in the reality of this world. We sense that Morrison surely must have been there in person to have noticed all these odd little details that no one could just make up.
Care: On the one hand, these characters are very easy to care about. They are, after all, the victims of America’s greatest atrocity. Who in our history has suffered more than they? But Morrison knows that it’s hard to conceive of the horror of slavery. Most of her readers had seen “Roots” ten years earlier, so they knew about the vicious whippings, the omnipresent rape, and having your children sold away from you, and they were inured to it. But of course slavery is an unending fount of horror, and Morrison used her research to gouge through the calloused skin of her readers and make the wounds fresh.
Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs has had all of her eight children taken from her. How can we conceive of the magnitude of that? The horror comes alive when she says, “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that?” The fact that she only has one memory of the toddler that was taken from her is staggering, but the memory is fascinatingly bizarre (and thus convincing). Likewise, Morrison knows she must confront the reality of rape, but she must make the horror fresh. For Sethe, what made it so horrific was that she was nursing at the time and “they took my milk.”
In the modern day story, things are going better for Sethe, as a lover emerges as if from nowhere and eases her burden a little, but we only believe in this relationship because it’s not as easy as it should be. Sethe is amazed to see Paul D. and asks “Is that you?” to which he honesty answers, “What’s left.” Later, she says, “You could stay the night, Paul D,” and he parries with “You don't sound too steady in the offer.” Neither feels entitled to happiness and they’re wary of it. She recalls that he’s always “treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.” Even when the romance develops quickly, as it does in this book, always make your heroes scratch for it a bit, and we’ll care about the relationship so much more.
Invest: Of course, the ghost story of course also need unique details, to separate it from a million other ghost stories. Here the ghost-baby picks on their poor dog, which is named “Here Boy”, and Denver remembers Sethe’s fierce reaction:
- And when the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue, still her mother had not looked away. She had taken a hammer, knocked the dog unconscious, wiped away the blood and saliva, pushed his eye back in his head and set his leg bones. He recovered, mute and off-balance, more because of his untrustworthy eye than his bent legs, and winter, summer, drizzle or dry, nothing could persuade him to enter the house again.
No, in these opening chapters, we invest our hopes in Paul D, which is easy enough to do, as he shows traditionally manly traits and stands up to the ghost right away:
- A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” The quaking slowed to an occasional lurch, but Paul D did not stop whipping the table around until everything was rock quiet.
Sunday, January 05, 2020
- The fantasy kingdom of Westeros: Three rangers patrol north of “The Wall” and encounter ice zombies. One survives and flees, but he is caught south of the wall and executed for desertion by Lord Eddard Stark. We see this through the eyes of Eddard’s young son Bran. On the way home, the Starks find a litter of direwolves and adopt them.
It’s fascinating to re-read this first chapter, knowing what we know now. For the past twenty years, readers have been saying to themselves, “Why do we start with Bran?? He’s such a minor character!” Little did we suspect that he would win the game of thrones! Maybe Martin knew what he was doing all along.
But before we get to Bran, we start with a prologue. As with “Hitchhiker’s”, these pages are not yet identified as “Chapter One”, so we sense that we need not fall in love with these characters, but this prologue is longer, so if we didn’t find the characters and situation compelling we’d probably stop reading.
Ultimately, we will realize that these opening pages prefigure the whole series. Our POV character watches as a grizzled old veteran ranger, whose sword is “nicked from hard use,” is led into disaster by a “lordling” whose sword has never “been swung in anger” (the ultimate insult in this manly world). Over the course of the next three books, both the North and South of Westeros will be led into disaster by too-young lords that are ill-prepared for leadership.
We never find out enough the prologue’s POV character Will to Believe-Care-Invest, but we certainly do so for the veteran Gerad, who gets lots of details, suffers mightily, and shows his clever skills. We even come to appreciate the lordling Royce who, in a nice ironic turn, dies bravely. We sense that these aren’t our heroes, and don’t really invest our hopes and dreams in them, but we can tell from these pages that Martin can make us identify with heroes, if he wants to, and we trust him going forward.
Another thing this intro establishes is Martin’s greatest strength: his ability to put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Over and over in this series, Martin will fool the reader into thinking that the heroes will triumph, only for something awful to happen. The most essential line in this introduction is this:
- For a moment, he dared to hope.
But we still haven’t met any main characters, so let’s move on to Chapter 1, which is named “Bran.” Right away, we start getting a little nervous: We find out in the first paragraph that Bran is seven years old! Is this a kids book? It doesn’t seem so from the page count. Martin is basically counting on us to flip ahead and see that the book’s 73 chapters will be credited to 8 different third-person POVs, and Bran will only get 7 of those chapters. We sense that Bran is not going to solve the book’s big problems, so we need not fully invest our hopes and dreams in him.
So Martin has a tricky task, we’re meeting our main cast now, but we’re meeting them though the POV of a (seemingly) minor character. His goal in the first real chapter is to get us to believe in and care for this family, and then, through Bran’s eyes, search for some member of the family other than Bran that we can invest our hopes and dreams in.
Believe In: After reading the prologue we already believe in the reality of this world. Martin is mostly Italian-American and grew up in a New Jersey housing project in the 1960s, and yet he convinces that surely he must have lived in medieval England at some point with his wealth of detail.
And Bran is a believable seven year old: Eager to be included in adult things but anxious about what he might see. We are told it’s been summer for nine years but winter is coming, so seven year old Bran is about to know the cold for the first time, which is a metaphor for the chilling step into reality we all must take on the brink of adolescence.
Care For: This is tricky because Bran is not suffering all that much. Sure, he feels cold, and he’s being forced to watch a man being beheaded, which disturbs him, and later he almost has to watch some wolf-puppies put to death... but the real reason we care about Bran is because we sense, from reading the prologue, that the ice-zombies will eventually come for him, and he’s so terribly unaware of this. (In fact they will come just for him, though those who stick to the books may never find that out). We care for him because we can see what he can’t see.
The novel’s multiple-POV structure ensures that we will always know more about what’s going on than any of the POV characters we’re reading about, not just plot-wise, but also morally. We know from the prologue that the deserter had a good reason to flee, which none of the Starks bother to elicit. Each POV-jump for the rest of the book will follow this pattern. There will never be a character that understands this world as fully as the reader does. Only we can see the ironic contrasts between these points of view. Only we know how tragic all of these events truly are. We care about these characters in an almost godly way: What fools these mortals be.
Invest In: We’re in an odd position: We discover that we were correct not invest our hopes in any of the characters from the prologue, and we can’t really invest in a seven year old boy, but we can tell that the Starks are going to be our main characters, so we examine them through Bran’s eyes, looking for a hero.
The most obvious choice is Eddard, who seems like a manly and responsible Lord in his insistence on being the one who swings the beheading sword himself. And if we’ve flipped ahead, we know that he will have the most POV chapters. But we also can see that Eddard has a limited perspective. He dismisses what Will has to say without really listening, leaving his kingdom eventually vulnerable to zombie attack. And of course, as fantasy readers, we’re conditioned to seek out young heroes so we’re also looking at his sons, whether adopted, blood, or bastard.
It’s easy to dismiss Theon Greyjoy, Eddard’s ward:
- The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.
But it’s not so easy to choose between Eddard’s bastard son Jon or his official heir Robb:
- “Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.
- It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sun was higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony struggling hard to keep up with their horses.
- “The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He had courage, at the least.”
- “No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it in his eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.
- Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”
Of course, on some level, the moral of the prologue lingers in our minds: Don’t trust lordlings like Robb. They’ll get you killed.
As with any fantasy author, Martin is asking a lot of his readers: He’s asking us to commit to a long book with lots of characters. In the end, this book will not end satisfactorily, demanding we read the next and the next in a search for satisfaction that will never end, because it’s more than two decades later and it seems likely Martin will never finish the book series.
Ultimately, there’s only one reason to read this series: Because it is pleasurable to read each chapter. Martin will not honor the pledges that most authors make to their readers, but we will forgive him for that, because the books are so enjoyable.
Friday, January 03, 2020
’s / New Decade’s resolution on January 1st, 2010. That first year was mostly Underrated Movies and odd miscellany, but already by the end of the year I’d started posting writing advice and began our long, strange trip. Thanks to those of you who might have been around since the beginning, and thanks to our more recent readers!