Here’s the starting lineup: William Goldman, red-hot off his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is your screenwriter. He’s adapting a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose protagonist John Dortmunder will soon become one of his most popular creations. Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, with George Segal cast as his right-hand man. And you’ve got Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) in the director’s chair, seeking to marry his sensibilities for comedy and crime in the same film. Top it off with Quincy Jones for the score, and The Hot Rock should be shaping up to be a hell of a film.
One can understand and appreciate the drive to make a lighthearted caper in early ’70s New York, when the crime genre was growing in popularity but also in self-seriousness. Dirty Harry did much to cement a gritty remorselessness in the genre in 1971, asserting an edgy protagonist with no reservations about killing his enemies. In March 1972, The Godfather would in turn spawn a million imitators looking to recapture the Very Serious Drama of American crime. So the conceit of The Hot Rock, at the time, was explicit: bring back the fun.
Continue reading The Hot Rock (1972)
The first scene of E.T. wouldn’t be the same in any other medium. Wordless, shadowy and purposefully obscure, there’s still a ton of information conveyed through visuals alone. Spielberg was (and maybe still is) a fan of this kind of opening, eschewing expository positioning in favor of details that might strike as somewhat disorienting at first. There are fifteen or so characters here, all of them faceless. But even though we don’t get an instance of “Spielberg Face” — his beloved reaction shot of a wonderstruck visage, eyes wide, mouth agape — there’s still plenty to gawk at in these few short minutes.
Here’s the opening scene (jump to 1:10 to skip the opening credits):
Continue reading E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
A lot of what Alan Moore has created is now considered classic. V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, The Killing Joke, his run on Swamp Thing…to say this stuff is at the vanguard of comic-book storytelling is to undermine the fact that this stuff is the vanguard of comic-book storytelling. But it’s important to remember — crucial, actually — that Moore’s never purposefully written a “classic,” meaning his tales are almost exclusively nontraditional narratives that toy with genre and literary consciousness. The writer has a few reasons to despise Hollywood, but the primary point of contention must be that each film adaptation of his comics seems to shove the original tale back into a traditional, classic structure. It happened with From Hell, when Moore’s exploration of evil was spun as a simple murder mystery. It happened with LXG, which discarded crisscrossing episodic adventures in favor of a flat three-act team-up. It happened with V for Vendetta, wherein morally conflicted characters were replaced by obvious Good Guys and Bad Guys. And it happened, to a certain degree, with Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen.
Our Writer Series on Alan Moore typically dives into this abyss between page and screen, sometimes providing side-by-side comparisons of comics panels and film stills in an effort to highlight the divergent artistic choices of Moore and his cinematic adaptors. But Watchmen looks almost exactly the same across both mediums, with Snyder and DP Larry Fong essentially using the graphic novel as their storyboard — reminiscent, a woebegone cynic may claim, of a slacker passing in someone else’s homework:
Continue reading Watchmen (2009)
What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.
The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.
Continue reading Molly’s Game (2017)
The Black Stallion is very much a film of two halves. You could enter the film at the midpoint and still enjoy the back 50% as a self-contained story. Similarly, you could just watch the first chunk and then turn it off feeling surprisingly satisfied. Viewed as a whole, though, Stallion serves as a personality quiz centered around whichever half you ultimately prefer. Think Full Metal Jacket or King Kong, which not only bring characters through two vastly different settings but seemingly bring them through different genres of film as well. It’s possible to enjoy the whole film in each of these instances, but by design one segment probably connects with you more powerfully than the other.
The first half of Stallion introduces young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and the eponymous Black Stallion aboard an unnamed vessel floating in the Mediterranean. Alec, poking around as his father gambles with the foreign seamen, sees the wild horse tied and locked into one of the holds of the ship by its owners. He’s enraptured by it. When the ship crashes and Alec’s father is killed, the stallion saves Alec from death and the pair wash up on a picturesque island. This half of the film is highly meditative and yet highly tactile, focused both on sweeping vistas and on visual symbolism. Aside from a near-monologue delivered by Alec’s father, there’s virtually no dialogue in this entire stretch of The Black Stallion. We’re given no information regarding who Alec and his father actually are, why they’re on this ship, where they’re going. Even the sinking of the ship simply happens, reasons unexplained.
Continue reading The Black Stallion (1979)
Today, the Fifth of November, is the perfect day for V for Vendetta. To be sure, Guy Fawkes Day finds a reference or two in a story about an anarchist in a Guy Fawkes mask. Go figure. He even intones as much: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. But it’s this particular 11/5, the one here in 2017, that’s a perfect day for V. Because we’re now coming up on a year (!) since the presidential election of 2016, an entire year of what this masked anarchist, vested with a vast and verbose vocabulary, would call vitriol, venom, vilification, violence.
Maybe you’re on the other side of this screen saying sheesh — I came here for a movie, not a political rant, or some variation on that oft-repeated question Do you have to politicize everything? To be fair, our primary focus throughout this Alan Moore Writer Series has been the differences from the page to the screen in adaptations like From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; V for Vendetta, adapted by the Wachowski siblings from Moore’s 1988/89 comic, is no exception in that it contains fairly sharp divergences from the source material. The last act of V and entire characters like Leader Adam Susan are either condensed, excised entirely, or changed to better suit the unique needs of a big-budget Hollywood production.
Continue reading V for Vendetta (2005)
“The planet of the imagination is as old as we are.”
A writer may find that having a particular way with words is somewhat valuable to the craft, potentially essential, undeniably rare, exhilaratingly natural. Some may be taken aback by the words of others and seek to do the same with their own, maybe even coming to take it for granted if that way with words becomes a familiar way. Writing is sharpening, and just as a pitcher pitches to improve his pitching so too does a writer write to improve his writing. Some, like Ezra Pound, recognize that words are tools and there is a correct tool for a particular job. There is in fact a correct way to tell a particular story. Some, like Alan Moore, recognize that all of that is a crock of bullshit.
Which is not to insinuate that something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is not well-written, at least in the comic format of Moore’s original publication. It is. As with the impressive majority of Moore’s works League seems leagues beyond the typical comic, nurtured with a higher degree of care or just drawn from a more inspired place. It operates on a higher plane. This cannot be said truthfully of the film version, though by now that’s sort of a preconditioned assumption.
Continue reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Executing a Writer Series on Alan Moore would seem especially self-defeating. The idea is possibly even offensive to the man himself, he having gone to great lengths to distance himself from the film adaptations of his comics. He’s had his name stricken from credits and movie posters, declined any input or involvement throughout production and beyond, and even claims to have never seen any of the film versions of his stories. Furthermore, the dude literally writes comics in such a way that they are inherently resistant to any other medium. He doesn’t do this just to be a jerk, but rather to show what comics can do that other mediums cannot.
And From Hell is the perfect example of that, both in its original comic form and in comparison to the 2001 Hughes Brothers film. Most know Moore for his most popular works Watchmen and V for Vendetta, for his brilliant Batman/Joker book The Killing Joke, for creating original characters like John Constantine and breathing new life into previously-thought-useless ones like Swamp Thing. If you’ve read From Hell, though, you know what Moore is truly capable of as a writer.
Continue reading From Hell (2001)
Buddy films almost always have two clashing personalities at the core. Butch and Sundance, Woody and Buzz, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Thelma and Louise — more often than not it’s the Hardass and the Free Spirit, or the Mentor and the Newcomer, or the Brainiac and the Simpleton. But as far as the casting goes you can usually say cool: those two guys will be great together. Newman and Redford is a more obvious pairing than Hanks and Allen, but the latter’s not strange enough to raise any eyebrows.
But Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen? That’s not an immediate sell as a buddy-comedy duo, is it? Each of them is legendary, but in a different fashion. Gleason is a comedic entertainer at heart, delivering highly effective drama in smaller portions in The Hustler and a handful of other notables; McQueen, meanwhile, would build his career on strong silent types even in his lesser-known dramas, from The Sand Pebbles to The Getaway. He would rarely do comedy, and Gleason would rarely share the limelight in any of his comedic films (not intentionally, of course; he just stole the show pretty much every time). So perhaps a Gleason/McQueen team-up isn’t inherently strange until you consider that a) it’s a comedy with the duo sharing top billing, b) it’s fairly dramatic at times in a satirical Catch-22 sort of way (more on that in a minute), and c) McQueen is the loopy goofball and Gleason is the knowing-smile know-it-all. That said, the most important consideration is d) Soldier in the Rain is highly underrated.
Continue reading Soldier in the Rain (1963)
97% of Steve Jobs is nearly perfect. Much like the products borne of the man’s unparalleled creative vision, everything in his latest biographical film is optimized, streamlined, rounded when the edge should be rounded, sharp when the edge should be sharp, forward-thinking, life-changing, and pitched to be perfect. The performances are subtle and explosive, depending on which character you’re dealing with. The drama is heavy-duty; the comedy is excitingly witty. The pacing of the whole film is breathless. And the writing — whew, the writing — Aaron Sorkin has probably never been this good or done this much with a film script. This is ostensibly The Social Network 2.0, a story about a genius/jerk who defined the times for the rest of us, except Steve Jobs has a richer character in the driver’s seat.
And in comparing the two, that leftover 3% only becomes all the more glaring. The structure of the film is unique, built over three days in history: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the launch of the NeXT computer in 1988, and the launch of the iMac in 1998. The aforementioned breathlessness of the film is derived from setting each episode immediately before these launches, as that’s probably the most stressful and nerve-wracking collection of hours in any product launcher’s life. No different in Steve Jobs. Jobs needs everything to be perfect, every address to start exactly on time, every personal grievance from his staff and family (of which there are many, and between which the words staff and family mean less and less) to be voiced and dealt with. “It seems like five minutes before every launch, people go to a bar and get drunk and decide to air their grievances,” says Jobs.
Continue reading Steve Jobs (2015)