Category Archives: Writer Series

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

“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.

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From Hell (2001)

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.

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Soldier in the Rain (1963)

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.

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Steve Jobs (2015)

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.

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Moneyball (2011)

We may never lose again.

So says a fan-made poster in one of the archival shots from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. It’s a yellow poster with green marker-drawn capital letters on it, held overhead by an unseen Oakland A’s fan. Though the film seamlessly incorporates newly-shot game footage into the ancient history of 2002, the majority of the footage in this particular montage is real. Fans hold posters, they exchange high-fives; players whack homers, they round bases, they exchange high-fives. The A’s were on an unprecedented winning streak, crushing every team they met and hurtling towards an unheard-of twenty wins in a row. The sequence in Moneyball is dubbed simply “The Streak”:

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The Social Network (2010)

Though Charlie Wilson’s War marks the first time Aaron Sorkin mined a true story for dramatic purposes, it’s likely that we have The Social Network to thank for the shift to biopics becoming Sorkin’s modus operandi of late. Though Wilson did a more-than-passable job of telling a less-than-well-known story, Sorkin’s Network dips behind the scenes of something that pretty much everyone knows about. It’s more grand, more ambitious in that sense, despite the subject matter being a website as opposed to a global war, and it’s the same ambition that was found in Moneyball and hopefully will soon be found in the upcoming Steve Jobs.

Of course, the primary challenge with bringing biographical accounts to the big screen is accuracy — which, as we’ll return to in a moment, isn’t exactly the same thing as truth. It’s one thing if the subject of the film is still alive; it’s an entirely different thing if the subject of the film is still essentially “the same person”, with only a few measly years (and in this case a few measly millions of dollars) passed between the events of the film and the film itself. Think of Oliver Stone’s upcoming Snowden or last year’s woeful Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate, both of which purport to reveal some kind of truth about a series of real-life occurrences that just so happen to still be occurring. Black Mass just opened in Boston to theaters full of people who are portrayed in the film. At this rate, we’re going to enter some weird Minority Report-type paradox where biopics start coming out before the people they’re about even accomplish anything worthy of a film.

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Rising Sun (1993)

1993 is very likely the pinnacle of Crichton-ness: Jurassic Park shot the writer to a level of stardom he’d only grazed with the likes of The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, and filmmakers scoured his existing properties for an opportunity to catapult themselves into Spielberg-level notoriety. This needed to happen fast, before anyone else jumped on a Crichton adaptation, but there were essentially only three of his novels that hadn’t yet been adapted. One was Congo, which featured super-smart gorillas, so that wasn’t much of an option (until it was, years later); second was Sphere, a really weird subterranean “imagination adventure” that couldn’t possibly be adapted (until…well, you know); and the third was Rising Sun, a relatively low-key murder mystery masquerading as a cultural economic diatribe (or is it a diatribe masquerading as a murder mystery?) that seemed to provide a perfect mix of commentary and storytelling. For quick kicks, the choice was an obvious one.

And as tends to happen with projects undertaken for such reasons, Rising Sun sadly marks the downward trend in Crichton adaptations sloping sharply away from Jurassic Park. Probably anything would fail to measure up to Park, but the tale of clashes that is Rising Sun failed thoroughly in every arena (except the box office — it rode Park‘s wave to a pretty good domestic haul). TGSC, baby. TGSC.

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Point Blank (1967)

Parker is many different people at the same time. He’s a lover, a hater, a criminal, a vigilante. He’s driven by greed, but then he doesn’t care about money. He’s driven by revenge, but then he doesn’t seem to know when he’s gotten it. In John Boorman’s Point Blank, Parker’s not even Parker — he’s “Walker”, a change made for reasons unknown. Lee Marvin is the man in the role for this go-round, but again, Parker’s never the same guy twice. Marvin was only the first to walk in Parker’s shoes (park in Walker’s?), followed over the years by Jim Brown (Parker changed to “McClain”), Robert Duvall (“Macklin”), Peter Coyote (“Stone”), Mel Gibson (“Porter”) and Jason Statham (finally, just “Parker”). Technically, there are as many Parkers as there are James Bonds.

One of the few people who rival the bank-robbing Parker in terms of crisis of identity is Parker’s real-life creator Donald E. Westlake. Westlake has more than a hundred books — hardboiled crime novels, comic capers, science fiction yarns, nonfiction, biographies and, oh, let’s not forget: porn — to his credit, very few of which are actually published under his name. Westlake had no fewer than seventeen pseudonyms over the course of his lengthy writing career. Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Barbara Wilson, Judson Jack Carmichael — they’re all Westlake, though none of them are.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

One week from today is the wide release of Jurassic World, the highly-anticipated fourth installment in the dinosaur franchise that began with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Early reviews indicate that Colin Trevorrow, World‘s director, has delivered a more worthy successor to the original film than Spielberg’s sequel The Lost World or Joe Johnston’s follow-up Jurassic Park III. If that isn’t enough in and of itself, we might root for World to actually be as good as Park rather than just “better than the crappy ones”.

Short of having actually seen Jurassic World yet (I’d be so biased if I had!), the premise is already more akin to the original tale than to the rehashed visits of the second and third films. We won’t speculate too hard about World, and it will certainly need more than a cool premise to survive sequelitis; still, it’s already obvious that the storytelling mentality is focused on a particular point in time that falls between creation and destruction, and the importance of that theme in the Jurassic franchise shouldn’t be brushed aside. In fact, it’s an significant storytelling element of many of Spielberg’s films, and many of Michael Crichton’s works as well.

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

If this is Charlie Wilson’s War, then we’re the ones losing it. That’s part of the message at the conclusion of Aaron Sorkin’s script for Charlie Wilson’s War, based on the book of the same name by George Crile. “The ball keeps on bouncing,” Charlie says to the government suits that deny him what he needs to properly put his crusade to rest, and he repeats himself purposefully — “the ball keeps on bouncing.” This line is at the heart of this particular act of War, and as with many of Sorkin’s works the seemingly-muddled message is really just an unusually demanding one, designed for interpretation by those on either side of a given political line.

The movie starts and ends with the same scene: Charlie, the Reagan-era Texan House Representative inhabited here by Tom Hanks, stands onstage waiting to be introduced. There’s a banner hanging across the back of the hall that’s somewhat difficult to read, but it clearly says CHARLIE in BIG LETTERS. The moderator says a few words about this man, this wonderful man, and Charlie approaches the rostrum to a standing ovation. His chest is slightly puffed out — just slightly — and Charlie smiles the Tom Hanks smile. The message in this scene is clear: he did it.

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