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.
For a good long while the prestigious mantle of Most Overdone Superhero Story was without a doubt the origin tale. Dead parents, ancient birthrights, Chosen Ones, freak laboratory accidents — after a while people caught on to the fact that all of these were basically following the same formula. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne witness the death of his parents upwards of seven different times. Time for something new! Take the third season of Jessica Jones, a show which gracefully skirted an origin tale in its first season only to backtrack into one for its sophomore outing. Surely the third season of the most unlikely Marvel/Netflix venture must break fresh ground, especially considering that this third season is also the last. Right?
To be fair, it’s more likely than not that Jessica Jones was never intended to conclude after Season 3, what with the collective axing of Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Punisher and any future spinoffs Marvel/Netflix might have had in the oven. Despite the popular rumor that Disney might resurrect some of these properties for their Disney+ platform, that seems doubtful to me. And with the increasing tedium characteristic of each and every one of those shows, maybe that’s a good thing.
Isn’t there some rule against repetition in storytelling? Most tales that purposely retread the same ground all over again do so lazily, a conceit allowed either because a concept begs the question (a la time travel tales) or simply because we, the audience, are feared to be too dimwitted to get it. Thus do Guy Ritchie movies and movies like The Illusionist regularly spend the entire climax copy-and-pasting stuff from the first half of the movie, albeit with a little added flair. Yes, we get it, it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Surely Orwell or Strunk and White have some preventative edict concerned with this brand of laziness, no? Surely repetition is the friend of the lazy writer, no?
Anyway, Happy Groundhog Day! Looks like little Phil didn’t see his shadow. Think we’ll be stuck in a time loop, forced to relive today over and over again? I gotta say: it’s 8:28 AM here and I can’t say I’m exactly thrilled with today’s results this far. Still have a ways to go, I know. Maybe starting over would actually be a good thing, though. I’ll be careful what I wish for. I’ll also be careful to remind everyone that this hysterical song is the theme for Groundhog Day:
Sometimes drama is hard. Part of the reason why people are throwing around phrases like The Golden Age of Television is because great drama often implies a certain longevity, a depth not only of feeling but of space and time as well. Rust Cohle’s True Detective arc spans more than a decade, and we’re allowed insight into that arc for eight hours rather than for the limited runtime of a film. Walter White’s (d)evolution is likewise more effective for the time it takes building itself. In the coldest sense television allows what comic book chronology allows, simply more, and thus more of a compounding effect in the later hours or later seasons. True Detective and Breaking Bad are intense in their final sequences mostly due to brilliant writing, brilliant directing, brilliant acting — nothing replaces storytelling (preach!) — but partially due to what came before.
And yes: sometimes drama is easy. Fabricated drama isn’t hard to find. Heck, take Best Picture winner Argo, which climaxes with a harrowing scene at the airport where the heroes are really just standing in a room sweating as to whether they’re about to be let out of the country or not. Quick cuts are made to the drama, vehicles holding the bad guys hurtling along the tarmac. It’s all spiced up, and usually when you have to spice up your scene with cuts to action that simply happen faster and faster as the music plays faster and faster — well, maybe there’s another way to extract drama, a less easy way, an infinitely more effective way. Argo is hardly the worst example. The cringeworthiest one that leaps to mind is all the extraneous shit going down at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, because Spidey battling his enemy isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies isn’t enough. And Spidey battling two enemies while a hospital full of people is in danger and a plane full of people is about to crash isn’t even enough, so throw Gwen Stacey in there. There we go: amazing.
It’s fairly easy to spot a Guy Ritchie flick, and in his most recent movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a few of his trademark flourishes find their best use yet. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer fill the suits first worn by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the ’60s television show and globetrot around the Mediterranean attempting to out-spy one another. There are three or four plots going on at once — one’s a crusade to stop a maniacal heiress from obtaining a nuclear weapon, one’s a love story, one’s a hopeful reunification of father and daughter —and so Ritchie’s penchant for hand-holding and retreading ground we’ve already covered is actually quite useful at times.
Mostly, though, the moderately bogged-down plot is just kind of there; the style, the mood, the unending suaveness of the two leads — that’s really what counts in Ritchie’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. There are some slick sequences that don’t make you forget the plot but make you simply not care about it, sequences that lose you, purposefully and gleefully, in the zippy catchiness of it all. There are some slow bits and, again, the retreading of information gets tedious as it does in other habitual instances throughout Ritchie’s filmography. But mostly this movie is all about the flow, and even if the scene-by-scene progression isn’t flawless the pacing within the scenes themselves is fantastic.
-Writers Guild Awards went to The Grand Budapest Hotel (Original Screenplay), The Imitation Game (Adapted Screenplay), True Detective (Drama Series and New Series), Louie (Comedy Series) and Olive Kitteridge (Long Form Adapted).
-The ridiculously stacked 40th Anniversary Special of Saturday Night Live aired last night, and it was a pretty great time. Highlights included Bill Murray’s “Love Theme from Jaws” and Dan Aykroyd stuffing fish into a blender.
-Spider-Man will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe at last, coming in the wake of a deal between Marvel and Sony. The webslinger will have a solo film and could possibly crop up in Captain America: Civil War. The good people at Collider have dutifully summarized Spidey’s history in the Civil War comics, which is worth checking out for a little background info on what may come to pass in the MCU. Better yet: go read the comics.
-Jon Stewart announced his departure from The Daily Show after more than 16 years as host. He’ll be missed.
Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?