The idea of a heist where no one knows each other is maybe the best representation of internet life in film. I was immediately drawn to the characters in Reservoir Dogs, who were all dressed the same and brought together for the same reason, and also veiled their identity with the same pseudonym, ‘Mr.’+‘color.’ The whole practice is so Tarantino-cool and added weight to a heist that had no background or build. An amazing storytelling tactic.
Yet, by the end of the movie, as we learn more about the characters and they reveal more about themselves to each other, this cool practice also becomes vaguely ridiculous because when the heist went to shit, none of that mattered anymore. In other words, when they needed their anonymity the most, the mode of providing that anonymity was destroyed. That’s what’s so tragic about Mr. White crying over the body of Mr. Orange. At the only point in time where it would have served him to not know the truth, he found out the truth, and the points where it would have benefited to know the person, he did not know enough.
This all feels a bit too analogous to our own existence in both the concrete world and the abstract one we create on the internet. We join this heist together, all looking the same and here for the same reasons, hidden by pseudonyms and constructed personas, weighed down by an unjustified sense of importance, and yet too often those personas and identities and flattened images of ourselves leave us inappropriately ignorant, or gluttons of information we’d be better off not knowing.
The long and the short of it, the philosophical and the bare bones, is that the pseudonyms in Reservoir Dogs are awesome and they suck, they protect and they harm, they feel like the double-edged sword that is so often wielded when we venture into public discourse on the internet.
As an ode to the two-sided nature of this world, I have adopted the pseudonym Mr. Blue on this site because I think its cool (and maybe for other reasons, but if I told you those that would be defeating the point now wouldn’t it?). As I do so, I imagine anyone who reads this will get to know me devoid of background or build, based solely on the identity constructed through my words and thoughts about the stuff I write about, which is also cool. And it could be a great representation of who I am, or this might be a poor representation of who I am, and you could end up cradling my bleeding body as you put a gun to my head to end my rat-bastard life (Too much? That was probably too much).
The Reservoir Dogs got to shoot the shit at the diner without any preconceived notions, and Mr. Orange claiming tipping is ridiculous made him look like a complete asshole, and they all got to feel like they were in it together without any of the messiness that comes with relationships. But those relationships formed anyone despite their misguided attempts at isolation. I want my writing to be like that.
Enjoy it if you like it and hate it if you hate it. Either way I hope we get a cool poster made of us strolling down the street, looking like badasses, that every kid in college puts on their dorm room wall. And now this analogy has officially gone too far.
Anyways, these are the conversations I want to have on this site. The stuff that transcends the ‘is it good or bad’ bickering of most internet conversations about media. I love talking about the things I blank, but I don’t love the internet’s discussion about those things. It too often gets all blanked up.
I would like to have the strange and useless conversations we have in real life after blanking something. Where we sit on crappy couches with nothing to do, so we talk about the uselessness of the pseudonyms in Reservoir Dogs. Those are the moments that make blanking so much fun. If you also enjoy these types of conversations come back as much as you’d like. After all, now we are all in it together.
This isn’t a list of the best book-movie adaptations, or a list of movies that are better than the books or vice-versa. I just think these are some of the most interesting combinations of film and writing that I have come across and of which I have something to say.
Whenever I get asked if there is a movie that is definitely better than its book, I always mention Jurassic Park. But this feels kind of bad because the book is actually pretty good. It’s just that the film is an all-timer, and the book is not an all-timer. Also, this is one of those rare instances where a movie brings your attention to a book and pulls the written material out of obscurity and into the limelight, which makes it a bit harder to judge.
This scenario is not unheard of but certainly rarer than the more common approach of turning popular books into films. On top of that, in cases where the movie is seen first, it can be refreshing for the book to be dissimilar in some of the main plot points, and it can be fun to be shocked when an unexpected character dies or another character’s portrayal is askew from the film. All of this creates a strange basis for judging the Jurassic Park movie-book combination. I didn’t really judge the quality of the book based on the movie. I was just happy to experience the story again, in a new way.
Summary: The movie is better than the book, but since the movie is more popular, the book serves as a fun second rendition of a beloved story.
No Country For Old Men
This is a combination that is almost impossible for me to decide which is better, the book or the movie. The adaptation in film held true to the book beyond just telling the same story. The feel of it was the same, the heart of the book was transplanted into that film to create a symbiosis that elevates the quality of both film and book. The movie was cast in a way that was true to the book’s characters, and then those actors delivered top tier performances of their careers. The scenes and tension were direct translations from the source material. And yet it felt worth the time. It didn’t rehash but blazed its own trail in the visual realm to go along with the abstract world of literature. To me… this is the type of adaptation I hope for every time I watch a movie based on a book I love.
Summary: There is a core essence in the book that translated to the movie in a way that made the abstract realm of reading feel concrete and tangible.
This is my second favorite book-movie adaptation, but for very different reasons than No Country For Old Men. Whereas No Country For Old Men, took the book and expanded it into a concrete visual world, The Godfather book serves as the history textbook to the film. The movie, it bears no saying, stands alone as one of the greatest accomplishments in filmmaking. But reading the book before or after watching the movie (I read it afterwards as I would assume most do in this time period) filled in blank spots and unknown backstories that I never felt like I needed but was really glad I was given. These formed a unique relationship between book and film, one I doubt will be replicated often or to this degree.
Summary: The book serves as a compendium of expanded information for further enjoyment of The Godfather story established by the brilliant film.
Lord of the Rings
The immensity of Peter Jackson’s undertaking to bring the LOTR Trilogy to the big screen has been lost over time. He did it, he crushed it, and it now feels like that was inevitable. But there was nothing inevitable about taking one of the most powerful and epic tales of fantasy and lore and turning it into a visual spectacle for all to witness. The clarity in Jackson’s brain as to what this should look like and how it should be done was as precise as a sniper’s bullet. Then to establish the level of consistency that he did across all three films is an epic feat for an epic tale. These books were destined to either remain untouched by film, or screwed up in the usual way fantasy books are usually mangled or diminished. But Jackson did them justice and brought LOTR to new generations of fans for years to come.
Summary: The fact that anyone could accomplish making these incredible books into movies worthy of the story is mind boggling.
Nonfiction feels like it would be an easier translation from book to film. And maybe there is an overall higher quality of nonfiction adaptations. However, they don’t often get mentioned when the inevitable conversation about books being better than movies or which movies are better than the books break out in social circles that love books and movies. But the one that I believe deserves to be mentioned in both of those conversations is Moneyball. The book was an era defining read about efficiency and big data disrupting the most sacred of ground, America’s pasttime, baseball. In a way, it defines the way people think. Old traditions and methods are thrown to the side of the road without further ado for newer more efficient means and the tension in that transaction is powerful in both the written word and on the screen. The movie told that story as well as the book did, and brought the message to many people who would never open the denser book. This seems like the type of transaction that book-movie adaptations should strive for more often.
Summary: When thinking about book-movie adaptations, nonfiction often isn’t the first to come to mind, but Moneyball shows how powerful nonfiction can be in this relationship.
Ready Player One
Ready Player One feels like the quintessential book-movie adaptation. The type of storytelling through film, based on a book, that you expect when going to a theater, as well as the type of book we would expect would be turned into a film. The movie also changes and adapts the plot of the book in significant ways to make it work in the film (probably much to some die hard fan’s chagrin). But to me it was a template for how films must make books work on screen, the rule rather than the incredible exception. I liked the Ready Player One book and I liked the Ready Player One movie, and I liked them for the same reasons even though it was an almost entirely different plot. The key was that the story was the same. The development and imagery and conflict was the same, but they changed key details, not because the originals weren’t bad, but because in an exciting story like this based on riddles and plot turns, to not change them would be to punt on the opportunity to reengage the audience in the story once again. If the story was the same, there would be one less method (the plot) for the movie to engage its audience. People don’t always love it, but movies often have to change the plot to tell a book’s story. Ready player One accepted that reality and it succeeded.
Summary: This is the template book-movie adaptation for all the reasons people liked and disliked it.
One day I walked into the living room while my mom was finishing a movie on TV. It was clearly a closing scene, shot on an empty road, a man held a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and sat on the curb. I remember him getting up and walking down the street into the distance away from a man who had come and confronted him. The scene isn’t long, and I also don’t think it was the only scene I saw, but it was a good shot, and a tense moment (even without seeing what came before). Fifteen years later, after not thinking about this scene ever again, I read Mystic River. And when I got to that same scene in the book, I had the granddaddy of all flahsbacks, remembering that I had seen this seen before, a mere fifteen years earlier, randomly, without really thinking about it. That’s the power of storytelling in multiple forms. They sit in your brains just waiting to get jarred lose.
During my first watch, I didn’t notice if Prisoners stated it was located in a certain town or city or state, and I didn’t feel any need to go back and check. The setting spoke for itself, lending weight to the story without any overt mention of how that area’s way of life could add to the emotion of the characters or tension in the conflict.
I imagined the town was somewhere in Ohio, the town name not worth mentioning, the people who lived their prone to saying where they’re from by relation to the nearest big city… 20 miles outside Cincinnati, just north of Cleveland, 10 miles west of Dayton.
Apparently, the film was set in Conyers, Pennsylvania. But to me, the name is irrelevant. The place serves as a stand-in for any rural town in America.
Having grown up in the Midwest, it was easy to imagine that place and the people who inhabit it, as if they lived right down the highway from me. The weather, the family structure, the do-it-yourself sense of manhood, the survivalist mentality, the distrust of institutions other than the nuclear family. It’s all familiar if in a different form or degree.
I inherently understood the setting and its implications right from the opening scenes with a hunting expedition and a speech, father to son, about protecting yourself, and always being prepared. I was familiar with the walk to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving, the parent’s friendship probably born out of the similarity in the children’s ages rather than any common interest. I recognized the stilted walk and subtle tension of Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover), how he was always preoccupied with his children’s behavior, making sure they didn’t embarrass him, making sure they knew when they had done wrong. I could feel the cold, fall rain pouring from overcast skies, like God was wringing out a wet blanket, forcing families into the familiar ritual of putting on the right coat for that time of year before venturing outside.
The setting was obvious to me.
And it added to the pain and heartbreak of the story. For a man like Keller, there is nothing worse than not being able to protect your family, even the death of a loved one is better than facing his own shortcomings in fulfilling his duty to the ones he loves. He was prepared for almost everything, including the apocalypse, but nothing could prepare the man for the inability to rescue his daughter.
This is true for every man, but for a man like Keller, men I was raised by and grew up knowing, there isn’t anything else. Careers are means to support a family, marriage is a way to create a family, the lessons he learned are only as good as his ability to pass them down to his children. Everything else is a distraction, obstacles in the way of him providing for and protecting his loved ones, including those institutions who are too inefficient to do what they are supposed to, like the federal government and the police. They cannot be trusted to do what needs to be done. Only he can do that.
I have most often heard the birth of a child described, by men like Keller Dover, as the most terrifying experience of a man’s life. That tiny baby in a carrier serves as a mirror to their own ineptitudes. They tell me that nothing could have prepared them for that moment, and that lack of preparation was terrifying. That baby opened them wide to possibilities of pain and heartbreak that they never knew were possible and tragedies they could no longer prevent through hard work and preparation. A large part of them escaped the hardened confines of their own protective shell, entered into that child, and walked out into the open, vulnerable to all the world a man has steeled themselves against.
For Keller Dover, driving in his truck after his son shot a deer, he was teaching his son how to become that man. How to prevent heartache and tragedy, how to be responsible to the people he promised to support. But then he no longer was able to do it himself.
I understood this about men in general, but something about seeing Keller in Prisoner’s settings (on a large scale in that Midwest town, on a smaller scale in that run-down bathroom) presented it in a new way. And without much exposition needed, and some terrific acting from Jackman, it was far too easy for me to comprehend how a man could come to abduct and torture another man. And as Keller turned on that boiling hot water, and turned it off, and turned it on again, eliciting screams from the man trapped inside, I didn’t wonder how he could possibly do something so horrible. Instead, I wondered if that dead look in his eyes had more to do with the days gone by without saving his daughter or the loss of humanity for what it has forced him to do.
Obviously (it’s in the title), the movie deals with how we are all prisoners. Even if our body remains free, it is all too easy to become a prisoner inside of it. Keller created a cell for himself, inside walls of self-sufficiency, independence, patronage, and protection. And the movie rattled me so much because I probably have similar prison walls erected, walls built from bricks of good ideals, ones that could at any moment, with the wrong series of unfortunate events, rear up and trap me, making me a prisoner to my situation.
I wanted so badly to see Keller released from his physical imprisonment at the end of the movie. The hint of freedom was not enough. I felt like I needed to see it. I didn’t want him left down their forever. I still wonder if that weak little whistle was enough to free him from his pit of darkness.
Logan’s advice to Kendall is at the core of their business clash and represents a significant tension upon which Succession hinges. Logan uses an old school business mind, no game plan other than his honed precision in decision making after years of being the man in charge, no data needed outside hunches and gut feelings. And in negotiating, sometimes you make a deal or retract an offer because “Fuck you” that’s why.
In contrast, Kendall represents a new generation of smart and savvy up and coming minds, struggling to find purchase in a world still dominated by boomers in charge. Kendall will always make the “right” decision, often backed by data and analytics, and can’t understand why Logan would ever expect him to do anything differently. Kendall may or may not need to heed this advice, but he should pay attention to it, because it says a lot about his inscrutable father.
“I am spiritually, ethically, and emotionally behind whoever wins.”
– Stewy (S01 E06)
If the previous quote was a declaration of sentiments for Logan Roy and the old guard, this squishy and soft statement by Stewy is an equally as revealing statement about the approach Stewy employs as a corporate bottom feeder in search of an investment for his billions of dollars. The intrigue in Stewy as a businessman, and therefore his advice, is that he is equal parts reprehensible in his approach, but also, he may be the modern killer Logan is looking for in Kendall. What does a Logan Roy look like in his youth, if his youth was in 2020? It may be similar to the sockless investor himself. I am always intrigued as I watch Logan’s initial disdain at Stewy’s involvement with Waystar Royco turn to begrudging respect in a matter of one meeting in season 1 episode 7 (But can we please fix the visuals?= great line). Stewy may be without morals, but he is not without business acumen.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few dicks.”
– Sandy Ferness (S01 E08)
Not much is known about how Sandy operates outside of being Logan’s major competitor and his parasitic invasion of Logan’s company with Stewy. But these two facts, coupled with this wonderful metaphor, help us understand that the sweater wearing, soft spoken old man who looks like he could be ‘Grandpa’ at your family’s Christmas isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The skeletons in his closet might be as numerous and haunting as the Roy’s. And this advice is another way to let us know that the old guard didn’t get there on accident. Dicks were broken.
“You can’t make a Tomelette with cracking a few Greggs.”
– Tom Wambsgans (S02 E09)
One too many times to the metaphorical well? Absolutely not. This advice from Tom to Greg, as he urges his little R2 unit to illegally destroy incriminating documents, is my business mantra, and my name is neither Tom nor Greg. This advice lets us all know that no one gets to the top alone. Every man is made by lesser men sacrificing their morals at the altar of business.
“No one’s ever gone broke overestimating America’s love for violence.”
– Brian, the norm-o (S02 E04)
One of the norm-os had a word of advice for the one percent, letting Roman know that providing America with violence is a sound business investment. This advice is further solidified in that episode when a shooter takes their own life in the ATN building causing everyone to disperse into safe rooms of differing quality and dominating the news cycle for the day. Rhea captures it well when she responds to Shiv asking her if the coverage is ‘her taste,’ “Well depends on what you think news is public utility or entertainment option.”
Brian’s advice becomes even sounder when Roman and his norm-o buddy win the competition for their Amusement Park idea based on this concept. The only question is, did they win because Roman is a Roy or because he has a sound business mind after all?
“Take the fucking money.”
– Logan Roy (S02 E05)
The Piers family is an interesting breed. Not quite at home in their own greed and moral decrepitude, they hold onto business ideals and ‘sound’ business practice more than the Roys, who, at this point, have descended into profit by any means necessary. These conflicting views clash with each other in the episode ‘Tern Haven’ (which I wrote about here), and the episode culminates with a business stand-off, something of a specialty of Logans. His advice, in this scenario, was a bit of Shakespeare, “Take the fucking money.” Maybe the best advice in the entire show.
“Control the narrative.”
– Kendall Roy (S01 E02)
In the wake of Logan’s stroke and unknown state of health, Kendall wanted to control the narrative. Sound advice in the digital age, to be sure, where hiding any story is paramount to damming the ocean, and certainly, in a story of this magnitude, the goal should be to create the story rather than hide it. But let’s be honest, we all just want to know if this is actually what Kendall says when he cums.
“Getting your dick in there is easy. Getting them in bed… that’s hard.”
– Logan Roy (S02 E09)
This advice to Roman is probably in a top ten list of things you don’t want to hear from your dad, regardless of if it is in the context of business or not. And I am not sure if it speaks more to Logan’s views on business deals or relationships. He draws a distinction between sex and taking someone to bed, which is either a beautiful and subtle nuance, or the cold take of a heartless monster.
Succession is show about the lives of the monetarily rich and morally bankrupt, this perspective of always being able to make a deal (have sex in the chosen metaphor), but making the right deal (going to bed) is the challenge, is foreign to most of us plebians on both the real and the metaphorical level.
“You have to be a killer. But nowadays, maybe you don’t. I don’t know.”
– Logan Roy (S02 E10)
This is the advice that defines Logan’s conflict in both family and business. Logan spent his life getting to the top of the business world from his childhood spent shitting outside (maybe). We can only imagine the bridges he burned, backs he stabbed, deals he fucked along the way. He is the way he is through years of being molded in the forge of American Capitalism. Now he is in a new day and age, faced with handing over his hard-won company to children who were born into this, who never had to do a deal they didn’t have done for them.
He was a killer. Logan believes he is where he is because of that attribute beyond anything else. But here is Shiv and Kendall and Roman and Stewy and Carl, suckling from the teat of his business, and they are not killers, at least he doesn’t think so. Can they do his job? Can he pass it down to them? Absolutely not, they don’t have what it takes… but maybe times have changed… Depending on the day, the minute, the hour, how good his shit was that morning, Logan waffles and wavers on who has what it takes to succeed him, and more importantly, what it will take to succeed him. This quote shows that internal struggle.
Ivan Drago is often revered as Rocky’s most feared opponent, living in infamy as the man who killed Apollo Creed and as one of the greatest boxers of all time. And yet… I’m not sold. I’m not. I don’t think Drago was that great of a boxer. I don’t even think he was Rocky’s greatest opponent.
Drago has a few convincers that vault him to the forefront of the conversation about Rocky’s nemeses. The first is the eyeball test. The dude is a monster, tall and jacked and prone to superhuman feats of strength in a Soviet gym while steroids are plunged into his buttcheeks. If intimidation won boxing matches, Drago would be the heavyweight champion to this day. But we are all aware that looks alone don’t win titles, we need to see it in the ring.
But most of what Drago does in the ring in Rocky IV is not seen. It is done in the shuttered boundary lines of the Soviet Union. To be fair, the Soviet Union was known for producing some of the greatest athletes of that time, but also to be fair, America has a long history of kicking their asses.
*flag drops down behind me while the star-spangled banner plays on a pan-flute*
We know that Ivan Drago was the undisputed champion of the USSR, but the problem is that we do not know what that means. Poverty and hunger were rampant in the USSR at this time, so any opponent who doesn’t have the blessing of the government like Drago does (and I have a hard time believing the government picked more than one boxer to back) would be vastly inferior to the attention and nurturing Drago received. In this context, Drago shooting up the ranks of the Soviet boxing league and remaining undefeated while he does it doesn’t provide us with a convincing argument that he is an awesome boxer.
So let’s look at what we do see Drago do.
It might be too soon, but I want to start with Apollo Creed’s death. This is the scene that serves as the main convincer that Drago is unbeatable, and also provides Rocky with an internal struggle as to whether he should face him. But I think they overblew it. Sure, it was sad that Creed died. There are some real man-tears soaked into the floors of theaters everywhere because of this moment. But I hesitate to attribute too much to Drago in the aftermath of the encounter. Creed had been one of the greatest boxing champions of all time. But the key wording here is ‘had been.’ Creed was way past his prime, even older than Rocky based on his long title reign before he ever boxed the Italian Stallion.
Plus, Creed’s fatal flaw was how he overlooked his opponent. He seemed to not take the fight seriously in the way he talked about his opponent, his entrance, and the way he taunts the big Russian. Therefore, we can probably assume he didn’t train as hard as he could have for the fight. And if there is anything we have learned from the Rocky franchise, it is that if you do not have the eye of the tiger in training, you don’t stand a chance in the ring. So Drago, in context, massacred a past-his-prime, over-confident, and undertrained former champion. What do we take away from that? We still only know for sure that Drago is an incredibly hulked up heavy hitter who ran through the boxing ranks of a malnourished country.
Then we see him battle Rocky. A retired Rocky… in the USSR… This should just be another exhibition on Drago’s way to fighting the heavyweight champion of the world, that is, if Drago is as good as we think he is. But it doesn’t happen that way. Rocky drills Drago and ends his title chances, the Cold War, and Drago’s marriage all on Drago’s home turf in front of the Premier of the USSR. This fight was gifted to him, and he blew it. And I don’t think it is entirely because Rocky is that good. Some of it is due to the fact that Rocky is made of iron, he was highly motivated after Drago killed his best friend, and Rocky is the all-time big match competitor, but it would be hard to ignore that this loss shows that Drago was overhyped as well. Objectively speaking, if Drago was as good as he was portrayed, and as we believed, Rocky should definitely, one hundred percent, have lost this fight. But he didn’t, which means Drago wasn’t.
Not convinced? Think about it this way… Rocky, at the height of his title reign and fitness got demolished by Clubber Lang (though extenuating circumstances due to Mickey’s questionable health after his fall throws an asterisk next to this fight). How do we then say that Drago, who never beats a much older and rustier Rocky, is the more feared opponent? Or take Creed. Rocky was never more motivated, focused, and in shaped (in combination) than in his fights with Apollo Creed, and he still went 1-1 against him, yet some will claim Drago, who never beat Rocky is the most fearsome opponent.
And thanks to the new installments of the Creed movies, we also get to see Rocky dismantle Drago from the corner, coaching the inferior specimen into a title victory over Drago’s son, in a match between two fighters in their prime. The extrapolation of Rocky’s superiority is borderline insulting at this point.
I guess some might not consider Drago as Rocky’s greatest opponent overall. Maybe just as his biggest challenge considering his circumstances. But I gotta say, however you want to spin it, it seems like we are giving him too much credit. Drago feels like an overhyped bust. I have no proof to show me he was anything but a one tricky pony with a strong right hook. Clubber Lang would’ve eaten him for breakfast.
Understanding American identity and our relationship to the country can be more disenfranchising than comforting. America is not perfect, born out of sins and exclusion like every other country, and 2020 seems to be a time where the sins of America’s birth and the system it has created supersede any feelings of patriotism. Americans are at odds with themselves, striving for retribution while desiring forgiveness, wanting to address deep-seated hate while attempting to move past it. This push-pull has brought some together and torn others apart.
America, however, will still be standing at the end of this year. It will last longer than COVID and rioting and Trump’s presidency. It will last past our next president too, whether Republican or Democrat. It won’t matter. The country moves on. In the midst of struggles we feel like we are experiencing the end of something, but on a long enough timeline, our moment of discontent becomes a deflection, a shift, a change in the greater narrative of our great nation (and it most certainly is great even if it is not great for all and not great all the time).
So at a moment in my life, where understanding America, Americans, and what it means to be an American citizen, is as challenging as it has ever been, I compiled a Very American Reading List of books that highlight America’s past, outline thought patterns American’s hold, and narrate interesting times in American history. These books have helped me understand how significant moments, realized and unrealized, don’t mark the end, but a new path. They may apply to what we see in America right now, they may not, but they make our country, whose borders are becoming blurry, a little clearer, in both its wonderful parts and its flaws.
1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
There is no moment in American history that showcases American ideals better than the race to space. America was, for the first time, at the top of the food chain with only one major competitor, The Soviet Union. Their battle for global supremacy played out on many fields, some visible, others not. But all eyes certainly watched the space race to see who would reign supreme.
Tom Wolfe, in his element, documents America’s journey from ground to air to space. He perfectly captures the egoism in the pilots who were selected to go to space and how it mirrored the egoism of America, as it strived to be the best, to build its modern ziggurat to god in the form of a shuttle to space. The Right Stuff captures how this race didn’t just define our place in the world but defined a mindsight that is a core of American identity. That we are in control of our own destiny, that victory goes to those who work the hardest, and that in our pursuit of the heavens we came to worship the journey more than the destination. The book, without addressing it specifically, goes a long way in explaining the mentality that causes so much greatness and so much inequality in one country.
2. American Ground by William Langeweische
America was spectacular as the underdog. But, in large part, it has struggled as the top dog. Once America became the world’s leading superpower, it has been plagued with decision making errors in the name of nation building and world policing. But there was a wonderful and terrible moment when America was the underdog again, where they once again became the country that vaulted it to the forefront of global politics, and it happened on that terrible morning of September 11th, 2001.
American Ground documents, not the horrible act itself, but something much more subtle, the response to the destruction of the Twin Towers, specifically how New York and the Federal government orchestrated the cleanup of The Pile left in the middle of the biggest city in the US. As Langeweische documents the challenges and triumphs of the ‘unbuilding,’ he also taps into a vein of American identity that is hard to label, that America is great when there is a vacuum that needs filling. American greatness is almost directly correlated to action, not thought… to doing, not talking… to volunteering not advocating. And in the wake of 9/11 as we struggled to keep people away from the rubble and the lives they were trying to save, American ingenuity was at its finest. There was an immediate concrete need, and America came together to fix it.
Being at the top exposes weaknesses in equality and equity, freedom and privilege, choice and duty, all abstract terms that become hard to define and harder to fix. Not the case with a big pile of fire, twisted metal and shattered glass. This was something America could do, like explore the west or overthrow England or invade Normandy. We are a nation of doers, and we may be a one trick pony, but damn is it an impressive trick.
3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Some American books address some American moment and the Americanness inherent in the scenario. Others go a long way to explain why our nation functions as it does. Truman Capote hit a nerve with his 1966 novel, In Cold Blood, about the mass murder of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in 1959. The book embodied the shift in the American mindset surrounding safety and security from the 1950s to the more paranoid state of the 1960s, one we generally hold to this day.
In Cold Blood is a book about why America started locking its doors. We keep shrinking the definition of ‘neighbor’ to a select few who live lives like our own. Long gone are the days of random pop-ins to your neighbor’s home and letting your children be babysat by the neighborhood kids just because they are around. ‘Neighbors’ have broadened in distance and tightened in size. In large part this is due to the randomness and goriness of the Herbert Clutter murders (as an example) that feed the fears of lone wolf attacks that could strike at any moment.
4. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Efficiency and effectiveness. These are the foundation of modern American values. Our social lives our streamlined, our businesses are overviewed and overhauled, our every motion enhanced by technology all for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness. Moneyball may be the best embodiment of this information and data driven mindset. A mindset that demands we do away with faulty human logic and intuition and replace it with irrefutable numbers for the sake of… efficiency and effectiveness.
Moneyball, and Billy Beane as its hero, attacks America’s pastime, baseball, a sport rich in superstition, judgement calls, gut feelings, and intuition by old men who have just been doing it longer than everyone else, so just wait 100 years until it’s your turn. And the book oozes the bravado of a younger generation that believe they know how to do it better, now. Quantify, qualify, evaluate, and calculate, and we can do away with the stodginess and tedium of old men condescendingly telling us they know how to do it better.
Nothing is sacred when we can turn baseball into a number… we need ‘X’ amount of runs to make the playoffs… we need hits not homeruns… this player is not as valuable as everyone thinks. The mindset is tantalizing, the implications are irresistible. To me, Moneyball signified a wave in America where everything has ‘an app for that’ and everyone is looking to disrupt the current market or system using technology and a new generation of people, data, and analytics.
5. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
The American Dream is an obsession with success and how we define it. Gladwell, in Outliers, sets out to redefine success, and transversely, the American Dream. He looks at the paragons of success in America, presidents and billionaires, tech giants and geniuses, and deep dives into what actually makes them different.
Spoiler Alert: It’s not good old American values and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, it’s another very American ideal… opportunity.
But here is the difference in Gladwell’s conclusion and the original Land of Opportunity. Not everyone has the same opportunities… not by a long shot. And not everyone who works hard is successful. The book helps define what privilege is and what it is not (it is advantages, it is not something to feel guilty for). And also makes the case for different sets of needs for different people. Equality is not equity, even in America. This is the struggle of the modern century, and the amount of copies of this book flying off the shelves is a testament to it.
6. All The President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Commonly regarded as the greatest work of nonfiction ever written, All The President’s Men is a thriller, a mystery, and a history. Through the journalism of Woodward and Bernstein we receive a news cycle on fast forward for all the events and breakthroughs during the Watergate scandal that has come to define the 1960s, a decade that shifted American culture.
Today, America is not known for trusting in politics and politicians. ‘Politician’ is almost synonymous with dis-trustworthy. These seeds were planted with the story this book tells and has been watered and germinated ever since. To understand America’s relationship to government and politics, why we add ‘gate’ after every scandal, why politicians feel a need to hire an Independent Special Investigator after every perceived wrong-doing in politics, and why conspiracies abound in the minds of citizens viewing the shady halls of the White House, you should start here. Plus, it’s an awesome read.
Something’s been bothering me this whole movie, and I just figured it out…
I loved Vice, but it seemed to slip by everyone in the movie world, raising some hackles, receiving some congratulations, but generally untouched, like a film leper.
…the whole thing’s liberal. It’s got a liberal bias.
So I wanted to talk about why I loved it, despite the fact that it sticks its finger in an American open wound.
It’s all facts, right? I mean they had to vet all this with a lawyer, how does that make it liberal?
So let’s talk about Vice!
You would say that Lib-tard…
Is it a comedy or a drama?
A lot of people, based on reactions I have read, had trouble putting Vice in a place that allowed them to have a relationship with it. Was it supposed to be making a serious commentary on mistakes made by the Bush administration? Was it just a funny period comedy? Should I be learning, laughing, horrified? What is it? And how should I react to it?
I posed these questions, and now I am going to dodge them…somewhat. I think Vice is a dark comedy with a twist. Dark comedies are in vogue, throwing the spotlight on the absurdity in terrible situations (like the Iraq War) by finding ways to make us laugh at it. That is all well and good when the story is like Succession or Fleabag made up and, therefore, easier to laugh at. However, Vice is about real events… all too real… which makes it all the more difficult to find humor in its absurdity and terrible-ness.
This may be why I like it so much. Its jarring both in the content and in how it asks viewers to relate to it. At the very least we can say, from the all-seeing vantage point of the future, that what we know about the decision-making process for going into Iraq during the Bush Administration is uncomfortable at best, and the way Vice portrays the absurdity and silliness of such a grave act, reflects that uncomfortable nature.
How about Bale?
There are not many rolls that I can think of where I see the character the actor is meant to portray before the star actor who is portraying that character. Heath Ledger as Joker is the obvious, but I also think of roles like Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard in The Fugitive and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs where they just seem like the embodiment of the character they are playing, and I easily slipped into seeing the character first rather than the jarring moment of, ‘Oh there is Brad Pitt playing that character!’
In Bale’s case there are a couple reasons why. The first is that Christian Bale’s ability to embody a character on a physical plane is frightening. He becomes his characters in shocking displays of physical transformation and, more subtly, in body language and the way he carries himself. The overall effect is that I saw Dick Cheney before Christian Bale.
And then he speaks. And he delivers, and he interacts with other characters, and I heard that slightly weezy, belabored cadence that is now so synonymous with the King of the Darkside, and I was all in. Rather than forcing myself to suspend my disbelief, I needed reminding that this was not actual footage.
I would not go out on a film criticism branch to say this is Bale’s best performance, he has too many terrific others, but I will say it is my personal favorite.
Can you do that?
I love movies that are so self-aware that they break rules and get away with it. Movies that do stuff so bizarre that no one entertained the notion of doing it previously. Into the Spider-verse did it with animation for an entire film. Vice did it with a couple scenes.
The first scene was the false ending. They literally rolled the damn credits with an hour to go in the film. My theater became VERY uncomfortable, and I laughed too much. To find a unique way to point out how dramatic and impactful Dick Cheney was to American history by making us imagine that he had never come back after his heart attack and just quietly retired with his family was, to me, comedic brilliance. It also was stupid and should never have been done.
The other moment was the Shakespearean monologue as we pictured Dick and Lynne in their bedroom discussing the Vice Presidency and the opportunity it may provide for power and advancement in Dick’s career. This also seemed to throw my theater into some confusion, but the allusions to Shakespearian power struggles and politics as well as the stage-worthy delivery from Bale and Adams worked for me, making an awkward and random scene add to the significance of moments in modern history.
This isn’t unusual for Adam McKay (director). Just remember the breakout of Enya in The Big Short before Margot Robbie explained shorting the housing market while sitting in a bubble bath or go back and watch Talladega Nights or The Other Guys to see how he is always pushing the envelope to find the balance between funny and critical.
If it works for you, it really works for you. And if it doesn’t, I have to imagine it derails you from the entire film.
Is it politically unfair?
When a director makes a movie about politics, they invite another facet of criticism outside the bounds of the very robust criticism they will already receive for making a film. Vice was no exception and the railing against it often felt rooted in dislike for the politics of the film or the choices the film made considering that it dealt with politics.
Those criticisms aren’t unfair. Viewers should be allowed to bail on a film that chose to be about politics if they don’t like how it portrayed politics, because we don’t fault people for liking a film for the way it portrayed their politics (or at least we shouldn’t). But I would like to add a few pieces to the discussion to try and add clarity to some of the balance this movie tried to find amidst the political sides.
Bale speaks about a deal made between him and McKay, that he would try and portray Cheney in as positive a light as possible in order to try and balance a story that over time now portrays Cheney in a negative way. And while watching Vice, it is hard to not marvel at the brilliance of what Cheney did, and also respect some of the stands and decisions he made along the way. Bale’s portrayal made Cheney, maybe the most abstract figure in modern politics feel human. And that can be powerful.
Also, McKay and Bale both did the research necessary to tell this story. No one doubts the depths Bale goes to understand and portray a character complexly and fairly, but now he coupled with a director who also takes that role seriously. In this case, that is not the easiest rabbit hole to follow, considering how ‘in the dark’ everyone is on Cheney’s vice presidency (you know… the darkside and all that). But according to McKay “He and his team read every book available, and a journalist was hired to interview Cheney’s associates and friends off the record. And they obliged.” In every way possible McKay tried to be true to the facts of that period of our history.
Does that mean it is politically fair? Most certainly not, especially when there is such liberty taken in the comedic portrayal of the movie (including a menu of torture techniques to choose from), which never shines a positive light on the characters.
As the man in the focus group wearing a Keyshawn Johnson Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey (my personal favorite period determiner in any film), said at the end of the movie, “it’s got a liberal bias” directed by a man who is an outspoken Democrat. But come on people… that doesn’t mean half our population can’t watch it.
I grew up with Harry Potter. I picked up The Sorcerer’s Stone when The Goblet of Fire was released, and they were still sold out of The Goblet of Fire by the time I was ready to read it. I viewed the release and reading of each book as any child would, as an inevitable fact, i.e. Rowling will release the next Potter book in about a year, I will read that Potter book, and it will be another wonderful installment in the series. But as time wears on, the legacy of a story gets solidified through the eyes of hindsight, and now I can see, as an adult, that that series of events that happened seven times in a row with Harry Potter, was anything but inevitable
Harry Potter was an invention of storytelling that defined a generation of storytellers to come. I would hesitate to say Rowling did it first, because there are always instances of magical worlds and schools that someone could point to as a predecessor to Hogwarts. But there is no doubt that Harry Potter established the magical young adult genre and cast a backwards light on the books that may have preceded hers, as well as shined a light into the murkiness of the future for any author who desired to write in a similar style. And no one can debate the reason she was able to do this before anyone else, even those who had written something similar…. it is because Harry Potter was and is better than those books.
They may not be your favorite, everyone has their own preferences, but there is no denying the mass appeal of Harry Potter, the absolute mania the books stirred up around the world. It can be encompassed in the lines outside of bookstores that people camped in for days while waiting for the next book’s release, or the easy way we categorize and understand each other by which Harry Potter house we belong to (I’m a Slytherin by the way), or in the absolute shock I feel every time I hear someone has NOT read the books, or maybe its best categorized by my jealousy when I find out someone is reading them for the first time. No book has created all those reactions in me before, maybe some of them, but not all.
And in those moments of Harry Potter mania, while books were still being released, it was easy to think that this’d be the new norm, that more authors like this would raise the banner of the cause and add onto a trail blazed by Rowling of magical novels for children and adults alike. But that didn’t happen, not really, not in the same way.
And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Hunger Games and Twilights got written along with countless others not even worth mentioning that blended magic and teenagers and alternate worlds in a Harry Potter inspired story smoothie. And it is in their lack of success that we can look back and truly appreciate what Rowling did. It is one thing to do something before everyone else, but when no one can replicate it… well that is something else entirely.
I am not unaware of the success of Hunger Games, maybe the closest any young adult book has come to the frenzy Harry Potter caused. There were people waiting in lines, certainly a level of jealousy at those who were reading it the first time, maybe even some surprise at those who hadn’t. But there is a big difference in what Rowling and Collins did. Part of that difference is a number’s game; the other part is a quality concern.
The first book in Hunger Games is an undeniable success, maybe on the level of any other single Harry Potter book. But there were seven Harry Potter books, and only three Collins books. Rowling did what Collins did over two times as much.
But that is an unfair measurement, which is why there is another reason when added to the first that shows the amazing attributes of Harry Potter, and why I realize how spoiled I was in my absolute certitude in the quality and quantity of Rowling’s work. The first book of Hunger Games was an undeniable success on the level of any Harry Potter book, but was the second…? And would anyone claim the third was as well? I would imagine anyone but the most rabid fans of The Hunger Games would say there was a serious decline in quality from the first book to the second, and an equal or greater decline from the second to the third. On top of that, the second and third book were just one story. She didn’t even dive into the hardest part of any series, ending one story and beginning another.
Rowling, on the other hand, created seven separate stories, all on the quality tier of the best of Collins’ work (arguably the second most popular work in Rowling’s field), and far superior to the other two. It’s a bit mind-blowing.
Let’s play this out into other popular stories. My Twilight fans are probably chomping at the bit for some recognition. The inspiration of Rowling on the Twilight realm may be more of a stretch, but there is a magical element to Twilight and they have the same intended audience, which makes the point of comparison fair. I don’t know if Twilight ever reached as far as Hunger Games because Twilight’s content cuts its audience in half (so-long gentlemen), but among its readers there may never have been a more vehement bunch (Team Edward by the way, I can’t understand any members of Team Jacob). But if we compare the feats of Stephanie Meyer to JK Rowling, we run into the same issues as The Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same. Comparable success in the first book, comparable drop off in quality between the first and second and second and third, and she wrote less than half the amount of books.
We could open it up to books of higher consistency in the same genre, like V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy which boasts three excellent books, but none of which have made anywhere near the impact as any single Harry Potter book. They also feel very much like one story in three parts rather than the seven story arcs that Harry Potter creates, despite the overarching meta-narrative the story tells.
So let’s have Harry Potter spar on the battlefield of popularity against the more recent titan of A Song of Ice and Fire a book that is very dissimilar in style and audience, but a book series with magical elements that sells a lot of copies. People wait in lines for Martin’s books in a way reminiscent of those who waited for Rowling’s. Maybe some of the same people who wore wizard’s robes and waved wands in line to wait for Deathly Hallows picked up A Song of Ice and Fire as a more mature reader of magical books and stood in line for A Dance with Dragons wearing a breastplate and waving a sword.
The competition between the two becomes more intense. The fervor of the two is too close to call, but certainly if we take into account the phenomena of the HBO series, it can be argued peak A Song of Ice and Fire matched peak Potter. There is only one problem… and anyone who has read through A Dance of Dragons knows what comes next. The series isn’t done. And the wait between each installment of A Song of Ice and Fire feels like being stuck in book-purgatory.
Are Martin’s books more complicated? Sure! Are they longer? Absolutely! Would it take longer to write Winds of Winter than TheOrder of the Phoenix? No doubt! But how much longer does he need? If anything this comparison shows another incredible trait Rowling displayed as she released seven books in a row year after year after year after year after year after year after year. That’s a consistency and timeliness I took for granted at the time. Of course the next Harry Potter book will come out this summer… But after years and years of waiting for GRRM to get his act together, I take it for granted no longer, and actually marvel at what she accomplished.
So let’s bring out the big guns… Light the warning beacons of Gondor, hail the Riders of Rohan, do not simply walk into this conversation, let’s compare Rowling to Tolkien, mano-e-womano, Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.
The comparison gets fuzzier, Lord of the Rings was released at such a different time that the excitement for each installment is hard to measure. The quality also becomes apples and oranges. I do know that not nearly as many people have read Lord of the Rings as Harry Potter but that is more a product of their accessibility and audience than any failure on the part of the writers. What I do notice is a timeliness issue (Tolkien was, in this way as well as many others, the GRRM before GRRM on this issue, his publishers almost dropped him after The Hobbit’s success because The Lord of the Rings took so long to write). And I also notice that TheLord of the Rings was one continuous story in three parts (Tolkien even wanted them released as one mega-book with The Silmarillion at the beginning).
Certainly, the farther away from similar styles, genres, and intended audiences, the harder the comparisons become, but never does it feel like the difficulty in comparing puts Rowling’s work at a disadvantage, the excuses seem to be needed for the other series to which Harry Potter is being compared.
Once again, everyone has their favorite. But as I look back on my experience with Harry Potter, how it impacted the books I read and the books that were published, and how she did what she did year after year for seven fantastic books, and how no one has done anything close to it since, I can’t help but be in awe of a legacy still in its infancy.
Inception, quite obviously, is all about dreams. Dreams so real they consume and become the abstract place you occupy, so well-conceived people can walk through them and not notice a difference from the world, so meticulous they can convince people they are reality.
These dreams free up director Christopher Nolan to conjure moments in a movie that could never be done in the confines of reality and gives us brilliantly conceived settings and impossible physics with no explanation needed. His mind was his limit. And as Eames told Arthur as he cocked his grenade launcher, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling.” Nolan was free to create whatever he wanted.
So which dream-space was the coolest? Which had the best action? Which was the place where Nolan dreamt the biggest?
The movie starts out with tone setting scenery in the Japanese Castle, Arthur’s dream. This dream is intriguing because first time watchers have no clue what is going on. Viewers are introduced to all the different elements of extraction- what the point of it is, subconscious projections, kicks, extractors, Mal, dying and waking up- through mere exposure, with further context coming later. It creates an intense desire to know more. To want to figure out how it all works and unlike some questions in film, these have satisfying answers.
All of this takes place in an awesome Japanese Castle while a swanky party swirls around them. The images feel like they fell from a James Bond movie, and yet they are a bit odd, a bit strange. The scenes are slow, not very interactive, stilted. Working in that space between dreams and reality must be challenging, but Nolan found a way to set an appropriate tone for his dream-spaces as displayed in this first dream. They are not quite reality.
This dream also introduces us to the infinite possibilities of a dream-space, its capacity for action and beauty. We see Cobb at his best when we does that sweet thing where he shoots a dude with a silenced pistol, catches the casing, and then slides under the body before it hits the ground, and we see future conflict possibilities when he interacts with Mal. But that is trumped and forgotten by maybe the best single shot in the entire film, when Cobb looks up at a tidal wave of water, as the kick comes rushing towards him like a tsunami. Nolan has a penchant for opening scenes that immediately get buy-in, and this one is no different (I know this technically isn’t the opening scene, but the one that comes before it is more like a prologue in my opinion).
This is one of the best dream-spaces because of what it does for the story, however, it isn’t one of the best designed, and the action isn’t nearly up to what happens in some of the spaces in the final dream sequence, so it is terrific, but it is not Nolan dreaming his biggest.
When they kick out of the Japanese Castle, they wake up in Saito’s Apartment, Nash’s dream. This is a quick segment clearly not Nolan’s biggest dreaming, but provides a top-tier moment in the film, when Saito (the second coolest character behind Eames) realizes that the carpeting is not wool like in real life and “that they are actually still dreaming.” A great movie moment that set up potential for a film that wants to mash your reality into a sticky pulp. The viewer thought they were done with the bizarreness, that they had woken up into normalcy. But not so fast, this won’t be that simple.
Then, the movie spends a little time in reality, only to plunge back into dream-space at a Parision Café in Cobb’s dream. This provides another reality bending moment when a conversation between Ariadne and Cobb seamlessly becomes a dream with no break in the action, teaching us that the subject never remembers how they got into a dream, another slight twist that forces the viewer to stay on their toes or they may end up perceiving a dream as reality, just as the characters are wont to do.
This dream-scene also has some of the best special effects of the film. When Ariadne discovers she is dreaming, the dream-space starts falling apart, not in a boring crumbling, but with giant pops of explosion that create smaller explosions, fireworks of vegetables and shattered glass. These explosions also bend time, starting fast and retracting into slow motion. The effect is technically stunning. Later we get another great special effects moment when Ariadne, flexing her dream-muscles, folds the city in half on top of itself and then proceeds to lead Cobb into the upside down version of their current world (arguably this is better special effects than the dream explosions, but I can’t get over how awkward they look when they step from the flat world to the upside down world, it’s like bad video game graphics). These moments depict what is possible when simple rules of physics no longer apply and a person’s only limitation is what they can dream. So this space has a few really cool moments, but in an action film a scene with no action cannot possibly be Nolan dreaming his biggest.
Another education-dream happens not too long later, this time it is Arthur’s dream of a Lobby. Not much to see here other than a visual representation of the Penrose steps which is clever and cool, but this is more function than anything else, laying groundwork for future moments and conflicts.
The movie takes a much heavier turn next when Ariadne enters Cobb’s Apartment of memories. In a movie that tries to conflate reality and unreality, keeping the audience guessing is paramount. This dream is a shift in expectations and tone of dream spaces, turning them into more than a matrix-like place where anything is possible, into a personal representation of one’s inner self. The words of Yusuf’s assistant in the den of dreamers comes to mind, “They come here to be woken up. Their dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?” Powerful words that add heart to the story, making it more about Cobb’s dreams than about dreaming, making it more about overcoming inner conflicts than the external. And this concept plays out perfectly across the face of Ariadne, the character whose learning mirrors the viewer’s, as she watches Cobb break every rule, using dreams like heroine. Preferring to live in his dreams than reality. This may not be Nolan dreaming at his biggest, but it is Nolan dreaming at his best.
Then comes the big finale, the dream sequence, a dream within a dream within a dream and a side of limbo, hold the scrambled brains. The sequence begins in on the Rainy Streets of Yusuf’s dream. Yusuf needing to pee so therefore it rains was a nice touch, because… you know… we’ve all been there. This dream-space is all about how the inception went to shit. The intensity that draws the viewer in is established here, starting with a freight train hitting the team’s car in the middle of a city street (anything is possible) and then Fischer’s subconscious trying to kill them on these same streets. Merely an annoying obstacle at first, until Cobb tells them that they are too heavily sedated to wake up if they die. Now we’re talking…
In this first dream-space in the dream sequence, the action is fast and furious, the train is an awesome moment, and the story is developed better than the next dream-spaces, but the creativity is lacking. So it is maybe one of the most engaging dream-spaces (it is always interesting to see what’s happening on this level during the inception because of all the action), but Nolan could still dare to dream a bit bigger.
So we descend into level two of the dream sequence into a Hotel, Arthur’s dream. Eames was right, Arthur is a bit of a wet blanket. Both his dreams are very professional lobbies and hotels. But this setting is legit. The rainy streets above are chaos and confusion and the level after this is equally as discordant, so this space feels like the calm in the storm. A breath of fresh air in the story, where characters can interact without their lives being threatened. It’s neat and organized, things go fairly well, the plan gets solidified, Fischer is brought onto their side using the Mr. Charles gambit, all in the neat and tidy brain of Arthur the point man.
Nolan messes with the viewers brains when the Mr. Charles gambit confuses whose dream is whose, nobody can tell whether Browning is Eames or Eames is Browning. And later on, Arthur needs to figure out how to trigger a kick in zero gravity. There are mind-bending decisions being made, which makes a normal action sequence feel alive and original. We are not just seeing people fight and get shot at, we are seeing humans struggle and overcome.
We also see one of the best fight scenes in film (based on creativity). Arthur fights subconscious hitmen while the van rolls down a hill in the layer above, leaving the hallway he is in spinning during the fight. Even so, Arthur (and his opposition) show immense wherewithal as they punch and shoot it out on the walls and the ceilings and fall through doors that are now floors. This is one of my favorite movie scenes, unforgettable, and another moment of Nolan at his finest, taking a simple trope (a fight scene) and dreaming it into something bigger than ever before. He also flexes those creativity muscles when Arthur must come up with a way to drop them in zero gravity, a terrific problem to force a character to solve, since I would imagine most viewers had no clue where to even start thinking about how to solve it. And it was super tense since he had to do it while beating the clock and slowly floating through hallways at a slower pace than anyone was comfortable with. This dream-space has the action, it has the storyline, it has the special effects and terrific Nolan moments. This may be him dreaming at his biggest, but let’s hold off until we see the other two dream-spaces.
As they dive into the last layer (supposedly) of the dream sequence the pace quickens and the plot intensifies in the Snow Fortress, Eames dream. Everyone must move faster than originally planned because Yusef cues the song too soon, prompting Ariadne to provide Cobb, and by extension Mal, with the short cut that leads to Fischer being sent to limbo. Meanwhile Eames is going ham on the snowy peaks destroying an entire army by himself on skis and jet skis and trooping through snow. He almost single handedly makes the team succeed, but they ultimately fail. The pace is breathtaking, and you don’t quite realize how invested you are until Eames, as he frantically places defibrillators on Fischer’s lifeless form asks, “So that’s it?” Then the music cuts and butt cheeks unclench, and everyone realizes how invested they were. Its top-notch action in a film full of terrific action. Later on, during the kick back up this space hosts the payoff of all this craziness when Fischer finally makes it into the safe to see what his father wanted for him. But this is the least dream-like dream-space. Nothing too crazy happens to bend physics and reality, and thus it doesn’t feel like Nolan is dreaming his biggest, it’s just Eames going ham, which is awesome, but not enough to make this the best dream-space.
There is still one more dream-space. The place no one hoped to go. Limbo. In some ways the opposite of the Snowy Fortress, Limbo is all Nolan’s imagination and no action, another pacing trick, well placed after that frantic action of the previous dream-space. Buildings crumble into the sea, buildings rest inside of other buildings, cottages sit on city streets, and everything shows its rot and decay after Mal and Cobb abandoned their creation so long ago. This dream-space is profound, a visual and internal precipice for the story, and the home for so much backstory and catharsis. Cobb is finally able to let go of the dreams he was holding onto and face reality for the first time since he was forced to run from his children so long ago. He finally had his way home, physically and mentally, and that moment in Limbo, is the ultimate payoff in this film, more than the successful inception or any of the action. For that reason I would like to say Limbo is Nolan dreaming his biggest, and I think I believe it, however when I think of Inception, and I think about the brilliance of the movie, I often find my mind wandering down the hallways of Arthur’s Hotel dream, and I replay the spinning hallway, and I see events in that unique lighting of those hotel rooms. That dream-space seems to capture Inception more than any other. So I guess I’ll just leave it up to you to decide.
The entire Game of Throne’s series was a historical moment in television, a fantasy epic became the frontrunner in television, a must see that was as pervasive in culture as any show had ever been. And because of its fantastical nature the show was able to present and provide TV moments the likes of which we have never seen before (Ned’s death, The Battle of the Blackwater, The Mountain vs The Viper, That Battle of The Bastards etc…) . The excellence of the show was unquestioned going into the final season, but then….oh lord, but then…
The audience’s turn against the series is maybe the most historic of moments in GoT. Public opinion has maybe never swung so quickly and so far on something so beloved. So if you didn’t watch the GoT final season live or if you remember back to that journey, this is what it was like- recorded to the best of my ability- to watch each episode, and then wait a week for the next, as the populace ranted or raved about what they just saw.
Episode 1- “Winterfell” (April 14th 2019)
The first episode was carried by an entire year of anticipation and excitement. The joys of seeing characters reunited at Winterfell, some having been apart since the first season, was exciting, and the general reaction was joy for getting back into a season of GoT.
This episode also did a good job establishing Daenarys’ character arc, the most controversial character in the final season (mostly for her ‘lack of development’). This episode didn’t feel like it had that problem. Right from the opening scene are subtle clues that Daenerys was disappointed at not being welcomed as a hero (as she had wanted from the beginning) but instead found joy in the actual conquering like when her dragons scare the living shit out of everyone in Winterfell. The north rejected Daenerys, was uncomfortable with the foreigner, and her descent to becoming the Mad Queen begins/continues (the problem, it could be argued, is that it didn’t get this much attention sooner, but alas that is another blog).
Something that is true on further viewing, but was not a complaint until later episodes, was how much the pace picked up. Developments happened in sentences that used to take episodes. This isn’t inherently wrong, but the extremity of the change of pace was bound to upset some viewers. I did not hear many complaints about it after this episode, but it’s clear the seeds were planted right away.
Overall, the first episode was decent and fun as we got reacquainted with the characters we love, and they got reacquainted with each other, and it was received well. It felt like the beginning of something special.
Episode 2- “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (April 21st 2019)
This episode was a bit of Game of Thrones brilliance that had everyone chomping at the bit for more, which ultimately backfired, but at the time, no one could see that coming.
The interactions continued, in classic Game of Thrones style, building an investment in each character to create buy-in for a big moment to come, in this case, the battle for Winterfell. Jaime meeting Daenerys and reuniting with Tyrion and Brienne and interacting with Bran were all great moments that continued the vibes of the first episode, and the rest of it was much of the same with other characters, Jorah with Lyanna and Sam, while Daenerys and Sansa had a meme-worthy exchange.
But the excitement was generated from the waiting, the pontificating and philosophizing between Tyrion and Gendry and Davos and others as news of the Army of the Dead arrives and preparations were made. The episode was a terrific display of the quiet tension that precedes a battle, building the anticipation of the viewers to see a moment they had been waiting years…decades for. By the end, it was painful for the credits to roll. I remember my longing for the next Sunday night when we get to see “The Long Night” and the battle for Winterfell. Game of Thrones was right on track.
Episode 3- “The Long Night” (April 28th 2019)
This episode was one of the most anticipated moments in all of television. It was a daily conversation as the week progressed. Who would die? Who would kill the Night King? WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN?
People made bingo boards or made bets or played fantasy games based on who would die and who would live. Afterall, this was Game of Thrones, this was the show that had no problem with killing your favorite characters.
Viewer beware, some of your favorites were about to die.
The question wasn’t will people die, but who? Whose storyline has run out? Who wasn’t necessary for the rest of the season? Who was safe? Whose task was not yet completed?
Based on conversations at the time… sayonara Davos and Jorah and Gendry, we got no need for you. Brienne, you had your moment with Jaime, time to go. Arya was on the chopping block because it seemed like she was floundering. Jon was safe, he had too much left to do. Tyrion seemed like a solid choice for a shocking death. The speculation went on and on…
And when the episode arrived, and the Dothraki flames were lit and then extinguished one by one… I couldn’t have been more bought it, which is incredible to think about, because in over an hour, most people couldn’t have been more turned off.
This episode was the turning point for the entire final season. Beforehand was peak GoT fervor. Afterwards, everyone was ravenously mad. And here’s why, based on what I remember being said, and on further evaluation since…
“The psychology of the battle made no sense.” I remember people saying this a lot. I don’t want to get too far into these weeds, but there were some obvious issues with sending your Dothraki out to slaughter early on (in what world do you send your cavalry out first, and that far away from your main forces?), the way the Unsullied died to safe inferior forces (only to have a large group of them miraculously be alive in the next episode), why you would have Daenerys and Jon on mother fucking dragons just chilling and floating around and only every once in a while strafing the ground with fire, even before the undead dragon arrived… stuff like that.
On top of that, it was impossible to see Jon and Daenerys and whatever the hell they were doing. I don’t have much more to say about that, because I couldn’t see what they were doing. Super dark.
No one really died, except for everyone we didn’t know. The ratios were just so bad. Like everyone dies. Piles of bodies everywhere, and yet of our main characters we lost… Jorah? Come one Game of Thrones… you have to be a bit more realistic. Sam Tarly , who has no survival skills at all, was hacking away at the undead and survived. Disconnection settled into viewers as it become hard to argue that our characters survived, merely because they were our characters, not based on any reality of the battle they fought in. So much for being the show that kills characters.
People were murderously mad that Arya killed the Night King and that it wasn’t left to Jon. In an effort to be surprising and live up to its name (rather than killing some more main characters which earned them the rep) they decided to deprive us of a special moment most viewers had waited for since Jon and the Night King first crossed swords. Instead we got a rushed stabbing. People did not like the trade-off, and it’s not surprising.
So, the change in opinion was on. The episode was an amazing feat of filming, the battle was awesome, but the story wasn’t advanced in the battle, and a lot of it was hard to follow visually and intellectually. The first two episodes did not receive the payoff they deserved and so the formula GOT had been using from the beginning (build, build, build, BOOM) was broken. The season wasn’t ruined, but Game of Thrones had disappointed its viewers, and we were not used to it, nor happy about it.
Episode 4- “The Last of the Starks” (May 5th 2019)
The critical eye of the viewers was turned to episode 4. A big moment in GOT fandom had been botched, but they seemed ready to forgive.
However, this episode only compounded issues. In hindsight, the stories in episode 4 were very self-contained, introduced and developed in a matter of one episode, a trademark of shows on cable TV, not HBO, and certainly not Game of Thrones, where the pace tends to be frustratingly slow as we build and grind to huge payoffs.
But in this episode, we see Jaime have sex with Brienne and then change his mind and run back to Cersei when for the last two episodes he had been devoted to Daenerys’ cause. Missandei is captured and executed in a half hour span. The army in the North decides to go to King’s Landing and arrive at King’s Landing in minutes rather than episodes. A dragon is abruptly killed, with no fanfare. Gendry is made lord of Storm’s End, proposes to Arya, and is rejected.
So after an episode with no payoff for long built storylines, we see storylines develop and end in the matter of a single episode. Others had been brewing, like Tyrion and Varys wondering if Jon would be a better ruler, but were landed with a clunk, without any of the smart politics that got all these characters to this point (wE aRe cOmMiTtInG tReAsOn DoN’t TeLl AnYoNe.)
Plus, we are one episode away from another big battle (which is another pacing issue), and the inner complexities of that moment weren’t revisited. All the characters seemed to have other personal quests to accomplish, which isn’t bad, but if creators going to do a season in six episodes by choice, they are going to need more efficiency than that.
The boo birds were out in full swing after this. The pace of the episode and the season in general were now wonky, and people were decrying Weiss and Benioff as ruining the season with lazy writing and poor development. And all of that anger seemed to come out onto that damn coffee cup that could be seen in one scene. It seemed to be the taunting example of the lack of care that viewers were feeling as they watched at home.
Episode 5- “The Bells” (May 12th 2019)
This is where the show and its reception get tricky. I think this episode is good, but the build to it was bad. So some of the criticism is well founded, and some of it is not.
After the fast paced and underdeveloped previous episode, just about the worst thing this episode could do was open with a hasty death of a beloved character in a manner unbefitting that character. Lo and behold, Varys gets torched for letting one of his secrets slip? I don’t believe it. I’m not buying it for a second, and neither did anyone else. So hackles were raised from two bad episodes before this and an inauspicious beginning.
Otherwise, this episode had a lot of payoff for long running storylines, and most of them are done well. The Hound and The Mountain die locked in battle. Jaime kills Euron, reunites with Cersei and they die arm in arm (some didn’t like this death, but it seemed fine to me). Cersei must watch the city that she failed to protect burn as she watched, helpless, a destroyed queen. Daenerys did work on Drogon, as she flew and burned her enemies. We got to see images we had prepared for since those baby dragons hatched.
But some stuff wasn’t great. The Golden Company was gone before the ink on their contract was dry. Arya seemed like she ran out of stuff to do a while ago. And it’s hard not to say that Daenerys’ turn wasn’t bad when it got such a negative reaction.
They certainly had been planting the seeds for a Mad Queen for episodes and seasons (there’s even really cool stuff about how her hair becomes more complex as she becomes madder). And this season was largely dedicated to Daenerys being rejected as a savior in Westeros and instead being treated as an invader. But people weren’t feeling the turn.
I am speculating here, but it feels like the moment she made the decision to turn wasn’t significant enough to create the final snap. The straw that broke the camel’s back needed to be more like a tree branch to convince us that she did something so drastic. She heard the bells, and we could see her thinking, her brain whirring with considerations. But what finally did it? What made her snap? We couldn’t imagine what was going through her mind, and that’s on the storytellers for not making it clear in that moment what was the reason(s) such a significant shift occurred in a much beloved character. It can’t be all the subtle slights she received. She received far worse across the Narrow Sea and never burned it to the ground. What was going on in her mind? It’s still hard to say for certain.
At this point the season was unrecoverable.
Episode 6- “The Iron Throne” (May 19th 2019)
The question on everyone’s mind since they started reading A Game of Thrones or started the first episode of the first season was ‘who would end up on the iron throne?’ I’m not sure too many people were satisfied with the answer… which was no one. It was melted by a dragon.
People could have been satisfied with that ending. By itself, it is not a bad ending. It makes sense in a poetic kind of way. But it would take some build and buy-in by the viewership, and by this point, the show had none.
Moments that were going to be stupendous, monumental, climactic, cathartic resolutions became little more than drops in an emotional bucket or head scratching decisions credited to two creators that, at this point, everyone hated.
Tyrion being imprisoned for treason felt blah. Like okay, he’ll be out. Jon stabbing Daenerys felt confusing because it was based on a Daenerys heel turn that people were still puzzling over. Drogon melting the throne felt poetic and symbolic, but not for the reasons the creators wanted, but because it represented the viewership’s lack of getting what they wanted, their final season bursting into flames and melting before their eyes. And then when Bran the Broken was declared king, based on a weak speech from someone who was supposed to be a prisoner, no one quite knew what was going on. Then Jon Snow was sent to the wall because the Unsullied hated him, and then we watched the Unsullied sail away leaving people wondering how a group of people who no longer lived in Westeros could convince a new king who loved Jon to do that to him.
I believe these are symptoms of the danger inherent in GRRM feeding the show creators the ending. They had to get to this ending. So they started, not with where the characters were in their development, but with Jon at the wall, Bran as king, Daenerys as the Mad Queen killed by Jon, no one sitting on the Iron Throne… and then they were forced to get there. It didn’t feel organic, it didn’t feel true.
At the end of it all with time as the great healer of wounds, the last season wasn’t what it could or should have been, rushed and lacking in inspiration, too short and too fast. But the problems are so complex and interwoven, if only a couple of decisions had been changed (full season of ten episodes, better battle of Winterfell, the show doing its own ending), who knows what it would have looked like? Most of the episodes were pretty decent standalone episodes. But that only creates a pretty decent season. And when the show is trying to meet the expectations of the final season of what could’ve been a top three show of all time… pretty decent might as well be a tire fire.
One of the best conversations in film is debating ‘who should have won.’ In these posts we going revisit the great award debates, and decide, in hindsight, who should’ve won.
One of my favorite years for Best Picture nominees was 2011. I wouldn’t argue it had the best movies out of any year, but they had the most that I had seen and enjoyed at the point of the Academy Awards, so I was most invested in this year’s winner.
The nominees I loved, and still love, include Inception, Toy Story 3, The Fighter, True Grit, The Social Network, andthe ultimate winner, The King’s Speech. That’s stacked.
I don’t think all of them had a chance at winning, and now that time has gone on, the debate mainly rages around whether The Social Network should have won rather than The King’s Speech.
So let’s put them on trial and see who should have won the 2011 Best Picture award.
And remember, never convince yourself a movie is bad as you defend why you like another better.
The Case for The Social Network
Fincher and Sorkin team up for a biographical drama that chronicles the inception of one of the most influential and notorious companies on planet earth… Facebook. And time has been kind to this story. If in 2011 this seemed like a relevant and controversial explanation about how the website that has changed all our lives was created, that has only become truer in 2020, as Russian interference, fake news, and discordant political and moral arguments abound on the social network. Watching a movie that documents the origin, which is also mired in interference and discord, of that network provides added weight to an already fantastic film.
Sorkin’s dialogue works best with jargon that needs to be fired off at a rapid clip, so writing lines for the intelligent and aloof Zuckerberg who will say whatever he wants, audience be damned and you better hope you can keep up, seemed like an alley-oop into a top tier film. Couple him with Fincher’s ability to portray the deviant side of man, and we have an interesting and oblique look into this story with dialogue that buzzes us through and around the characters. The feel and visual is a small step removed from one of Fincher’s serial killer films, which works all too well, making bright blue backgrounds, Harvard campuses, and modern business offices seem sinister and beyond the pale.
All of this coalesces into a relevant and haunting look into an important element of our lives. Taking on the telling of Facebook’s story is a daunting task, but the movie was insightful, meaningful, and entertaining, and more than did it justice.
The Case for The King’s Speech
The comparison for the 2011 Best Picture Award is an interesting one. Both based on true stories, both focusing on one man trying to create a legacy. One is a modern tale, and one is now a part of history. The Social Network was a story familiar to us all, and The King’s Speech had gone largely untold.
As exciting as it was to get a narrative peek behind the curtain at the Oz who directs our virtual lives, it was equally as tantalizing to discover a story, amidst a well-documented time period, that was unfamiliar. The King’s Speech feels like an intimate portrayal of a friend you never knew you had, bringing us a look into King George VI’s unexpected and unwanted rise to power, a striking contrast to the greed and ruthless power-grab of Zuckerberg.
King George’s stutter, the lynchpin of The King’s Speech’s narrative, contrasts with the fast-paced jargon of The Social Network, and Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George and his love for family and desire to remain behind the scenes is the antithesis of Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg.
These differences lend to different strengths. Years fly by in a rabid back and forth between modern legal drama and the inception of Facebook in The Social Network. Every moment feels significant in its action and delivery and yet no part feels greater than the whole.
Conversely, The King’s Speech makes the intimate moment’s between people, who are trying to understand their changing relationships to each other and their changing world, feel bigger than the narrative itself. When I think of The Social Network I think of the story, when I think of The King’s Speech, I think of moments when Logue calls the king ‘Bertie,’ when they bounce up and down together in his classroom, when George hears himself speak without a stutter for the first time, when George breaks down in front of his wife for fear of becoming king, and ultimately, that speech of such great tension and even greater triumph, a simple act that provides so much hope.
Therein lies the difference between the films. The King’s Speech is about the simple choices we make, a divorce, a speech and the phenomenal ripple effect they can have over time. And The Social Network is about the monumental decision of one man who knew he was changing the world, and the impact that is yet to be seen.
The Rebuttal for The Social Netowrk
The Social Network is an attempt to add significance to our moment in time. Facebook is our watershed moment to go along with the invention of the iPhone, the cumulative moment of our technology era. So when we watch the film we want it to be significant and prescient, we want it to mean something as the years go by. And maybe it will, but that desire can feel self-serving.
As far as composition, that famous Sorking dialogue is not for everyone. It’s like a dessert, it’s good, but not everyone would choose to have more dessert than dinner. And at times The Social Network feels like it thinks its smarter than it is. Too many lines cry for attention like a 2008 teenage girl status update. To be fair, The Social Network may need that dialogue, it works, and its why the movie is good, but it does lack for subtlety.
The Rebuttal for The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech is made for Award’s shows. It’s about WWII, it takes its time, makes room for actors to have career defining performances, but it’s all a bit slow and pondersome. We live in an era of efficiency. Trim the fat and give us the essentials. So the biggest blow against The King’s Speech is that in its effort to be great, it may leave out room to entertain.
Time is a friend for The Social Network. And as time has gone by, the sinister undertones of the film have only become more prescient. Add that to the entertainment value in a film that provides a peak into a significant part of our lives, and it seems like The Social Network has become the popular pick to have won this category.
I would like to add, however, that The King’s Speech was not a bad selection. I have heard this choice portrayed as akin to Shakespeare In Love and that, my friends, is absurd.