Monday, April 30, 2007

Keep swinging: Everyone's Hero and the last lesson of Christopher Reeve

Family movie night this week was the negligible Happily N'Ever After, a good premise done in by a script that seemed to have been written with the idea in mind that nothing was to go onto the screen that would tax the modest talents of the computer animators. The result is kind of a Greek tragedy of a cartoon with all the important action taking place offstage while the characters declaim about their troubles and woes.

Last week the family feature was the only slightly better animated Everyone's Hero, a tall tell set in the year when the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs faced off for the second time straight in the World Series and the Cubbies came close to defeating the Yankees in six games, because the Cubs crazed owner, who is not Philip Wrigley, has Babe Ruth's magic bat, Darlin' stolen from his locker in Yankee Stadium.

The Cubs and the Yanks played each other in the 1932 Series, the Yankees wining it in four straight. In 1933 the New York Giants beat the Washington Nationals Senators Nationals Senators (Either one. See comments), 4-1. In '34 the Cardinals beat the Tigers, 4-3.

The Cubs were back in the Series in '35 and they lost, Detroit.

The next and only other time the Cubs and the Yankees met in the World Series was 1938 and the Cubs lost again, of course. But not because Babe Ruth swung a magic bat or any bat. Ruth was gone from the Yankees by then.

You could look it up.

In other words, Everyone's Hero is set in a year that never was, call it 1932B, a magical year in which baseballs could talk like Rob Reiner trying to sound like Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc and bats talked like Whoopi Goldberg sounding like Scarlet O'Hara one moment and like Aretha Franklin the next, the World Series was played over the course of two and a half weeks, without any rainouts, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Irish Bob Muesel, and Earle Combs, all of Murderers Row except for Babe Ruth, forgot how to hit at the same time and the Babe was carrying the team on his back, Ruth transformed into an elegant, articulate sophisticate, a little rough around the edges, but modest and self-effacing, and---SPOILER ALERT---a ten year old boy could be inserted into the World Series line-up at the last minute and hit a game-winning inside the park home run.

The younger critics in the Mannion family room bought the idea of anthropomorphic sporting equipment the idea that the rules of the game would be automatically suspended just so the hero of the movie could save the day in dramatic fashion.

They also thought it was just plain dumb that the story took all that trouble to get the Babe his magic bat back and then didn't have him swing it.

You got that right. SPOILER ALERT IS STILL IN EFFECT. The movie does not show Babe Ruth hitting a home run.

There's a difference between implausible and stupid and Everyone's Hero defines it in its final ten minutes.

Up until that point it's a likable enough evening's diversion. Not terrible, but nothing to write home about and not worth a blog post half as long as this one already is and the only reason I'm still going on at this point---you knew I would have an excuse, didn't you?---is the moral of Everyone's Hero.

I've said it before here and I'll say it again. I don't like morals in kids' movies. Mainly for two reasons.

One, it's usually the same moral no matter what the movie. Be True to Yourself. Variations of this are Follow Your Heart and Follow Your Dreams. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing any of these things, provided you know who you are and you are a decent person worth being true to and you can tell the difference between what your heart is telling you to do and what your vanity, ego, id, and appetites are telling you to do, and you're not insane or deluded and your dreams are things you have the ability to realize. Not knowledge most children possess, but never mind. As the guiding principle for character development, though, Be True to Yourself seems to me a recipee for raising a generation of egomaniacal monsters.

So I wish moviemakers would come up with some additional morals to tack on to their movies.

But it's that idea of morals being tacked on that makes me dislike them so much. Because that's what morals usually are. Tacked on.

Morals may or may not grow intrinsically from a story's theme. But when they appear, not always at the end, often they're repeated again and again throughout the movie, the filmmakers beating their young audience over the head with them, they appear in CAPITAL LETTERS, as the narrator or a character stops the action dead to lecture the audience, pretty much saying, "Now, children, what important idea have we learned here today?"




Or, in the case of Everyone's Hero:


If a moral grows out of the story then it's unnecessary to have anybody say it. Kids are pretty swift on the uptake. They get the point.

The little kid hero of Everyone's Hero who rescues Ruth's stolen bat and sets out to return it to him, a ten year old boy named Yankee Irving, has a big heart and big dreams, he is a devoted and knowledgeable baseball fan---he's a Jewish kid from a city that has three Major League teams, but he also follows the Negro Leagues closely enough to know all the players---and he loves the New York Yankees. But he's short, uncoordinated, impatient, and not good at following instructions, all of which combined make him the worst ballplayer in his neighborhood. He's the kind of player whose best chance of getting on base is by never swinging and hoping for a walk. Naturally, he's always the last kid picked. Naturally, this breaks his heart. Naturally, by the end of the movie he's going to be the one to come through for everybody in the clutch.

He's able to save the day because he never gives up. He keeps swinging. Throw him off a moving train to Chicago and he bounces to his feet and starts walking.

Literally, Yankee's never thrown off a train, although he comes close to falling off one several times. He is put off the train to Chicago, because he doesn't have a ticket. But the train stops and the conductor shoos him off at a station in rural Pennsylvania, and after a moment of despair, Yankee plucks up his courage and starts walking.

Figuratively, though, Yankee is thrown off a lot of moving trains. He has a lot of adventures on the way to Chicago that almost take the heart out of him. But he keeps on going. He stays in the box and keeps swinging. As a lesson for kids, this isn't a bad one. Don't give up. Keep looking for a way to succeed. If this plan doesn't work, come up with another one. Go back to the drawing board and try, try again.

And I've said this before and I'll say it again, I don't mind lessons in kids' movies. Lessons are different from morals. A lesson is a practical piece of wisdom a story teaches just by telling itself. Kids watching Everyone's Hero don't need to have it explained to them that when you've got a problem to solve the only way to solve it is to solve it---to keep at it, keep swinging. They'll get it.

But the filmmakers didn't trust their audience. Every step of the way somebody stops the story dead to tell Yankee, KEEP SWINGING, KID! and by the time the movie's reached its implausible and stupid climax, the lesson has turned into a moral that is very close to becoming another version of FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.

The utter stupidity of the ending undercuts the good of the lesson, to boot, by suggesting that as long as you keep swinging at some point the rules of the universe will magically rewrite themselves in your favor and you will get your heart's desire just by virtue of having wanted it.

At any rate, not being a kid, just a dumb grown-up and therefore not swift on the uptake, by the time Yankee reached Wrigley Field and was poised to save the day, I had grown cynical about the lesson cum moral and was busy thinking up lots of examples of when Keep Swinging is in fact bad advice---I'd even muttered out loud, although, I hope, only loud enough for the blonde to hear, That's one lesson I wish George Bush hadn't learned; we'd be out of Iraq by now. She told me to shut my trap. Then the final credits rolled and I saw something that did make me shut my trap.

Produced and directed by Christopher Reeve.

Everyone's Hero was the project Reeve was working on when he died.

Judging from the documentary tribute that's a special feature on the DVD, he was only there for the earliest planning stages. He worked on the storyboarding, but he never saw even the first stages of animation.

I don't know how close to final the draft of the script he was working from was. I'd like to think that he wouldn't have allowed the stupid ending. I'm not sure, but I had a sense, listening to them talk, that the filmmakers who finished Everyone's Hero for him wanted the movie to be a kind of monument to Reeve and they might have gone overboard on the idea of showing how a hero who everyone thought couldn't accomplish what he wanted to coming through in the end. It's an article of faith among everybody who knew him that if he had lived Reeve would have done what was thought to be impossible. He'd have been the first quadrapalegic to get out of a wheelchair and walk again. It may have been that his friends thought they needed to show that happening metaphorically in his last movie.

I don't know.

All I do know is that if there was anyone who had earned the right to teach children that the most important thing is to stay in there, to try and continue trying, to never give up, to keep swinging, it was Christopher Reeve.

When he died, Reeve was still in the batter's box, still swinging.

Extra innings:

Keep swinging isn't the only good lesson of Everyone's Hero. As he makes his way to Chicago, Yankee is helped along by a bunch of characters who are, like Yankee himself, people not held in very high regard by the most everybody else. They not only help get him to Chicago, they teach him how to be a better baseball player. He learns about strategy from a trio of hobos. He learns how to throw from a little girl. And he learns how to hit and how to play with confidence from some men who will never get to play ball in the Major Leagues even though they are every bit as good as the players on the Cubs and the Yankees because they are black.

Not bad lessons for kids: No one can do it all on their own. All of us need help. Everyone we meet has something worth sharing, something to teach. Everyone counts.


In the movie the Cubs' owner is obsessed with Babe Ruth as the source of all his unhappiness. In real life, Ruth didn't win the '32 Series single-handedly for the Yankees and in fact he wasn't all that great a factor in the Cubs' defeat. He had a good series, but he hit only two home runs, both of them in the same game. If Chicago fans had a reason to fear and loathe Ruth it was because of what he did to the Cubs in the 1918 World a pitcher...for the Boston Red Sox.

You could look it up.

Robin Williams does the voice of the Cubs' crazy, Irish-brogued, Ruth-hating owner. William H. Macy does the voice of the cheating Cubs pitcher who steals Ruth's bat. Robert Wagner does the voice of the New York Yankees' general manager. And Mandy Patinkin does the voice of Yankee's father. All of them were good friends of Christopher Reeve.

In the documentary, Patinkin tells about how when they were very young actors and he and Reeve were doing a play together in New York after rehearsals they used to ride home together on the subway. The first of Reeve's Superman movies had recently opened so Reeve was suddenly a big star, but, says Patinkin, nobody ever recognized him on the train because of his modesty. Patinkin's point was that Reeve never called attention to himself in a movie star way. He was just another working stiff taking the subway home.

I find it a little hard to believe that try as hard as they might have to blend in these two very handsome and very large young men could have sat there completely unnoticed on the subway night after night. But then New Yorkers practice at being bored by the incredible.

What I really like about the story is just the picture of two friends at the beginning of what will turn out for both of them to be wonderful careers riding home together. I think that's how all of us should be remembered, as we were when we were young and at our best and our lives were full of hope and promise.

Reeve's widow Dana Reeve was one of the co-producers of Everyone's Hero and she did the voice for Yankee's mother---she and another actress. Dana Reeve died before she could finish her voice work for the movie. She was sick while she was working on it. She was still in the box, then, too, still swinging, at the end.

And here's the post I wrote when Christopher Reeve died, Powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Licenses to kill

A long time into Casino Royale---a very long time into Casino Royale---Daniel Craig, modeling his new tailored tux, looks up into the mirror and gives himself a smile that, with the camera looking in over his shoulder at his reflection and his reflection looking back at the camera, is really meant for us, a smile that asks, "Remind you of anyone?"

Of course he does.

Bond, we say in our heads, James Bond.

And it would be a great moment, like the moment in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Clark Kent, dashing across the street, pulls open his shirt to reveal the big red S we've all been waiting to see, if it had been the moment it was meant to be, the moment when we finally accept that Craig is the new Bond.

But as I said it comes an awful long way into the movie, a movie in which Craig has been extremely busy right from start being James Bond.

I thought Casino Royale was supposed to be about how Bond became Bond. I expected a learning curve to be part of the plot. But aside from a few lines of dialog mentioning it and a couple of good jokes---"A martini!" "Shaken or stirred?" "Do I look like I care?"---Bond's being the new kid in town doesn't figure much in the storyline. He's just been promoted and the ink's still wet on his license to kill, but he takes to the job as naturally as Craig takes to playing the part.

Which makes it just another Bond film.

I say that as a compliment. It's just not the compliment I expected to be paying it based on all I'd heard and read about it before seeing it.

As just another Bond film it's better than most of them, as good as a few of the very best, but except for the big chase through the construction site and the embassy it didn't add any scenes to the ultimate ideal Bond movie that's been playing in my head since I saw my very first Bond, which, for the record, was Live and Let Die, so Sean Connery, great as he was, does not define Bond for me---he's a contributor, but not the creator. Roger Moore didn't define Bond for me either, much as I enjoyed his take on 007, because he was already defined in my imagination as The Saint and Beau Maverick and Lord Brett Sinclair, Tony Curtis' partner on The Persuaders. I had the same problem with Pierce Brosnan, who will always carry a little too much of Remington Steele in his Bond. That's why, back in the day, I was so looking forward to Timothy Dalton's Bond and why I really liked Craig's. Neither one of them entered my head with any previous work's baggage to check.

But, not even considering how it fails as an origin film, Casino Royale disappointed me as a Bond movie because its plot was upside down.

Spoilers coming.

Putting the poker game in the spot where the big climactic chase or shoot-out should have been was a really bad idea. The loss of the money and Bond's apparent betrayal would have been a good way to get the plot off the ground and the chase across the airport runway, which, by the way, was as clumsy and dumb as the big chase in A View to a Kill, although it has a great payoff, should have been the big finale. The buildings crashing into the Venice canals could have been left out entirely. Structured that way, the whole middle part of the film could have been about how Bond learns to be Bond or at least how he learns to be a better Bond. M would have had a whole lot more to be exasperated with him for, a real reason to consider pulling his license to kill, instead of merely fussing over his failure to shoot out the security cameras in the embassy.

Spoilers over.

What Casino Royale has going for it is Craig.

Now, if you're a Bond fan, if you actually like the character and whole conception behind the movies, your opinion of what Bond should be like is probably based on how seriously you take the whole license to kill thing.

If you think the fact that defines Bond is that he's an assassin and therefore basically a cold-hearted killer, a paid thug who happens to know how to tie a bowtie and which fork to use, then of course Connery is your Bond and Craig will appeal to you because he has a good degree of thugishness about him. Craig looks like he could be a British football hooligan. He looks more like he could be a soccer star, the kind of player though who makes soccer into a contact sport more brutal than rugby. And he can do cold. Not cold as in ice. Brosnan did that. Cold as in stone. A stone that has hurled itself off a cliff face aiming itself right at your head.

He's brutal, but he's also clearly intelligent and educated.

Connery's Bond was smart too, but there was something of the unfinished auto-didact about him, a scholarship boy who had to drop out of school when the money ran out, possibly even before he reached university. Craig looks like he made it all the way to his final semester at Cambridge before he got kicked out for seducing his tutor's wife and beating up four or five star players on the cricket team.

That makes his Bond a bridge between Connery's and Brosnan's and Moore's Bonds, both of whom got firsts at Oxford and were well liked and popular despite having seduced their tutors' wives and beaten up four or five star players on the cricket team.

Bond's license to kill doesn't mean as much to me as a sign of his innate brutality as it does as a sign of his intelligence and judgment. Hired thugs don't have to be discerning. Being given the power to decide whom and when to kill means being given the power to decide this person doesn't need killing at this particular time. Bond is a spy before he's an assassin. We only see him on missions when things are so out of control or have gone so wrong that the bad guys must die. But there are plenty of suggestions in all the movies that Bond routinely goes on missions in which he slips in somewhere, extracts the information he needs, and slips out without anybody getting their hair mussed.

The women we often see him with at the beginning of a movie are there to reward him for his good behavior.

Brosnan and Moore were able to suggest that, while they didn't have a problem with the killing, they thought more highly of themselves for pulling off a job without pulling out their gun, because that meant they'd been really clever. Good spies shouldn't leave any traces behind and dead bodies are hard not to notice.

So it's not Craig's toughness that I liked as much as the fact that his toughness never gets in the way of his letting us see him thinking.

What Craig adds to Bond is blood. And sweat. Craig's Bond is the first who looks like the work he does is physically demanding. When his Bond jumps from a steel girder to a swinging I-beam he feels the force of it in his chest and arms. He gets hurt. He bruises. He gets the wind knocked out of him. He gets tired. The payoff of the chase through the embassy depends not on Bond being cornered but on his being too exhausted to run anymore or think his way out of the situation.

Craig isn't the first Bond since Connery who looks like he can do the stunts Bond is required to do. Brosnan was in great shape in his first two Bonds and he moved like a panther. But Craig is the first one who looks like he is really taking the punishment. What's more, he looks like he could survive them despite the toll they take on him.

This new and realistic physicality isn't all Craig's doing, though. It is a result of filmmakers having learned since Roger Moore's hey-day how to stage and shoot and edit fights in a way that makes them appear more real and physical.

I was watching The Spy Who Loved Me last week and I was struck by how the director didn't even bother to try to make Moore's fight scenes look like hard work for Bond. Moore was fifty years old at the time. He was in fine shape for an old guy but it was clear that he'd lost a step or two, that he wasn't as limber as he once was---and Moore even when he was playing Simon Templer never gave the impression he was much of an athlete---and yet a number of his fight scenes and chases were filmed in long shot with very little cross and jump cutting so that we could see either that we were watching a stunt man or that Moore and the stuntman he was fighting were being very careful with each other.

But then nothing about Moore's Bond movies was supposed to be taken seriously. It was all a game, a fun fantasy. Moore's job was to make us simultaneously see the game and the fun while getting caught up in the excitement. He was good at that.

By the way, despite his age, he was the only Bond who was persuasive as the kind of man who didn't have to rely on damsels in distress throwing themselves into his arms and villainesses scheming their way into his bed to get laid.

Handsome and dashing as all the others including Craig are, none of them look like they'd be a lot of fun on a date or even in the sack, unless you like it fast, muscular, and without any cuddling afterwards and any chance you'll have company for breakfast.

Don't confuse the roguishly charming post-007 Connery with his gloomy misogynistic Bond, James "Let me call you a cab before I have to kill you" Bond.

So, for what it's worth, Craig is the first realistic Bond.

By the way, when this quality of the movie, its relative realism, was being touted back before its release, I was confused. I had thought that we'd already had a realistic Bond. Timothy Dalton. Turns out my memory was playing tricks on me.

Watched License to Kill recently too. It had been one of only two of the Bond films I'd never seen. (The other was and still is Moonraker.) I was shocked.

As Rob Farley says of both Dalton efforts, License to Kill doesn't even feel like a Bond film.

I remember liking The Living Daylights but if Dalton's work in License to Kill is a continuation of what he was doing in his first Bond the I must not be remembering it very well. I don't know what he was up to, but he wasn't playing James Bond. He was playing some British toff who'd gotten caught up in a spy game and thought the only way he could get through it was by acting like James Bond. His Bond is realistic in that Dalton acts out every emotion Bond might be feeling at a given moment. When Bond has reason to worry, he looks worried. When Bond is smitten with Cary Lowell's character---the first and so far only Bond girl I believe might have a realistic counterpart in this universe---Dalton looks smitten. When he's in pain, he looks like he hurts. But it doesn't add up to a character and all that emoting certainly isn't what anybody expects out of James Bond.

Craig suggests that his Bond has real feelings by showing us how he's hiding them.

Last thoughts: I liked Craig as Bond and I'm looking forward to his next outing. But as I said I don't think Casino Royale was exceptional. The actor playing Bond is finally only as good a Bond as the movies he's playing Bond in are good Bond movies. I think part of the reason a lot of Bond fans see Brosnan and Moore as so much weaker Bonds than Connery's is that they appeared in some bad movies. Two out of four of Brosnan's movies are not any good (Here's me on Die Another Day) and several of Moore's are just plain awful. A couple of Connery's Bond movies are pale efforts, particularly You Only Live Twice, and depending on my mood Thunderball is either a hoot or a bad joke, but the first three are well-made genre movies, each one almost able to stand on its own without your having to like or know anything about the Bond series.

We'll see if Craig's movies measure up, then we'll know if he's truly the rightful heir to the double O's.

But the basic appeal of the Bond movies is that they are the ultimate fantasies of male escape (which isn't to say that women don't share the same fantasies only that in the movie the fantasy is pitched at men): Bond is a truly free man. He doesn't need anybody or anything. He doesn't need the job. He doesn't need MI6. He doesn't need a family, friends, or relations. They need him, but Bond is free. He is free even of moral constraint.

And being free he doesn't have to care.

That he bothers to care is what makes him a hero and not a villain or a monster.

The difference between all the Bonds is in each actor's decisions about how much Bond does bother to care and how much he then shows it. Leaving Dalton out of it, Moore cares the most, although he is cool about showing it, while Connery cares least. Where Craig fits himself in between them will decide who his Bond is.

Licenses to Critique or A View to a Review:

Tom Watson hated, just hated Casino Royale. He didn't think much of Craig as Bond either. And did I mention that he hated Casino Royale?

He's outvoted though by Dennis Perrin who likes Craig's barely concealed "raw physical and psychological fury" and thinks his Bond could mop the floor with Connery's, by Rob Farley who says Casino Royale is the best Bond movie since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and by Shakes who thinks Craig is to live and let die for.

Meanwhile, Moved by Michael Medved's politically correct misreading of Casino Royale, TBogg knocks on Medved's wooden head and asks if anybody's home and Jason Chervokas considers the question, Is a post-Cold War Bond possible?

Sir Roger Moore has a webpage through which you can help him continue to save the world, for real now, through his work for UNICEF.

Casino Royale. Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Mads Mikkelsen, and Jeffrey Wright. MGM. 2006.

Casino Royale available from my aStore.