(On Cable TV, October 2017) One of the peculiar pleasures of re-watching older movies is that you get to experience the same mystifying questions as previous generations of moviegoers. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that means watching the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage and smiling while wondering what such an atonal sequence is doing in a western movie. Reviewers have been asking that question for nearly fifty years, so I feel in good company. Not that this is the only question left unanswered by this film, which seems dead-set on not doing things the conventional way. While the buddy chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is next-level fantastic, everything else seems made to defy convention. Our charming but quixotic characters are out of time, too late for western heroics and too early for gangster drama. They flee rather than fight, but find themselves caught by fate several minutes later. There’s comedy overlaying a heavy drama (and one of the most famous tragic endings in movie history, overlaid with comic markers). But it works, largely because screenwriter William Goldman knows what he’s doing, and because of the great actors taking on the lines. The comic moments work—the “enough dynamite” sequence is still very funny. The result has survived the year reasonably well, largely because few studios would be willing to take that many chances with a big-name film these days.
(In French, on Cable TV, August 2017) Given the western genre’s continued tendency to reach for dour drama, it can be a relief, even decades later, to encounter a light-hearted western. It feels even more refreshing to see it use its western setting as a springboard for a gambling conman comedy. In Maverick, Mel Gibson is practically perfect as a wisecracking protagonist equally adept with cards and guns, bluffing and shooting his way to a high-stakes gambling tournament. It’s a fine performance in his best persona, but it’s equalled by Jodie Foster in an atypical western bombshell role—Foster’s long been known for playing mostly cerebral, often desexualized roles, so it’s a bit of a delight to see her play up blonde curls and tight dresses. Other name actors round up the cast, in-between James Coburn, Dan Hedeya, James Garner, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina … plus more cameo roles than you’ll be able to recognize. Director Richard Donner’s rapid pacing helps its entertainment value, but there is considerable charm in its setting and attitude—not many westerns have steamboats, and fewer include rapid-fire romantic repartee or wryly funny native characters. The script, by legendary William Goldman, is as good as you’d expect, with a pile-up of confidence games and triple-crossing characters in addition to the western backdrop. Maverick is not a great movie, but it remains a really good one.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting The Princess Bride: I had such good memories of the film that I feared seeing it again would damage the magic. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: The good parts of The Princess Bride are still as good today, and I had managed to forget much of the less-quoted second half of the film. Penned by William Goldman (from his own equally hilarious novel), the script manages to be self-aware, witty, clever and warm at once—the pedestrian direction is low on flashy moments, but clearly doesn’t get in the way of the script. It helps that the actors are almost all perfect for their role: André the Giant may not be a gifted thespian, but he’s just right for his character, and the same goes for most of the cast. Cary Elwes is a B-grade actor at best, but he’s fantastic here as the hero. Robin Wright Penn has the advantage of perfectly incarnating how a princess should look and behave, while Wallace Shawn remains forever linked to his distinctive role as Vizzini. If anything, The Princess Bride is even funnier now that the codes and tropes of fantasy and fairy tales have been widely internalized, and as Hollywood is still churning out remakes of known fairy-tales into unremarkable fantasy epics. It’s a light and funny film, but it’s certainly not simple-minded or content with superficiality. It’s still great even now. See it again with a member of a younger generation to pass the fun along.
(In French, On TV, July 2016) Stephen King’s Misery is a memorable novel (even and especially now, touching upon the themes of fannish entitlement that have grown so tediously familiar latterly), and its movie adaptation (partially thanks to screenwriter William Goldman) manages to be as good, in its own way, as the original book. James Caan ably plays a best-selling author who, thanks to an accident, comes to rest in an isolated farmhouse under the supervision of his self-professed “number one fan” (a terrifying Kathy Bates in a career-best performance) who turns out to be completely crazy in dangerous ways. What follows is so slickly done as to transform King’s writer-centric thriller into a horrifying experience for everyone. Director Rob Reiner is able to leave his comedic background behind in order to deliver a slick thrill ride, gradually closing off the protagonist’s options even as it becomes clear that he’s up against a formidable opponent. While the film does soften a few of the book’s most disturbing or gory moments, it does not lack for its own unbearable scenes. A solid, competent thriller, Misery easily ranks near the top of King’s numerous adaptations, and remains just as good today as it was a quarter of a century ago.
Del Rey, 1973, 283 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-34803-6
Ask around for opinions about THE PRINCESS BRIDE (the film), and you’ll get almost-unanimous agreement; everyone loved it to pieces. Many people will repeat snatches to the dialogue verbatim, from “Inconceivable!” to “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” While no one is too sure about who played who in the film (except for André the Giant, who everyone remembers), everyone who’s seen THE PRINCESS BRIDE loves it.
I’m no exception, though I remember liking the first half of the film a lot more than the second half, where the protagonist became as useful as a bag of potatoes and the tale slogged on despite, rather than because, of him. Still; you can’t beat lines like “You made one of the great mistakes; not ‘you shall not wage a land war in Asia’, but the other one!”
In any case, I was quite happy to be able to snap a mint copy of The Princess Bride at an used-book sale. Funny as the movie was, it was probably nothing compared to the mordant prose of William Goldman.
It turns out that while the book does indeed have more punchlines than the film, it shares with it a noticeable slowdown in the end.
One aspect of The Princess Bride that wasn’t possible to explore in the film is the whole metafictional conceit of the book. Goldman starts with a long (29 pages) introduction in which he details how his father read him S.G. Morgenstein’s “The Princess Bride” when he was young (that part is in the film), but when he tried giving it to his son, the result was unreadable (this part isn’t) so Goldman set out to re-edit the original so that it contained only the good parts. The following book is peppered with breaks from “Morgenstein”’s narrative in which Goldman explains his editing choices.
This makes The Princess Bride‘s parody of fairy tales a bit more obvious, not to mention an extra opportunity to insert modern punchlines to a historical tale. It adds another level of content as Goldman wiggles out of some difficult scenes or casually mentions some ludicrous “original” content. (“Morgenstein opens this chapter with sixty-six pages of Florinese history” [P.59])
In any case, the first half of The Princess Bride is pure fun to read and (on potential alone) would rank as one of the funniest books of any year. But unfortunately, Goldman takes the deconstruction a step too far and saps vital energy out of the tale.
I had always felt, while watching the film, that to make the protagonist physically useless halfway through the tale was a mistake. It removed the story’s most interesting character out of the action and placed too much emphasis on the secondary players. Yes, it so provided more obstacles for our heroes to overcome… but the way it was handled, it always seemed like a boring cheat to me. This is alleviated, somewhat, in the book (it’s not as visually ridiculous), but is emblematic of the flagging interest of the second half.
But then, alas, the ending… One of the most common errors in parodying a genre is to remove the qualities that make it so entertaining, by accident or design. One of the strengths of fairy tales, for instance, is the unwavering happy ending. (Pedantic note: We’re talking about modern Disneyesque fairy tales, not the grim Brother Grimm versions, in which social behaviour lessons were an integral part of the plot and body-counts rivalled today’s horror films.) While The Princess Bride isn’t exactly a downer by any means, it doesn’t end on a rightfully triumphant note, drowned as it is in Goldman’s heavy-handed “life isn’t fair” refrain.
Still, I’d be a chump to keep you from rushing out and getting The Princess Bride. A wonderful book despite its flaws. And if you haven’t seen the film yet, well, what’s your excuse?