A Lot More -Er

2016’s original Deadpool was a wonderful surprise – an R-rated movie from the Marvel canon that still made almost $800 million worldwide. On top of that, it was a critical hit. The success of Deadpool was sweet revenge for star and producer Ryan Reynolds. He’d always loved the character, but when he got the chance to play him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the movie turn the character into a bland, generic bad guy. (Really? The “Merc with a Mouth” with his mouth sealed shut? No one saw a problem with this?) However, there’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a reboot, and Reynolds, assisted by first-time director Tim Miller, made a film that was faithful to the source material, including Deadpool’s 4th wall shattering dialogue. The film was essentially a Warner Brother’s cartoon with a stratospheric body count, but it also confirmed that an R rating wasn’t the kiss of box office death for a Marvel-sourced film, which was confirmed with last year’s Logan.

For almost a year and a half there have been teasers about the next film, so the anticipation built. What would Deadpool 2 be like? The answer turns out to be a lot more of everything in the first movie: funnier, cruder, wilder. If meta-ier was a word, the dictionary illustration would be a still from this film.

The directing duties for Deadpool 2 were handled by David Leitch, the former stuntman who gave a shot of adrenalin to the revenge flick with John Wick, then did the same for the Cold War spy film with Atomic Blonde. Here the action is just as well choreographed, though skewed to the side of black comedy. The central set piece of the film is in effect the live action version of a Roadrunner cartoon, though with lots of coyotes getting taken out along the way.

Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is not in a good place as the movie begins. An extended flashback shows what brings him to the point of despondency where he tries to blow himself into little pieces. Considering he can’t die, that doesn’t go as planned. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) brings him to the Xavier School to recover. Once Wade’s somewhat fit again, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) bring him along on an emergency call. Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant at an orphanage that doubles as a mutant reeducation center, has a meltdown and tries to kill the headmaster. Wade’s help turns a bad situation worse, and Collins kills one of the attendants. Both Collins and Wade are taken into custody by the authorities, who fit them with collars that suppress their powers and ship them to a super-max prison for mutants. But as they are settling in, a half-human/half-machine mercenary from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) appears, looking to kill Collins.

Brolin is having a stupendous summer, with Deadpool 2 on track to beat the first movie at the box office, plus his performance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War which is currently in fourth place on the all-time box office list and will likely move up to 3, or possibly 2, before it’s done. His stoic visage is a beautiful counterfoil for Deadpool. While she doesn’t appear until midway through the film, Zazie Beetz, as the super-humanly lucky Domino, comes close to completely stealing the film.

If you enjoyed the original Deadpool, you’ll probably really like this new iteration. If you didn’t, you really won’t like this film’s extra-large helping of everything we got the first time around. I’m of the former category myself. But while the first movie expanded the possibilities for the superhero genre as a whole, Deadpool 2 shows the limitations of this series. This isn’t a character that will grow – his deep thoughts are usually cut off when he shoots someone. While the wider Marvel Universe has grown as its stories have deepened in resonance, Deadpool is a niche within that Universe. Reynolds and his collaborators have polished every surface until it shines, but if another film is made it will be more – probably a lot more – of the same. While it breaks the 4th wall, Deadpool 2 doesn’t break any of its boundaries.

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The Universe Expands

Ever since the first (now fourth) episode of Star Wars, the universe from that long time ago and far, far away story has expanded beyond the films. Novels based on it appeared even before The Empire Strikes Back, and they now number easily in the hundreds of volumes. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they green-lit the third trilogy originally planned by Lucas, but they also saw the potential to tap into the wider world of the series. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was the first step in that direction, though it truly qualifies as a prequel to A New Hope rather than a stand-alone film. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, they still stand squarely on the source material, but they reach out further.

The production of Solo didn’t go smoothly, and that handicaps the movie. The original duo of directors got canned by producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter & executive producer Lawrence Kasdan even though they were months into the shoot. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were successful in both animated films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as well as live action (both Jump Street movies). Sometimes it works well to pick directors whose previous work is nothing like a major film series. This year Ryan Coogler, who’d done Fruitvale Station and Creed, entered the Billion Dollar Club with Black Panther. Last year Patty Jenkins, known for getting Charlize Theron an Oscar for Monster, shattered the previous box office record for a female director with the success of Wonder Woman. The Russo brothers had directed comedies before they did Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They’re now approaching the Two-Billion Dollar Club with Avengers: Infinity War.

But it didn’t work with Solo. Face with a monumental task to reshape the film so it could be released, Kennedy recruited A-List director Ron Howard. The amount of reshooting Howard did isn’t fully known, but some estimates put it at 80% of the film. Star Thandie Newton (Val) has said most of her work was with Lord and Miller, but for Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos) nearly all of his scenes that made it in the movie were directed by Howard. Howard is a Star Wars fan and was reportedly under consideration to direct The Phantom Menace (though it was probably for the best that he stayed away from that mess). He’d of course worked with Lucas on American Graffiti, and the two visited on the set while Howard was working on Solo, allowing Howard to pick Lucas’s brain. The extensive rework pushed the budget to the $300 Million level, making it  one of the most expensive movie of all time. It neared the level of two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (At World’s End and Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever at $375 million) and Cleopatra, when adjusted for inflation.

Was it worth it? I’d say yes, with a caveat. The script by Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, is the Star Wars equivalent of a superhero origin story, applied to the character of Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply) does an excellent job as a younger and less-jaded Han. We first see him as the teenaged indentured servant of a crime lord on a bleek, gray planet. He’s in love with a fellow servant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and the two try to make a break from their servitude and get away together. Han makes it, but Qi’ra’s caught. Han vows to get his own ship and come back for her.

After a few years that include a stint in the Imperial Fleet, Han hooks up with Becket (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Newton) on a heist of coaxium, the expensive fuel for star ships. The job goes sideways when a group of Cloud Rider ravagers try to take the coaxium for themselves. Becket had been hired for the job by Dryden Vos (Bettany) and he must make good on the crime lord’s investment. He tells Han to walk away since Vos doesn’t know of his involvement, but instead Han comes up with a heist that will both satisfy Vos and make them a handsome profit – but to do it they’ll need help.

The Kasdans have essentially crafted the science fiction equivalent of a heist movie in the Oceans 11 vein that establishes Han Solo’s outlaw character. Along the way he picks up the pieces that come together in the first trilogy: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and more. Suotamo is a 7-foot Finish basketball player, taking over for the ailing Peter Mayhew. He does the role proud. With a sly smile and the swirl of his capes, Glover captures the essence of Lando. The Kasdans even take a shot at one of the elements of A New Hope that fans have debated for forty years.

Clarke, Harrelson, Newton and Bettany, as new characters, are all first-rate. The stand-out, though, is the droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This is the first specifically female droid to appear, and Waller-Bridge makes her absolutely smashing and memorable.

My caveat with Solo is that the cinematography is often dark and dismal, so much so it interferes with the story. In several scenes you can’t see the faces of the actors clearly because of backlighting that puts them in shadows. Even the Millenium Falcon’s interior feels murky in comparison to its look in the other films. I was surprised by this, since the director of photography was Bradford Young. Young had recently shot A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Arrival, all excellent films I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s like he was going for the feel of natural lighting, but I like a movie where I can see what is happening.

The trilogy films have all be major box office events, and continue to be. There is space for other films, for other stories, in that universe. One hopes that the decent but modest box office of Solo, especially in light of the production costs, will not cause Disney to question their commitment to the Star Wars universe. I will always be ready to travel a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Prime Time

The “Fifty Shades” book trilogy could be called an embarrassment of riches. It sold like crazy, making a ton of money for author E.L. James and publisher Vintage Books (part of Random House), but they weren’t books most people displayed on their bookshelves. Likewise, the movie trilogy was savaged by critics, even as the series cumulatively grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, though, we have the best “Fifty Shades” movie of them all: Book Club.

An unusual creative duo made the film. Bill Holderman got his start as an assistant to the producer on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, then moved up to producer with Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. He’d co-written the screenplay for A Walk in The Woods, which starred Robert Redford. An associate producer on Woods, Erin Simms had mostly worked as an actress, though many of her roles are of the “Female Reporter” or “New York Hotel Clerk” ilk as listed on IMDb. She’d never written a screenplay before, and Holderman had never directed. But they came together to write and produce Book Club, with Holderman directing, and they’ve produce an assured and well-paced comedy.

They also recruited a truly stellar cast, beginning with their four leads: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. Between them they’ve won 4 Oscars and 6 Emmys on top of numerous nominations. However, they’d never worked together before in their long careers. After seeing how well they play off of each other here, it’s a crime to think it took this long for them to be matched together.

The quartet play life-long friends who’ve met monthly to discuss a book for decades. Now in their later years, each is faced with a challenge. Diane (Keaton) is newly widowed, and her two daughters want her to leave California and move closer to them in Arizona. Then her life takes an unusual twist when she meets a handsome pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Fonda), the hard-charging owner of a luxury hotel, reconnects with an old flame staying in her establishment (Don Johnson, a wonderful bit of meta-casting since his daughter, Dakota, starred in the Fifty Shades trilogy). Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who son and long-divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) are both now engaged to be married to women in their twenties. Carol (Steenburgen) is married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but while they still love each other the flame of passion has died. Vivian lobs a grenade into their worlds when she chooses “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the next book for the club to read.

It is a pleasure to see fine actresses (and actors) dive into their roles with abandon. Bergen zings lines in a way that recalls the heyday of “Murphy Brown” while still carrying one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the film. She also ends up on two dates with diametrically-opposed actors – Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. The other pairings are inspired, particularly Steenburgen and Nelson with a dance routine to a Meatloaf song. But the biggest pleasure is seeing fully fleshed-out roles written for mature women in contrast to the ageism usually seen in Hollywood. A 70 year-old guy could have a love live, but not a similarly-aged woman. Time for a reality check.

The showbiz maxim (ascribed to many though likely originating with actor Edmund Gwen) is, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Yet the cast of Book Club make it look natural, and Holderman and Simms have crafted a screenplay that is laugh-out-loud funny, so much so that you might miss some lines amidst the audience’s laughter. Kudos also to E.L. James for being a good sport to allow the film to use her book (she does get a thank you from the producers in the credits).

Even in a week dominated by Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club came in 3rd place in the box office, with a weekend gross of $13.6 million. Considering the budget was a lean $10 million, it’s already in the black. It’s not surprising that it’s received a middling response from critics – the film seeks to entertain and does a good job of it, but it’s the type of film that’s usually dismissed as lightweight. However, its CinemaScore among viewers is A-. Mixed in among the blockbusters of summer, there’s usually a couple films that either tug at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone without a five-wide scroll of special effects credits that goes on for a minute or two. Book Club definitely is the one that tickles the funny bone.

To Infinity – And Beyond!

And so, after 18 movies over the course of 10 years, we come to the end of the current Marvel Universe. It’s all been leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, with teaser appearances by big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) salted through several of the previous movies. There was a certain amount of peril inherent in this strategy. What if Thanos didn’t measure up on the big screen? What if the climax proved anticlimactic?

The good news is Infinity War truly adds an exclamation point to the previous films. While a Marvel film is a hugely collaborative endeavor with plenty of oversight from producer and Marvel president Kevin Feige, along with Marvel’s owner, the Walt Disney Company, they do balance involvement with allowing their directors and screenwriters to breathe. Infinity War benefits from having Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chair – well, chairs. The brothers had worked on TV shows like “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” and “Community,” along with films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree, before helming one of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and following it up with the equally exciting Captain America: Civil War. They’ve shown an ability to tap into emotional truth and convey complex plots while still making an exciting and engrossing film.

Infinity War boasts the full roster of Marvel movie superheroes with two exceptions – Antman and Hawkeye. The massive cast could have created a headache for anyone trying to follow the story. However, Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies, as well as created “Agent Carter” for TV) subdivide the cast and the action. The story shifts between several locations – some familiar, some new – with a contingent of the cast in each locale. Think of a large, succulent steak dinner sliced up into bite-size pieces, and you’ll get the idea.

I won’t go into any specifics of the plot, since there’s too great a chance for spoilers – that is, if you happen to be one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie yet. It blew up the records for opening weekend gross for both domestic and international box office. It has been mentioned in the past, though, that Infinity War represented the end of the series of movies over the past decade, meaning that no character had their future assured. Markus and McFeely underscore that in the very first scene.

There had been some criticism of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, based on his brief appearances in the other films. Some thought the embodiment was cartoonish (you could say). However, those concerns are squashed in the opening scene of Infinity War. What’s unexpected, though, is the fine performance Brolin gives, even beneath the CGI embodiment. While he’s an obsessed madman on a galactic scale, there are moments of aching sadness and signs of humanity – hopelessly twisted, but humanity all the same – deep within him.

The main characters are well-established now, but there are standouts in the movie. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man started the whole Marvel Universe, but he had his best turn as the character in Captain America: Civil War. The screenwriters build on that experience as he is faced with a devastating loss. Tom Holland is one of the newest members of the Universe, yet his Spiderman is a pivotal part of the story. Thor: Ragnarok was a huge success for Chris Hemsworth a few months ago, and that movie sets up a large part of the arc of Infinity War’s story as he goes through the classic heroic plot of recreating himself to face a greater threat than he’s ever faced before.

The trailer I’ve attached does feature one scene that doesn’t appear in the movie. That’s often a negative for films – think Twister – though in this case it was important to keep a plot point hidden. (When you see the movie, you’ll understand,) While you have to be aware to catch it, Markus and McFeely have also answered what happened to the Red Skull after the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger.

Marvel has turned tags at the end of their movies into an art form, and they usually feature two these days, though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was greedy and included six. Some are just fun, such as the last tag of Spider-man: Homecoming, but others build toward the next film or films. Infinity War has only one tag at the very end of the credits, but it’s a doozey, and leads directly to two films next year: Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson as the titular hero, and the still-untitled Avengers 4.

The only problem is, now we must wait a year.

Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”

A Companion Piece for “Black Panther”

Marvel’s Black Panther has broken box office records, hanging onto the top spot for five straight weeks after its release. While it had a built-in pedigree with its place in the Marvel Universe, along with Chadwick Boseman’s impressive turn in Captain America: Civil War, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s film went far outside the normal lane for superhero movies to deal with social justice and posit what Africa could have developed into without the scourge of colonialism and the slave trade. Two years ago, more modest film dealt with that colonialism and its base in racism. As a companion piece to Black Panther, check out 2016’s A United Kingdom, now available through HBO.

The movie is based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams, which tells the true story of King Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and his English wife Ruth Williams, who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London when they met in 1947. Julius Nyerere, a teacher at that time who later became President of Tanzania, called their romance “one of the great love stories of the world,” though the interracial couple had to overcome many obstacles before achieving a happy ending.

Director Amma Asante did Belle in 2013, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the mixed-race daughter of an English admiral being raised in 18th Century Georgian England. That film was also based on a true story, and sumptuously recreated the period while dealing with an all-too-contemporary problem. She applies the same vision to recreate drab-gray post-WWII England and sun-drenched Africa. It helps that she filmed much of the movie on location in Botswana. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is most faithful in how it presents the love story. With Seretse’s interactions with the British government, Hibbert has taken understandable liberties to present the basic details of an 18-year struggle within 111 minutes.

In A United Kingdom, Ruth (Rosamund Pike) accompanies her sister to a dance organized by the Missionary Society. There she meets Seretse (David Oyelowo), who’s studying law in London at the time. They bond over a love of jazz music – their favorite group was the Ink Spots – and their relationship develops from there. Seretse tells Ruth his story, how he is the grandson of Khama III, the first ruler of Bechuanaland. His grandfather had appealed to Queen Victoria to make the nation a British protectorate to counter the colonialism of South Africa and Rhodesia. Bechuanaland was one of the poorest countries in the world at that time, with only a hundred people holding the equivalency of a high school diploma, and less than a handful with a college education (including Seretse). His elderly father passed away when he was four, and his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) both raised Seretse and served as regent. Now his schooling is finished and he must return to take up his duties as king, but he can’t imagine his life without Ruth. He proposes to her on the Embankment near Parliament.

Ruth’s parents refuse to accept the engagement, but that’s just the start of their problems. Ruth is visited at her work by Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the King’s representative for Southern Africa, who explains in the most paternalistic way that she can’t marry Seretse. The Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to sanction a church wedding, and Tshekedi makes clear his refusal to accept Ruth. But the couple wed at a register’s office and then set out for Africa. More trials, including exile, lie in store for the couple.

Canning is a made-up character; in a sense, the name has been changed to protect the guilty. The real Seretse described the scene when he was sent into exile by the British government. He said the official who did it was “as unfeeling as if he was asking me to give up smoking, or surrender old school (examination) papers that I had accumulated while at Oxford. I doubt that any man has been asked to give up his birthright in such cold, calculating tones.”

Part of what led the British Government to act as it did was the mineral wealth of South Africa. President Malan was enacting apartheid at the same time as Ruth and Seretse’s marriage, but the Brits allowed it because in the wake of the war they needed the income that access to South Africa’s gold and diamonds brought them. It goes deeper than that, though. Pike’s Ruth mentions that in England at that time you could see signs outside pubs and restaurants that said: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The film does an excellent job showing the casual paternalism of the whites who felt their “civilized” history gave them the right to dictate to the native people while they ignored the indigenous culture. The movie also identifies how the British played factions against each other to weaken both sides.

Ultimately, Seretse overcame the British. When the newly-named Botswana gained its independence in 1964, Seretse became its first president. He was knighted by Queen Elixabeth, becoming a member of the Order of the British Empire. Thanks to the discovery of mineral deposits, Botswana prospered, guided through the careful stewardship of Seretse. The problems with graft and promotion of the unqualified that handicapped democracy in other post-colonial countries were avoided by Botswana. For her part, Ruth adapted to Africa and was accepted as the mother of the nation.

Seretse remained president until 1980 when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Ruth lived on in Botswana until she passed away in 2002, missing by only a few years their son becoming the fourth president of Botswana. While Seretse would have had the right to be angry at his treatment, he remained positive. “I myself,” he said on a 1967 visit to Malawi, “have never been very bitter at all. Bitterness does not pay. Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and look to the future. It is not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.”

The 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.