Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 30, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Prince of Persia, Medium Season Finale
Back in 1993, when they made a movie based on the game Super Mario
Brothers, I actually had high expectations. Obviously, the videogame had no
actual plot or characters, so I expected the screenwriter to have a clever and
inventive story with witty dialogue for actors like Bob Hoskins and John
Since it turned out to be pure garbage, mind-numbingly bad, it's no surprise
that two of the three writers never got another film credit. Of course, the third
screenwriter was Ed Solomon, co-writer of Men in Black and Bill & Ted's
Excellent Adventure, but even he was not able to get over the deadly curse of
basing a movie on a videogame.
The biggest problem is that while a certain kind of computer game will often
have a story, what it doesn't have -- and usually can't have -- is a fully fleshed-out character as the hero. That's because the player is the hero, and the game
must be built around the player's goal: to win, or at least not to get killed.
Over the years, we have all learned to approach movies-based-on-videogames
with a certain degree of skepticism, to wit: This is going to suck. Let's go in
order to see how badly it sucks, and if the special effects are good.
So we come to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It has four credited
writers, which usually is a sign that the script kept getting worse and worse
until it died, and then they filmed it.
And if you play computer games, you watch the flow of the story and it feels
like a game: You can see when you're moving to a different game level, and you
know when you get to the boss bad guy (i.e., the final obstacle on the level; the
bad guy who is hardest to kill).
But a funny thing happened on the way to making another awful videogame
adaptation. Somebody screwed up and made the movie good.
That's right. You heard me correctly. I think Prince of Persia is actually a
terrific movie, which I enjoyed as if it were an Indiana Jones adventure fantasy.
The storyline is centered around a knife made of a special stone, and if you fill
its hilt with a certain magical sand, then by pressing a button on the end of the
hilt, it propels you back in time just far enough that you can stop the icky or
awful thing that just happened. It only takes you a few moments back, and it
quickly runs out of sand. This has videogame written all over it.
What makes it all work is that somewhere among the four screenwriters,
there's a really smart person. The story deals with royal politics -- the hero,
Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a street orphan whose courage and loyalty
impressed the king of Persia, who adopted him into the family, making him the
prince from the title.
Amid the usual high-sounding speeches, there is really a complicated set of
relationships among the king, the king's younger brother (Nizam, played by
Ben Kingsley) who once saved his life, and the king's three sons, of whom
Dastan is the youngest and the least likely to inherit anything.
Now, in Romantic storytelling there is no characterization per se. The
characters are what they do; their relationships are about the exigencies of the
moment. This is true of Prince of Persia, but what the characters do actually
makes sense, and their motives are so understandable that we the audience
end up liking most of them and caring what happens.
So when the actors showed up for filming, they were given a script that wasn't
junk. And here's the miracle: The actors then proceeded to make the film even
better than the pretty good script deserved. Ben Kingsley, of course, adds class
to everything he does. Gemma Arterton is luminous, smart, and sometimes
scary as the princess who is supposed to have been the guardian of the magic
Ronald Pickup as the king is never, never, never embarrassing -- unlike Liam
Neeson, for instance, in Clash of the Titans. And that's a good comparison.
Titans and Persia are about equal in their action and special effects, give or
take an effect. But Titans, based (loosely) on Greek mythology, has many
embarrassing moments and a good number of plotlines that amount to
nothing. While Prince of Persia never embarrassed me and never wasted our
time with plotlines that went nowhere.
The princes, the leader of the Hassansins, the bigger-than-life Sudanese knife
thrower, the comic-relief ostrich racing entrepreneur -- they are all very good
in their parts.
But the crowning achievement of this film is taking indie-style actor Jake
Gyllenhaal, who was luminous in the title role of Donnie Darko but has since
seemed misplaced in many a movie, and casting him as an action hero in a
I think Gyllenhaal is brilliant. It's not just that he beefed up his body for the
part -- that's practically a given. Nor is it that he never loses his wry self-deprecation -- again, that's like the minimum requirement. Gyllenhaal makes
the character seem genuinely smart (now the list is shorter; add Kiefer
Sutherland) and his eyes are a thousand fathoms deep; but it's more than that.
He is, in fact, better at the Harrison Ford part than Harrison Ford. I mean,
come on -- did anyone believe for a split second that Indiana Jones was really
a professor of anything? Gyllenhaal has the ability to do the wit and the
heroics of Harrison Ford, but he can also show depth, real pain, sincere
devotion in a way that draws us in behind the surface.
If all the other elements of this film had been in place, but we'd had, say, Tobey
Maguire in the part (and Maguire was very good in Spider-Man), this would not
have been a great movie, merely an adequate one. Remember the moment
when Maguire was trying to show grief over the death of his grandfather in the
first Spider-Man? It was well-directed, so its awfulness didn't really penetrate
-- but Maguire simply did not have the chops.
Gyllenhaal has them; he can do it all. He has flair and style, but he also has
the ability to draw us into his soul (or at least fool us into thinking he has) and
make his character come to complete life. We aren't just entertained or excited
by his performance, we actual admire the humanity of the character he's
portraying. He makes us believe that a character this good is real.
So even though I know there are people who didn't like the movie at all, I can't
help but wonder if they weren't so caught up in the low expectations we bring
to videogame movies that they missed the fact that this film was something
special, and that most of the life of the movie came from Jake Gyllenhaal's
You have no idea how much I wish I could get Gyllenhaal to play the hero in
the film version of my novel Homebody, or the film version of my Homecoming
series, or the character Will in my novel Wyrms. Or Alvin in the film version of
my Alvin Maker series. Not that you've read any of those books. My point is
that he makes me want to have him play my deepest, strongest, most
interesting characters. He's an actor that a writer longs to write for, because
whatever you need, he can do it.
There is one more element to the success of this film: the use of parkour moves
at the heart of most of the action sequences, especially those involving Dastan
and the crew of soldiers he has trained. Parkour is the art/sport of making use
of the environment -- from trees and rocks to walls and fences -- to be, not
obstacles, but aids in the athlete's race from one point to another.
The result, on film, is a kind of inspired insanity of movement. Where in an
Errol Flynn movie, for instance, climbing up in the tree to let the enemy ride by
underneath would be half a minute of film time, in Prince of Persia similar
cleverness hurtles by at such a pace that we have six or ten such bits in the
same half-minute. In short, it comes across as brilliant improvised dance with
people trying to kill you -- that somehow remains believable.
Action movies like this don't win many awards (though I think this one should
be taken seriously for makeup, costume, art direction, and effects awards); nor
do brilliant action-movie performances like Gyllenhaal's get Oscar nods.
Instead, movies like this compete for box office numbers. The "award" is that
people go see it.
On its opening weekend, Prince of Persia barely eked out a second-place finish
ahead of Sex and the City; family-movie Shrek Forever After still won handily.
But now it's time for the Sex and the City audience to come see Prince of Persia,
because even if you think you don't like action movies, you will adore
Gyllenhaal himself -- and his relationship with the princess.
Likewise, the family audience for Shrek should also come back now and see
Prince of Persia, because except for the very youngest children, there will be
things to please everybody.
And those of you who think you hate videogame movies, please give this one a
real chance to convince you otherwise. The elements that come from
videogame structure are there, yes, but they aren't intrinsically bad. Prince of
Persia shows how you can make them all work by bringing interesting,
complicated characters into the story and then casting great actors in the
And if you think that's a recipe that would make any movie good, don't make
me start listing the movies with brilliant casts that sucked like a sponge. The
writers deserve credit here, and the producers, and the director, and ... the
whole package worked.
Do you get the idea that I really liked this movie? That's why I want you to
come see it so that your votes -- your tickets -- get counted in the competition
for the action-movie awards. If this film makes enough money (and it's doing
so well abroad that it is certainly convincing in foreign markets), then we'll get
sequels, and Jake Gyllenhaal will become a bankable star, and our lives as
filmgoers will improve.
It's funny. What I like best about The Mentalist -- the absolute denial of
psychic powers -- is the opposite of the premise of Medium, which absolutely
depends on the audience suspending disbelief enough to accept the heroine,
Allison Dubois, as a psychic who, through the help of dreams and
conversations with the dead, is able to help the Phoenix police and district
attorney solve cases and save lives.
The Mentalist's season-ender was playing with the temptation of wrecking the
whole series by showing us one psychic (the would be love-interest of Patrick
Jane) whose insights "cannot be explained by natural means." Don't do it, O
ye writers. Keep your premise pure and expose her as a fraud, or you've sold
And while you're at it, please get rid of Red John or at least keep him way in
the background. I don't even want to watch episodes that have Red John in
them in any way. That's partly because he's such an evil, horrible human
being, but mostly because he's boring.
Back to Medium, however. You see, I really don't believe in psychics. I think
they are all, without exception, frauds. I have never heard of any who don't
use their alleged "powers" for personal gain, whether financial or social, and I
just don't think that God or the universe work that way.
However, I am perfectly happy to be in the audience for fantasy books, films,
and tv shows that have characters with powers that I don't believe in the real
world. So while I have nothing but disdain for the real person on whom the
series is based -- a self-promoting fraud, in my opinion -- that does not stop
me from loving the fantasy series and the truly inventive writing that keeps
finding new ways to use the supernatural premise to mess with the lives of the
Medium has obeyed some of the rules of series television -- every episode, for
instance, is still centered around at least one criminal who is going to get away
with it unless Allison can figure out the cryptic messages from Beyond.
But the miracle of Medium is the very real family life -- the best I've ever seen
Usually, TV families are pathetically unreal. The best of them are usually
tongue-in-cheek -- and at the worst, they're like Roseanne after the first year.
The character of Roseanne became a monster of ego (rather like the actress
playing her) and not one episode could ever show John Goodman's husband
character as being anything other than a fool who needs to apologize to his wife
for everything from having a thought of his own to breathing.
Medium ran that same risk in spades. While husband Joe (played with reality
and warmth by Jake Weber) is given a real life, Allison (Patricia Arquette in
the role of a lifetime) is constantly proven right -- that's the premise of the
show, that she knows things.
This can be death on a relationship, and there were times when I worried that
Medium might be going the way of Roseanne (and so many other stories
centered around a wife; and more than one supposedly centered around the
husband!) -- turning the husband into a puppet that the wife controls.
Apparently the writers have seen that same dreaded possibility, and in the
season finale episode of Medium they addressed it directly.
Daughter Ariel (played by the astonishingly accomplished Sofia Vassilieva),
who also has her mother's ability to see dead people, is about to graduate from
high school and wants to go to Dartmouth; the episode begins with her getting
the scholarship that makes it possible.
Father Joe thinks it's great that she's going to college on the other side of the
country, but mother Allison says no -- with the trademark finality that usually
means she's going to get her way.
So -- and skip this paragraph if you don't want a spoiler -- Allison dies. That's
right, her brain tumor has apparently grown back and this time she simply
never wakes up. The family grieves very realistically. But as a dead person,
Allison goes on solving crimes ... because she can talk to Ariel and pass along
information to her! The trouble is that in doing so, she steals Ariel's life from
her. Joe sees it and hates what she's doing, and Ariel finally gets to the end of
her rope and starts drinking so that she can block her ability to see the dead.
She's going to leave home and try to go where her mother will never find her.
Then Allison wakes up, having been taught by this dream that she her talent is
not more important than her family, and that her own desires are not the only
thing that matters when important decisions are to be made.
Not only is this an intensely emotional episode -- and there's a fascinating
murder mystery plot that I haven't even mentioned -- but it also faces head-on
the issue of power within a family. How many series have managed to even
admit that such an issue exists?
I don't watch Medium because I believe in psychics. I watch it because I believe
So do the makers of this series. Nobody's perfect in the Dubois household --
but everybody is trying to be good, and they learn more about how to do that
with every week that passes.
If you have never watched Medium, I urge you to rent or buy a season of it on
DVD. Get to know these people. It might make you love your own family more
-- and may perhaps help you become better at fulfilling your family role.