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7 Great Survival Stories

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This has been a banner year for stories of survival, including the excellent film “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. These tales, whether in movies or the printed word, bring us to the brink of what it means to be human. Are we reckless? Resilient? Reflective? Yes to all three. In any case, here are seven terrific stories of trying to survive. No spoilers here, but I will point out that some of the protagonists live and some of them die. What they have in common is that all of them put up a fight.



A dazzling, seat-of-the-pants adventure, “Gravity” has grabbed tons of attention – and deservedly so. The special effects are stunning, the central performance by Sandra Bullock is perfect and there’s not one wasted moment in the film. Like many survival yarns, it offers something beyond the notion of trying to stay alive. In this case, Bullock’s plucky astronaut is grieving the loss of her daughter as she tries to dodge shards of floating space debris.



This classic short story by Jack London was published in 1908, and it is as riveting now as it must have been back then. With no frills and an almost clinical attention to detail, it is the story of a man who sets out with his dog near the Yukon Trail on a day much too cold for safe travel. The temperatures are 75 degrees below zero, and dropping. Every decision, good and bad, has immediate consequences, which gives the story a chilling clarity.



Here we have survival as transformation – a common theme in this List. Tom Hanks is his usual, charismatic self as a guy stranded on a desert island. He endures only to the extent that his knowledge and will allow him – but is that enough? Why does survival matter? What is the point of existence? If only there was a bloody soccer ball around to tell us.



Based on a true story, “127 Hours” stars James Franco as a fun-loving adventurer whose hand becomes wedged between immovable rocks during a solo climbing trip. The inner journey takes center stage, as this man takes stock of his young life and considers what he is willing to do to stay alive.



To some extent, hubris is the subtext of many of these stories. That’s certainly the case with the short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” written by Carl Stephenson and published in 1938. Leiningen is a swaggering plantation owner in Brazil, who decides to stand his ground against a miles-long army of hungry ants. His true enemy, one he valiantly combats, is panic. If the plot sounds familiar, it may be because the story was made into a 1954 movie, “The Naked Jungle,” starring Charlton Heston.



Unlikely premise, but an interesting movie. Ryan Reynolds plays a man buried alive in a coffin, trying to get out. He’s got his cell phone, so it should be no problem – except that he doesn’t know where he is. Gulp.



I can’t say enough about the extraordinary work Redford does in “All is Lost.” All alone on a sailboat on the Indian Ocean, Redford lets his iconic face do the talking as a freaky accident sets in motion a brutal chain of events. The movie is heartbreaking and inspiring, without caving in to unnecessary sentiment.

I limited myself here to singular survival tales. Any good ones I left out?

Great Typewriter Scenes

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As someone who well remembers what it was like to compose and express thoughts using a typewriter, seeing an old Royal or Corona pop up in a movie is always fun. These are some of my favorite film typewriter moments. Clickety-clack!



Thank goodness we had the typewriter scene early in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Getting across the trippy, time-hopping aspect of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel would have been rough without it. These days, it probably would have been done with a narrator, which isn’t nearly as effective as reading over Billy Pilgrim’s shoulder that he was “unstuck in time.”



This great newspaper story is made all the more real because of the constant clatter of words being typed. You see Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman feverishly converting their intricate reporting into sentences and the movie culminates in a series of paragraphs typed across the screen.



How about a magical typewriter? That’s what Paul Dano has in “Ruby Sparks.” He types up a soul mate for himself – and she comes to life.



Ben Kingsley says it exquisitely in “Schindler’s List.” “This list … is an absolute good. This list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” Indeed, the power and urgency of names typed on sheets of paper has never seemed so real.



Now for something unreal. In “Naked Lunch,” a typewriter isn’t just a collection of metal parts daring you to write; it’s a feisty bug with an attitude. What writer hasn’t felt this way on occasion?

MISERY (1990)


Talk about deadline pressure. James Caan is an injured novelist forced to work under the watchful eye of a deranged fan, played memorably by Kathy Bates. There’s plenty of physical pain in “Misery,” and I’m not just talking about how tough a Royal typewriter can be on the pinky fingers.



For delightful silliness, there’s nothing better than watching Jerry Lewis type on an imaginary typewriter. Complete with typing sounds and music, Jerry is a total keystroke maestro.



In this beautiful little character study from a few years ago, Frank Langella is an aging fiction writer coming to grips with family, mortality, loneliness and a novel that just isn’t right. His typewriter is a sacred object, to be treated with respect and reverence. The rest of his life isn’t quite so tidy.



Anyone who bemoans the hassle of lugging around a laptop would do well to see Rosalind Russell putting a typewriter through its paces in “His Girl Friday.” She writes just as fast as she talks – which is pretty damned fast – and her faithful machine appears to weigh as much as a block of cement.



“Saving Private Ryan” has a couple of compelling typewriter moments. One is when Tom Hanks recruits a kid for a dangerous mission, and the young man attempts to bring his typewriter with him. It’s movie shorthand for saying that there are some jobs that can’t be accomplished with words. But in another scene, we see rows of women typing condolence letters to families who have lost a loved one to the war. That’s movie shorthand for saying sometimes words are the only comfort we have.



It would take a much smarter individual than me to piece together all of the symbolism and meanings of “Barton Fink.” It’s a moody mix of creative angst, murder, sex, religion and the value of artistic integrity. Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright lured out to Hollywood to write movie scripts in the 1940s. For much of the film, he painfully sits in his hotel room, unable to writer. Another character calls him a “tourist with a typewriter.”



In a much lighter vein, you have Greg Kinnear’s nostalgic love of typewriters in “You’ve Got Mail.” His character is something of a pompous windbag, too enamored with his own observations, but he does have a point when it comes to the sweet sound of typing.



Only Stanley Kubrick could make a stack of typed pages this scary. Poor Shelley Duvall knows that her husband (Jack Nicholson) has been acting crazy, but she doesn’t truly understand the severity of the situation until she goes into the room where he writes. She finds hundreds of sheets repeating the same phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Yikes!

Frankly, I don’t see why there can’t be a typewriter tossed into every movie. It definitely would have helped “John Carter.”

Best Olympics Movies Ever

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As we head into another edition of the Summer Olympics, here’s a List of Olympics-related film dramas and comedies to get us in the mood. No documentaries, though – the Games will provide all the reality we need for the next two weeks.


Let’s start with the gold medalist. While it’s debatable whether “Chariots of Fire” deserved its Oscar for Best Picture, the fact that it is a classic character study told with grace and dignity is undeniable. The film presents running in the 1924 Olympics as a matter of religious faith, personal struggle, patriotic duty and elite frolic, depending on the individual.


This one is more of a tragedy. Burt Lancaster plays the great Jim Thorpe, who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, only to have the medals taken away because he’d been paid once to play summer baseball. In the 1980s, after his death, Thorpe’s medals were reinstated. This movie, in some of the action scenes, used actual footage of Thorpe.


Now for a little Winter Olympics action, with plenty of star power. Robert Redford is excellent as an aloof, driven Olympic skier. What I like so much about “Downhill Racer” is the way it showcases the rivalries, politics and competitiveness among athletes and even coaches on the same team.


Mariel Hemingway stars in this drama set around the 1980 Olympic games. The story works on two fronts. First you have the various personal relationships involving women’s track and field athletes. Then you have the emotional aftermath of President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 games.


Highly enjoyable, Disney version of the Jamaican bobsled team that took the Olympics – and the world – by storm in 1988. Far from being a documentary, it stars John Candy, Doug E. Doug and the always-charismatic Leon Robinson.


The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo is the backdrop for this old-fashioned romantic comedy. Cary Grant, in his final film role, plays matchmaker to speed walker Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar. It’s very sweet.


“Without Limits” was one of two films in the 1990s to profile Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, who ran in the 1972 Munich games. I prefer this one, which stars the fine actor Billy Crudup as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as his coach. As a side note, “Without Limits” also features the legendary runner Frank Shorter – although he doesn’t play himself (Jeremy Sisto plays Shorter).

MUNICH (2005)

I think this is one of Steven Spielberg’s great films. It starts with an extended recounting of the brutal terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich games and continues forward with a story of Israeli agents responding to the attack in the years that followed. Eric Bana and Daniel Craig star. The movie ends with a visual that some might find cliched, but I found to be among the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

MIRACLE (2004)

We finish on an inspirational note. “Miracle” gives us one of the truly joyous moments (for Americans) in sports, with the U.S. hockey team’s incredible run at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Kurt Russell is perfect as coach Herb Brooks.

Did I leave any good ones out? Add them to The List!