Attention to details in movies that WORKED

We’ve had a long thread about tiny things in movies that peeved us, so now it’s time for a thread in appreciation of the details that worked.

We’ve already pointed out timers that keep accurate time (vs. movie time). Here’s my favorite from recent years:

In “She’s All That” the big finale is at prom. The DJ plays the music, and all the kids start doing the same dance in perfect sync. Ordinarily that would peeve me because I’d think, Gee, that’s odd, how did all those kids learn to do that dance and know to do it to that song. WELL… before the DJ plays he says, “OK, now I’m going to play that song, and I want you all to dance like I taught you…” (or words to that effect). At last, logic!

One thing that I really liked was in the third Die Hard movie, Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995). Graham Greene portrays a cop named Joe Lambert. Obviuosly everyone knows that this guy is native (First Nations, I believe), but it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the film, nor are there any stupid jokes or nicknames like “chief.” The cool thing about it, though, is that he really looks like a modern Native American/Indian man (to this NA woman, anyway). They nailed the crewcut and the name–heh, Joe Lambert. On our reservation we have a Lambert Lane and the Lambert family is one of the largest. Everytime I see this film, I love that they cast an Indian actor in a role that could have been written for anyone. It’s also great to see an Indian who isn’t clothed in buckskin and feathers.

Here’s his imdb listing:,+Graham+(II)

At the end of Death to Smoochy

aw, crap. I don’t want to spoil it.

Okay, here’s one from way back: In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the scene in air traffic control where the two planes are seeing a UFO. The dialog is so beautifully authentic sounding, especially the line where the pilot reports that the UFO is “exhibiting some non-ballistic motion.”

I wonder every time I see it if they rustled up some transcript of an actual air traffic control session.

There are a lot of films filled with details that work. This, I think, is the reason for the success of Star Wars – it takes its SF background seriously and fills the screen with unecessary but consistent elements (the two suns of Tattoine, the high-tech binoculars, the graphics used in targeting, etc.)

One movie that works really well, with lots of well thought-out yet unobtrusive detail, is Forbidden Planet. At the very beginning there’s a scene in which the Star Cruiser C57D slows down from FTL speeds, but they never actually say this. You can figure it out from the actions and dialogue:

“How long to dc point, Skipper?” (“dc” is obviously “deceleration”, although this is not stated)

“Got your breakable gear stowed?”

“Move on. You want to bounce through this one?”

Then the crewmen step into what are evidently stasis field generators and are covered by a glow (looking like the “Star Trek” transporter effect, years before Star Trek hit the TV) that keeps them from being turned into red smears as the ship brakes.

None of this is explained, although, as I say, you can figure it out. I wonder how many people not paying attention were thoroughly confused by the whole sequence. And the movie is filled with such touches.

For decades after this movies and TV shows were being written in which the robot/computer turns against its human masters. By contrast, Robby the Robot in FP not only is shown to obey Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (only Aliens and Bicentennial Man have robots that are said to follow such laws), but this fact is later used to accentuate a plot point. And Robby also has an emergency override (!!) Damned good thinking out of the background!

In Good Will Hunting, all of the math problems you see in the background, on blackboards or mirrors or whatnot, are real math problems, of a level which might be assigned in a real grad course at MIT. Too bad they don’t do that anymore in movies about mathematicians.

Of course, there’s a slew of details in Lord of the Rings, but those all have their own threads, so I’ll just let those be, here ;).

I was walking through a hallway at MIT a couple of months ago and passed a “whiteboard” on the wal covered with equations. Crammed into one corner was the notice:

Custodians: Please don’t solve these problems

In Inventing The Abbotts , one of the brothers (I think it is the one played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a theatre set designer.

Now, I have always wondered why movies cannot get anything about theatre right, especially seeing as many film people started in theatre. Most of the time theatre scenes are filled with staggering, cringe-inducing inaccuracies.

Anyways, Inventing The Abbotts is the exception. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I remember that they really make an effort to make his design realistic. I believe that when Liv Tyler shows up at the theatre, he is up on a ladder, putting gels into the backlights.

In general, it wasn’t a great movie, but you have no idea how happy this detail made me.

Chronos writes:

> In Good Will Hunting, all of the math problems you see in the
> background, on blackboards or mirrors or whatnot, are real
> math problems, of a level which might be assigned in a real
> grad course at MIT.

Well, no, not really. The math on each board is correct in itself, but there are inconsistencies between what the subject of the course is and the equations put on the board. There are also inconsistencies between the level of mathematics and the level that it should be according to the plot. See the goofs section for Good Will Hunting in its IMDb entry.

It seems to me that another problem is that the class is too large. The class is approximately the size you might expect for an undergraduate calculus class, but it’s supposed to be a grad course.

A better example would be the scene in It’s My Turn where Jill Clayburgh’s character is proving a theorem called the Snake Lemma. The details are all exactly right, including the comments from Daniel Stern which are the right things for a smart if somewhat snide grad student to say as the proof is made. The trivia section of the IMDb about this film:

notes that a textbook on the subject mentions that you can get an accurate proof of the theorem from the movie.

Indeed, the film almost tries too hard. On the website called Math in the Movies:

someone comments that “Jill’s father, at one point, introduces his daughter as a mathematician who is working in finite simple groups. How many group theorists have parents who know what they do?”

although it’s a tv show:

i absolutely love that the characters in gilmore girls have consistent musical tastes. in a lot of tv shows, the characters just like whatever is convenient for the producers to play. one week a character will like blink-182, the next some soft-country singer.

in gilmore girls, it’s different.

rory and her friend lane both share a diverse yet realistic taste in music. they are fans of quality indie rock. rory wants to see pj harvey in concert. they ‘swear on the life of the lead singer of blur.’ they also have an affection for some older artists, and a healthy disdain for *nsync. (rory’s grandmother asks who she likes better, *nsync or backstreet boys, which totally perplexes rory.)

it would be all to easy for the producers to have rory listening to leonard cohen or nick cave one week and train andcreed the next but they don’t. it’s a nice consistency that makes the show just a little bit more special.

true, they did have rory attend a bangles concert, yet this could be quite acceptably explained as a love for slightly nostalgic kitsch, influenced by her mother.

The first part of the movie “A.I. - Artificial Intelligence” takes place a century or two in the future, when global warming has caused massive climate changes and the polar ice caps have melted.

In a scene between David and his mother that takes place in what is obviously a North American forest, a bird can be heard calling in the background. It is unmistakably a Screaming Piha Lipaugus vociferans, one of the characteristic birds of the Amazon rainforest. Evidently the species has taken advantage of the warming climate to expand its range northward.

While it is possible that this is simply a blooper, I think it’s more likely that someone on the production team inserted this detail (perhaps as a private joke), even though it would only be detected by a tropical ornithologist.