Friday, January 6, 2017

Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

1.5 Stars

My reviews of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers focused fairly exclusively on how those films played as individual movies. In this review of the third and final chapter, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, fans might rightly argue that I should finally consider these films together, since the trilogy itself is the work. After all, Tolkien's original novel was conceived of as a single work and divided for publication, and when Jackson adapted this work, he conceived of a three film adaptation from (at least very near to) the beginning. There's some truth to this argument. No film series has ever been conceived so entirely as a franchise from its inception.

I firmly reject this view. A work of art's presentation matters, and every single one of The Lord of the Rings films was presented as an independent film. I certainly wasn't offered the opportunity to pay one third of the price for each film because I was only seeing one third of the auteur's intended work. Consequently, I will continue to review these films as they were presented - one film at a time.

Looked at as an individual film, Return of the King is a failure. Anyone coming to this film without seeing the previous two movies would be completely lost. There is no exposition in this film. Why are Frodo (Elijah Wood), Samwise (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) on a mountain in perpetual twilight? What is the Ring? What exactly does it do? Return of the King gives you no answers to any of these questions - it assumes that you have watched the previous films in the franchise.

Much of the first hour is spent attending parties celebrating the end of Two Towers. Incidentally, those scenes would have made a great conclusion to Two Towers and avoided the previous films horrible, mind-numbingly stupid, cliffhanger of an ending. Worse, the narrative that does materialize from this extraordinarily haphazard beginning has a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. Three hours of walking, hiking, and scrambling through the darkest stretches of Middle-Earth worrying about the forces of darkness descending upon you, and the final obstacle is a slap fight with a CGI Andy Serkis? Are you kidding me?

Meanwhile, Return of the King's parallel narrative, the one that gives it its title, is no better. The parallel narrative focuses on Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the King-in-exile of the nation of Gondor, leading the remaining members of the erstwhile 'Fellowship of the Ring' as they ride to the defense of Gondor at the city of Minas Tirith. In order to successfully defend the city, he will need to take command of the combined armies of the men of Middle-Earth and, more importantly, reclaim his throne from Denethor (John Noble). Of course, when it's phrased like that, a viewer might expect that Aragorn would return to Minas Tirith, confront Denethor, reclaim his throne, and lead the armies of Middle-Earth against the forces of Mordor - the same enemy that defeated his ancestors. That doesn't really happen. Instead, he mopes around the neighboring country of Rohan while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) deals with Denethor. Aragorn isn't even around for most of the battle of Minas Tirith. He shows up only at the very end, and the battle of Minas Tirith (the moment that this entire franchise has been building towards) is a huge disappointment. This battle isn't won by tactics or strategies - the tide of battle turns five times based on who made the most recent totally radical entrance.

That said, even if I were to judge these three films as a whole trilogy - I'm sorry, they are a disaster. The dialogue is too earnest and self-serious. The characters are incredibly poorly defined. The Ring of Power only uses its powers when its convenient, and two different individuals find it at the bottom of a river. Give me a break. But more fundamentally than that, these films lack the basic necessity of a great dramatic piece - a strong confrontation between protagonists and antagonists. The antagonists of these movies are almost never in the same place as the protagonists. The protagonists never (or almost never) meet Sauron (Sala Baker) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), and they certainly don't confront them in any meaningful way at critical moments in the story. Instead, the protagonists spend their whole lives fighting random orcs and uruk-hai. The whole fellowship was only together for - maybe 40 minutes of screen time. And yet, this final film acts like their reunion is some kind of long awaited moment that should bring the audience to tears.

The actual worst thing about this movie - and this trilogy - is the ending. Sorry, endings. The last seven scenes of this movie each end in a fade out signaling that this monstrosity is finally over. Each scene is more self-important and treacly than the scene that preceded it. It's exhausting. It's frustrating. It's just obnoxious.

So what movie did everybody else watch? I want to see the Best Picture winning high fantasy epic that everyone else raved about called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. That movie sounds awesome. For the record, 9 of the 37 surveyed listed it as one of the top ten films of the 2000s and 2 listed the trilogy as the best film of the decade.

In the end, I can’t recommend these films either individually or as a combined trilogy. As an individual film, Return of the King is a deeply flawed film, and easily the worst films I have reviewed so far in my quest for a classic among the best films of the 2000s when I review the next film on the list, No Country for Old Men.

From Out in the Void,

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Best and Worst of 2016

Well, another year has come and (nearly) gone. My erstwhile co-hosts will no doubt be promulgating their best and worst lists of 2016 back at A Review Too Far. I just thought I would beat them to the punch. I saw seventeen new release films this year. (Most of my movie watching this year was taken up watching the Best of the 2000s). What follows is a list of the eight best and worst films I saw this year, with a special shout out to the one movie that fell dead in the middle.

The Eight Worst Films I watched in 2016 (From the Best to the Worst)

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: 3 Stars. I'm going to give Rogue One a cautious recommendation even though it's on the worst list. It isn't a bad movie, so much as it is a wildly uneven one. It is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite film in the Star Wars franchise. Rogue One succeeded in making me care deeply about it's protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), but it was so interconnected to the film formerly known as Star Wars (and lately known as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope) that it ended up feeling like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of the Star Wars universe.

7. X-Men: Apocalypse: 3 Stars. Another movie that I'm going to give a cautious recommendation to. Apocalypse was like a clip show from a long running TV series. Apocalypse relived many of the most dramatic moments from the previous entries in the franchise, except that this time it re-staged those scenes with younger actors. As result, it never really felt necessary or even exciting. It was unintentionally experimental. Maybe you should see it ...

6. Independence Day: Resurgence: 2.5 Stars. A lot of people hated this movie. I agree that it wasn't any good, but in my opinion, it wasn't really worth hating. Also, who could have predicted twenty-years ago that the lynch-pin of the Independence Day franchise would turn out to be the random scientist played by Brent Spiner. This movie didn't work, but it was harmlessly awful and not terribly boring.

5. Jane Got a Gun: 2 Stars. I vaguely remember seeing this Natalie Portman Western vehicle. This was one of the two most boring films that I watched this year. It just never got off the ground. In the final analysis, the most entertaining part of this film was Ewan McGregor's infinitely vacillating accent.

4. The Magnificent Seven: 2 Stars. More like the mediocre seven. This remake never found a reason to justify its existence. I was never more bored in the theater this year than while watching The Magnificent Seven. It squandered a fairly terrific cast and a first class pedigree.

3. The 5th Wave: 1.5 Stars. If there's any justice at the movies in 2016, it was the complete failure of movies that attempted to copy the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. The Divergent Series collapsed and this alien apocalypse teen drama never got off the ground. It never deserved to. It had an over-complicated backstory, and it just didn't work.

2. The Purge: Election Year: 1 Star. The Purge franchise is awful. It simultaneously lectures viewers on the evils of violence while profiteering from extreme violence. It is downright insulting to religious people, and it has an equally terrible view of the poor and the downtrodden - as if poor people are brutes whose yearning for a good life can be assuaged by twelve hours' of uninhibited violence. There's almost certainly no film from the early part of 2016 that looks worse at the end of it than The Purge: Election Year. Worst of all, it wasn't even any fun.

1. Hardcore Henry: 0 Stars. I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, hated Hardcore Henry. Filmed from the first person perspective of the titular Henry, Hardcore Henry wasn't really a movie. It was more like a first person shooter. Except, I wasn't playing the video game. Watching Hardcore Henry reminded me of when I would go to my friend's house in middle school, and I'd have to wait my turn to play Duke Nukem. Worst of all, Harcore Henry starts from the assumption that the only reason a man does anything is so that a woman will have sex with him. Women in this universe are only good for sex and betraying men. It was such a terrible, awful, no good, misogynistic, mind numbing, insulting movie that I hope people lost their jobs over it and get blacklisted.

Before I get to the best films of the year, I wanted to make mention of the film that fell dead in the middle: Hello, My Name is Doris. Doris was a weird, charming, and sweet romantic comedy about an aging woman (Sally Field) who gave up her youth to care for her aging mother and a young man (Max Greenfield) who works with her. I liked it, but I just happened to have seen eight films that I preferred.

The eight best films I saw this year (from Worst to Best).

8. Moana: 3.5 Stars. Another entry in Disney's new renaissance, Moana was good, easy to recommend, but far from perfect. There was a character who dropped completely out of the film. The music wasn't terribly memorable. There was a scene that seemed like a footnote from a gender studies class. But, it continued Disney's recent tradition of eschewing climaxes featuring redemptive violence in favor of - actual redemption. The protagonist was fun and spunky, and The Rock makes a great sidekick. Moana was a solid film and a great time at the theater.

7. Arrival: 3.5 Stars. Billed as the thinking man's science-fiction film of 2016, Arrival isn't quite as good as its partisans have suggested. Its science seems a little out of date; it was a bit slow moving, but it was a fascinating meditation on the power of language. In a year when the world seemed to be at war with smart people, Arrival was an argument for their importance and for the importance of taking the time to understand other people whether they are from China, Montana, or an egg-shaped spacecraft. Oh, and it featured top flight acting from Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (and Forest Whitaker's second worst accent of 2016).

6. The Witch: 4 Stars. The Witch probably wins the award for "movie that exceeded my expectations the most" in 2016. The Witch was a shockingly specific and authentic look at Colonial America. It was a horror movie in an older sense, where the world around the characters seemed to be frightening and hostile - even the livestock. No film haunted my dreams or made me think more in 2016.

5. The Jungle Book: 4 Stars. Mixing the best elements of Kipling's original stories and the animated Disney film, and adding a stronger narrative structure missing from both sources, The Jungle Book was a tour de force in computer animation and burrowed deep into my forgotten childhood memories of these stories. It also featured 2016's strongest cast.

4. Doctor Strange: 4 Stars. Doctor Strange should not have worked. It had a confusing plot with dark creatures, alternate dimensions, strange artifacts, and sorcerer supremes. Yet, somehow, I was never confused. Doctor Strange plays the same beats as Iron Man and Ant-Man, but Benedict Cumberbatch plays a hero who is all sharp tongues and ragged pain, more reluctant to enter the fray than any film hero since Casablanca's Rick. It works. I also appreciated that the movie resolves itself in a clever trap rather than a giant battle against a faceless horde of villains/sky beam.

3. Deadpool: 4 Stars. Somewhere in the last 15 years, action movies, particularly comic book movies, have lost their sense of romance. Who would have figured that Deadpool would feature the most intimate and well-drawn romance in an action movie while simultaneously lambasting comic book movies in general and the X-Men franchise in particular. It was funny. The action was good. There was no faceless army and no giant skybeam. It was very nearly the best action film of 2016.

2. Captain America: Civil War: 4 Stars. Civil War is high on my list despite it's very deep flaw - namely that one of the film's two primary motivating incidents makes no sense whatsoever and could have been airlifted from the movie. But Civil War was wise enough to craft a movie about three men, all good, all honorable, all trying to do the right thing, who simply reached an impasse and found themselves forced into a series of battles they didn't really want to be fighting. Despite the film's size and unwieldy structure, Civil War managed to be that rare popcorn movie going experience that also felt personal.

1. Everybody Wants Some!!: 5 Stars. This was the only movie I saw in 2016 that I truly loved, and boy did I. Set over the weekend before classes begin at a college town in Texas, Everybody Wants Some!! did a great job of portraying college life. Directed by Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!! had parties, sex, drinking, and smoking, but it also featured the rest of college life: the beginnings of a new romance, the bonding with new friends, even the minor annoyances of having to share a bedroom. It was fun, raunchy, romantic, and deeply personal for Linklater. I'm glad he shared it with us.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

2 Stars

In my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I remarked on how interesting it was to return to Fellowship in the wake of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit, because I thought many of the critiques reviewers made about The Hobbit 1-3 were apparent in Fellowship, such as a surplus of characters and a dearth of interesting dialogue. Well, critics raked Jackson over the coals for his tendency toward bloat in their reviews of The Hobbit 1-3, a tendency that was on full display the previous decade in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Once upon a time, Miramax was going to create a two-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but when the project went to New Line Cinema under the stewardship of Jackson, the project increased to include an additional film - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was never supposed to exist, and it shows. Two Towers has no beginning. It has no conclusion. Worst of all, Two Towers doesn't even feature a compelling confrontation between a protagonist and an antagonist. The primary antagonist of Two Towers is Saruman (Christopher Lee). It's hard to say who the main protagonist is - Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) maybe? It doesn't matter. The film's villain, Saruman, never meets anyone who might be considered a protagonist. Consequently, Two Towers simply lacks everything necessary to focus or maintain a narrative.

Jackson has made some changes to Tolkien's original narrative in this middle chapter, but the essential framework remains the same. Two Towers follows the characters of the now broken 'Fellowship of the Ring's' attempt to thwart Saruman's plan to conquer the Kingdom of Rohan. Unfortunately, in Jackson's rewrite, Saruman's plan makes no sense. Saruman begins by raising an army of orcs or uruk-hai (I confess, I can't tell the difference between them). Then, he visits a group of peasants (or something) and exhorts them to rise up against the 'Horse-Lords of Rohan' (who are some people [maybe] from a place the viewers have barely seen). Who these peasants (I'm going with peasants here) are, where they live, whether they have an extant political grievance against the Horse-Lords - none of that is actually explained. I know I decried the narration that opened Fellowship, but Two Towers would have benefited from a little bit more exposition.

All that said, this initial cavalcade of unexplained mysteries is not what really knocks Two Towers off track. After Saruman's initial machinations begin, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride to Rohan's rescue and discover that Saruman has taken control of the mind of King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill). That's not how Tolkien wrote it, but the upshot is that in Jackson's rewrite the entire war in Rohan never needed to happen. Saruman had conquered Rohan before the film even began without even drawing a sword. There's no need for the orc/uruk-hai army, no need for the inexplicable peasant uprising, and no need for the Battle of Helm's Deep.

The Battle of Helm's Deep was much hyped when Two Towers was initially released. On a second viewing, that hype is much ado about nothing. From the second, Aragorn and Company arrive in Rohan, they are informed that Rohan’s army is insufficient to defeat Saruman’s, and they stomp around feeling sorry for themselves and their imminent demise.

But why? Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are each more powerful than Saruman's entire army. In the opening scene, they discuss how they have been running for three days without any food or rest while running. Legolas can see human sized orcs/uruk-hai at a distance of twenty or thirty miles in great detail. Shortly afterwards, Aragorn demonstrates his ability to precisely reconstruct skirmishes from the previous night by looking at slightly disturbed dirt. Once the Battle of Helm’s Deep actually begins, Legolas and Gimli don’t appear to be too concerned about their hopeless situation. They simply calmly tick off the number of orc/uruk-hai kills they are racking up. They appear to be able to kill each of their enemies with a single blow or arrow. At one point, Aragorn throws Gimli onto a bridge crowded with orcs/uruk-hai wiping dozens of them off the map at once. Legolas fires arrows while surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield and never misses. That’s a thing that happens in this totally awesome, believable, serious, meaningful movie that is beyond criticism. The characters are simply too powerful for all their jawing about their imminent death to mean anything to the audience. Worst of all, this allegedly hopeless battle never comes to pass because Galadriel (Cate Blanchett who hasn’t been seen since the forest encounter in the last movie) has some kind of long distance telepathic conversation with Elrond (Hugo Weaving, also unseen since sometime in the previous movie) who sends an elf army to aid Rohan. That's right, in addition to being more powerful than all the faceless CGI monsters Jackson can throw at them, these characters are saved by deus elf machina.

Amid all this, the ostensible protagonist of The Lord of the Rings saga, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), ends up feeling remarkably unnecessary in this movie. Actually, the guy bearing the Ring could be lifted completely out of The Lord of the Rings 2. Not only would this not damage the film, it would improve it. One of the worst aspects of Two Towers is its ending. I hate a cliffhanger ending, but this ending isn't just a cliffhanger. It's a cliffhanger worthy of part one of a two part episode of a children's cartoon.

And yet, nine reviewers named it one of the best films of the 2000s. Two of them named it (as part of the trilogy) the best film of that decade. Why? It's continued technical achievements? There's nothing here that wasn't in Fellowship. It's epic scale? It's all on hard drives. Jackson wasn't commanding a cast of thousands using flag signals.

I really think the reviewers just gave New Zealand's landscapes 5 Stars. I'll give New Zealand 5 Stars, but Two Towers is a 2 Star film, and I might even be being generous there.

Next time, I'll finish my sojourn in Middle Earth when I review The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

From Out in the Void,

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Points Break

The Points Break

I only vaguely remembered that they made a remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 film Point Break last year when I caught a few moments of it on TV. The next week, a friend told me that the remake of Point Break, this time directed by Ericson Core, was actually good, because “this time, Johnny Utah can act.” Instinctively, I backed Bigelow before thinking through the fact that her protagonists (Utah and Pappas) were played by Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey. So, I was challenged to watch and review both the 1991 and 2015 versions of Point Break and determine once in for all which was the superior film. After watching both versions, I’m struck by how radically different these films actually are.

Bigelow’s 1991 film is a fairly simple story. A group of bank robbers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) is terrorizing Los Angeles. Pappas (Busey) figures out that the robbers are also surfers, committing crimes in order to fund their summer of care free adventure. Pappas’ new partner, erstwhile college football star, Johnny Utah (Reeves) infiltrates the surfing culture of Southern California in order to identify the bank robbers and bring them to justice. Bigelow’s film has a languid, SoCal pace. The film takes its time to establish a romance between Utah and Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty). There are extended scenes of learning to surf, bobbing gently in the calm sea on a surf board, and late night touch football games lit by headlight.

Core’s film can’t be contained to Southern California. He ups the ante, reinventing Bigelow’s surfing bank robbers as eco-terrorists driven to complete a legendary series of extreme sports challenges known as “the Ozaki 8” in order to pay tribute to a dead mentor. Utah (Luke Bracey) an FBI agent haunted by the death of his friend during an extreme sports accident rejoins the world of extreme sports in order find the robbers and bring them to justice. Core’s film is a travelogue of danger and features amazing stunt work that no one could have dreamed of filming in the 90s. It plays with more speed and urgency than Bigelow’s film, and, in spite of adding more sports, more stunts, and a more complicated motivation for the robberies, Core’s film clocks in a full six minutes under Bigelow’s run time. There’s time for sex but not love. There’s time for professions of bro-mantic feeling but no time to create an audience investment in it. There’s glamour and adrenaline, but there’s not much heart.

So which is better? That really depends.

The Case for Core: “We have to give back more than we take.” – Bodhi.

As an action movie, Core’s version is much more successful. The characters are more specifically drawn. Their motivations are more interesting; “the Ozaki 8” and its attendant new age/adrenaline rush philosophy are interesting hooks. The action is way more intense, and Luke Bracey is a better actor than Reeves. There’s a good case that Core has improved on Bigelow’s work here. Unfortunately, as I said before, Core’s film feels nearly heartless. That’s a shame. Core demonstrates, in a single scene, that he has the ability to play on our sense of wonder and heart strings as ably as he lights up our adrenal glands. The scene where Utah and Samsara (Teresa Palmer) dive from a ship and explore an underwater cave without oxygen tanks plays beautifully. He could have given us more like this and handily beat Bigelow at her own game.

But Bet on Bigelow: “Big-wave riding’s for macho assholes with a death wish.” – Tyler Endicott.

Bigelow, for her part, misses the point of this material – I think intentionally – in order to explore her own pet themes as a filmmaker. Bigelow’s entire filmography is devoted to interrogating the performative aspects of masculinity. She is devoted (obsessed?) with what and how it is that men appear to be men. Over time, she’s developed a very sensitive eye and revealed aspects of masculinity that male directors have missed precisely because she is seeing it from the outside. Point Break is an early work in this ongoing effort for Bigelow. As a result, it’s cruder than her more recent achievements. That said, she draws intriguing parallels between the masculine culture of the FBI with its useless, risky (and almost certainly fictional) diving challenges and surfer culture with its obsession with finding the biggest wave even if it kills you.

Bigelow also benefits from Swayze’s onscreen presence as Bodhi. Swayze has more charisma than his 2015 analogue (Edgar Ramirez). Of course, Swayze also has an easier job. All he has to do is convince people to steal a few bucks to fund an endless party. Ramirez has to convince us that getting adrenaline rushes from the earth justifies barely related acts of eco-terrorism. I’d rather party with Swayze than riot with Ramirez.

Bigelow’s other secret weapon is “Tank Girl” Tyler Endicott. Lori Petty actually has a role to play in Bigelow’s version of Point Break. She has a perspective of her own. She matters to our hero. So she matters to us.

Bigelow also punctuates the film with bursts of shocking violence giving her film an edge and flavor that action films could have in the 90s but that has been largely ironed out of action movies today, and that was completely ironed out of the remake.

“It’s a state of mind.” – Bodhi.

Honestly, it really is hard to choose the superior version of Point Break. In terms of quality, they aren’t actually that far apart. Pressed for an answer, I would give a slight edge to Bigelow’s 1991 original. She made it into a richer text. I would give it 2.5 stars out of a possible 5. Of course, none of what Bigelow put into the picture is really necessary. These films only exist so that the audience can experience getting totally radical vicariously. By that score, Core’s 2015 remake is the superior picture. Still, I would only give Core’s remake 2 stars, because …

“They don’t understand the sea.” – Bodhi.

Part way through the remake of Point Break, they did a thing that really bugs me. One of Bodhi’s henchmen explains that you have to master your fear or “You’ll reach your line. The point where you break and fear becomes master and you become its slave.” That was a long way to go to emphasize the title words in the wrong order.

For the record, the title of both versions of Point Break refer to an actual ocean phenomenon called a “point break” – a specific type of wave break that occurs when ocean waves hit on a point of land that sticks out beyond the rest of a land mass. The original 1991 film’s final scene is set at Bells Beach, Australia, a location famous for its point break. I hate it when film remakes come up with “new” justifications for elements of the original because people have become too stupid over the intervening decades to understand the title’s original meaning. *See also, the remake of Star Trek reinventing the origin story of the nickname "Bones" lest its audience have to know that "sawbones" was once slang for "surgeon."

Of course, that’s just my opinion, and you can’t put too much stock in it. After all, I’m a lawyer, and …

From Out in the Void,


Monday, December 5, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Spirited Away

5 Stars

Spirited Away is quite simply one of my very favorite films. The story is hardly revolutionary. It tells of Chihiro Ogino (Daveigh Chase), a ten-year-old girl upset that her family is moving to a new home. On the way, her father (Michael Chiklis) takes a wrong turn. They stop to investigate an abandoned theme park, and while exploring, Chihiro’s parents eat food they find displayed at one of the concession stands which upsets the local spirits. Trapped in a strange new spirit world, Chihiro must overcome her fears and find a way to save her parents. In this way, Chihiro is reminiscent of many of the heroines of children’s stories and belongs in such honored company as Wendy Darling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice.

While this story may not be revolutionary, that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Chihiro navigates real and permanent dilemnas, which are, of course, simply metaphors for the struggles of growing up. She faces separation from her family, hardships at work, the frightening prospect of having to be open to a first love (and the attendant sacrifices that might mean), and even receiving a new name (a struggle unique to women – at least in American society). These metaphors are dramatized in a unique and interesting world filled with spirits, monsters, anthropomorphic beasts, and living paper dolls – all of which are animated in beautiful and strange detail. There are innovations in animation here, settings and people appear to be animated separately and stitched together (somehow) in a way that permits the film to dramatize motion and confusion in ways I haven’t seen outside of Stuido Ghibli productions.

The voice cast is terrific. Chase, already a veteran of voice acting having previously voiced Lilo in Lilo & Stitch, provides a standout performance as Chihiro. The rest of the cast includes, in addition to Chiklis, Lauren Holly, Pixar utility player John Ratzenberger, Tara Strong, and Jason Marsden. Their talents help elevate this material.

On this second viewing, I was struck by something that I think I overlooked before (though I can't say for certain since my esteemed cohost failed to post the original Void Zone Podcast Review). Spirited Away is set to a relatively simple score consisting of almost exclusively a piano track. It’s beautiful. It’s simple, and it complements the film’s tone perfectly.

If there is a lasting value to me from my time as a contributor to A Review too Far or The Void Zone Podcast (other than the friends I made along the way), it is that through those shows I was exposed to the work of Hiyao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I have loved watching films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, and, most especially, Spirited Away. I can think of no higher praise for Spirited Away, so I will just say that it is exactly the kind of classic film I was looking for when I began this project. It’s one of the best films I reviewed with Nick and Brit in my 18 months on the shows, and it is one of my favorite films that I have reviewed in my survey of the Best of the 2000s.

Spirited Away finds itself on this list because eight of the 37 critics surveyed agree with me and listed it among the best films of the first decade. It also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, and went on to be declared the 4th best film of the 21st century in a poll of critics released a few weeks ago by the BBC.

For those of you watching along, my next film has me returning to Middle Earth to review The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

From Out in the Void,

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

2.5 Stars

The first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a spectacular technical achievement. However, none of the wizardry that went into creating the breathtaking visuals is present in terms of character or story. As a result, Fellowship never quite becomes the great film that it ought to be or that many reviewers seem to believe it is.

Fellowship tells the story of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit who inherits a dangerous and powerful ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm, who, in a nice casting nod, had previously portrayed Frodo in a 1981 radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). Terrified of its destructive power and determined to save his homeland, Frodo forges a group of nine companions dubbed “The Fellowship of the Ring” and sets out to destroy the ring once and for all.

It’s interesting to return to Fellowship now, in 2016, in the aftermath of the general weariness with which reviewers greeted Jackson’s second Middle Earth trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit. In those films, reviewers were quick to note that there were too many characters, that they were clumsily introduced, that they were indistinguishable, and that they made almost no emotional impact. I feel much the same about many of the characters and events in Fellowship. For instance, quite early in the film, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) goes to seek the counsel of Saruman (Christopher Lee). Saruman betrays Gandalf. The scene is boring. Viewers just met Saruman. The film put no effort into establishing any kind of relationship between Gandalf and Saruman. As a result, his betrayal carries no emotional impact.

Fellowship is replete with moments exactly like this. The whole first half of the movie consists of Bilbo making oblique references to his previous, unseen adventure. He talks about defeating trolls, dragons, and of his desire to once again visit The Lonely Mountain and Laketown. Wikipedia, or people who are already familiar with the material, will instantly recognize these as incidents from The Hobbit, but for first time viewers, they add nothing to the film, and they take up time that would have been better spent getting to know important characters like Aragorn/Strider (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rys-Davies).

Alternatively, that valuable screen time Jackson chose to use reassuring fans that he had read The Hobbit would have been much more productive permitting the characters to actually discover the power, danger, and history of Frodo’s terrible new ring – the Ring of Power. Instead, Jackson crams all that information into a lengthy, expository preamble. Not only is this narration a clumsy bit of storytelling, it’s inexplicably narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), an elf ruler that our heroes meet in a woods late in the film. This narration also clearly establishes two pieces of information that the rest of the film promptly ignores.

First, the narration tells the story of the entire history of the Ring of Power from the day that Sauron (Sala Baker) created it until it came into the hands of Bilbo, 60 years before the beginning of the main narrative. Most of this history, Galdriel tells us, has become a forgotten myth that practically no one in all of Middle Earth knows or recalls. This is simply not true. At least one character, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), has been alive and present for much of the Ring’s history. Aragorn instantly recognizes the Ring after seeing its effects for only a matter of seconds in a dimly lit bar. Boromir (Sean Bean) also recognizes it instantly, though he does appear to have previously believed that it was a mythical object (akin to the Holy Grail). The list goes on. The only characters who don’t seem to recognize Frodo’s ring instantly are Gandalf, who goes on a quest to learn the Ring’s true nature from some old books, and the various hobbits who end up accompanying Frodo by accident (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monahan).

Second, this narration also establishes that the Ring has some powers and desires to return to its master, Sauron. What powers, exactly, the Ring has are ill defined, inconsistent, and used remarkably foolishly if the Ring actually wants to return to Sauron as Galadriel's narration claims. The narration establishes that the Ring grants its bearers exceptionally long life. In the case of Gollum (Andy Serkis, debuting his motion capture abilities), it grants him more than 500 years of life. Then the ring “abandons” him (more on this later) and falls into an underground river, apparently for some time. Gollum retains his longevity. Bilbo picks up the Ring and takes it away from Gollum for 60 years. Gollum retains his longevity. Bilbo gives up the Ring, and instantly loses his longevity, appearing to age several decades over the course of a few weeks or months. Gollum retains his longevity.

Returning to the subject of the Ring abandoning Gollum, the Ring appears to control its own gravity/mass/position in space. Thus, when Frodo falls backwards in the bar, the Ring lands on his finger in order to advertise its power and existence to the whole bar. Similarly, when Frodo slips in the snow, the Ring falls from his neck and lands at the feet of Boromir in the hope of tempting Boromir to use the Ring for his own purposes, which will eventually lead to Sauron reclaiming the Ring. But if the Ring's goal is to return to Sauron, why did the Ring fall off of Gollum and into the underground river some time (weeks? months? years?) before Bilbo found it in the first place. Kinda seems like a risky play. If returning to Sauron is the goal, why fall on Frodo’s finger in a room full of drunks or in the snow on some forgotten mountain but stay securely in Frodo’s pocket or around his neck when Frodo is hurled across battlefields by Sauron’s agents?

Finally, the Ring has the ability to influence the minds of the people who carry it. It can tempt them to put the Ring on at inopportune times. If that’s so, why not just compel Gollum to return the Ring to Sauron a half a millennium ago? Or compel Bilbo to return the Ring a half century ago?

Fans will no doubt tell me that I am nitpicking the plot of a film that I simply didn’t become emotionally attached to. They might point out that I haven’t gone after the Marvel films for their MacGuffins. Maybe. But those films are not primarily about their MacGuffins. Their MacGuffins are not portrayed as agents with a will. They are mindless objects of great power that bad people want and good people try to stop the bad people from getting. The Marvel movies are just capture the flag. The Ring is a much more important, active, and integral to the plot than the Infinity Stones The actions of a sentient Ring in league with the central villain are a fair point of criticism for a film series called The Lord of the Rings. I may not be able to say it in elvish, but it's still true.

All these problems aside, there were aspects of this film that I actually loved. That's right. Loved. The locations are beautifully chosen. The sets are ingenious. The battles, in contrast to many blockbuster battles of the last decade, are surprisingly intimate and well-staged. Each of the characters has a different skill, ability, race, size, and weapon. Consequently, they all fight in radically different ways. The action sequences truly reward a careful viewer. There is even a scene where the characters are racing for their lives along a collapsing bridge deep in a mine. The scene requires them to survive a gambit of Spielbergian genius, and I would be remiss not to single it out for praise.

Fellowship is also a watershed film for computer generated imagery and motion capture technology. The lasting legacy of The Lord of the Rings is and always will be Andy Serkis remarkable portrayal of Gollum. It begins here, and fifteen years later it remains spectacular.

Having criticized Fellowship for not taking the time to connect emotionally, I should say that there are times when it does. At several points in the film, especially in the last half, characters perform acts of great heroics. They take impossible stands. They engage in daring do. They make horrible sacrifices, and learn the actual moral content of their characters. Often, their best acts stand as rebukes of other characters’ failures or inspirations for other characters to embrace the roles they should be filling. I think those scenes are well-crafted, well-acted, and they do work emotionally.

When Fellowship works, it really works. It demonstrates the glorious and beautiful film that it almost is. Unfortunately, large parts of it don’t work because a great deal of the film is dedicated to fan service. As a result, it is not a classic that I want to return to again.

Then again, what do I know. Seven of the 37 critics surveyed all agreed that it was one of the best films of the decade. Two of them declared it (along with the other members of its trilogy) to be the very best film of the decade. I know for a fact that the next film on my list is one I can wholeheartedly endorse. It’s Spirited Away. I’m already on record loving it.

From Out in the Void,

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Dark Knight

4.5 Stars

Of all the films on the Best of the 2000s list, The Dark Knight is probably the film that I have seen the most times. It is an exceptional film, one of the best comic book adaptations of all time and an excellent crime drama to boot. That said, The Dark Knight is not without its flaws, and despite its greater critical acclaim, its predecessor, Batman Begins remains a better movie.

The Dark Knight centers on the contest between Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) for the future of the crime ridden Gotham City. It is most notable for Ledger’s career defining and Oscar winning performance as the Joker, and both Ledger and the film are rightly praised for it. Ledger found a character of bizarre and haunting depth. He disappears beneath the caked on make-up and greasy hair of his psychotic, anarchy obsessed, Clown Prince of Crime. The greatness of Ledger’s performance is both a positive and a negative of the film. The Joker overwhelms Batman in his own movie. He nearly crowds Bale right out of the picture, which is a shame. The Dark Knight could have been a thematic counterpoint to Batman Begins. Where Batman Begins artfully traced Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman, The Dark Knight begins with Bruce Wayne practically begging to be released from his responsibilities as the Caped Crusader. If The Dark Knight had only spent a little bit more of its runtime bringing us to the point of understanding Batman’s desire to retire, the way Batman Begins spent its runtime making us understand Wayne’s desire to become Batman in the first place, The Dark Knight would have been a superior film.

The Dark Knight’s action sequences are the best in the entire genre. Whether we are discussing the opening gambit where a group of masked clowns rip off a bank, the skyhook sequence in Hong Kong, the car chases filmed on Lower Wacker Drive, or the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker, there is no other comic book film that seriously competes with The Dark Knight in terms of action adventure filmmaking.

The Dark Knight is also among the best looking comic book films ever made. Nolan and his cinematographer, Wally Pfister, made brilliant choices. The film is dark, but never hard to see. The lighting brings contrast, color, shadow, shade, and texture to well-chosen locations and even better designed sets. The Dark Knight came out in 2008, the year that Marvel launched its cinematic super franchise with Iron Man. In the intervening eight years, dozens of comic book films have been released, but The Dark Knight is the only one that has the layered and textured look of the great icons of cinema.

If The Dark Knight displays Nolan’s gift for crafting a gorgeous looking film, it also demonstrates some of his flaws as a filmmaker. The film’s climax appears to be cribbed from the footnotes of a Psych 101 course. It features a rushed, and half-baked, confrontation between Batman and Two Face, (Aaron Eckhart) in its final act. But perhaps the greatest sin The Dark Knight commits, is that for a movie that is so beautifully crafted visually, the script doesn’t feel nearly as polished.  Whether its Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) not remarking on the absurdity of a petty criminal with a history of mental illness having a park side apartment or Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) playing a seasoned prosecutor who specializes in organized crime prosecutions having to be reminded of the RICO statute, The Dark Knight is replete with tiny moments of dialogue that don’t quite ring true.

Nevertheless, despite these minor flaws, The Dark Knight’s action, Ledger’s singular performance, the powerful supporting turn by Gary Oldman, and Bale’s convincing portrayal of a reluctant savior power The Dark Knight to the very apex of its genre. I have little doubt that it deserves to be listed among the best films of the 2000s.

The Dark Knight finds itself on this list because seven critics share my enthusiasm for the film, including Gregory Ellwood of HitFix, who named it the number one film of the 2000s. My quest for a classic continues with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

From Out in the Void