A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Chronicles of Riddick

August 20, 2011

The Chronicles of Riddick

Now with this movie, at least, I know how much is David Twohy and how much is Ken and Jim Wheat. I can state with a fair degree of certainty that virtually all of this movie is David’s. My uncles only get a credit at the start saying this is based on characters created by them. What David has done here, to varying degrees of success, is build a grand epic adventure around Riddick. It has a huge marauding invading army that swarms like locusts over planets. Riddick is given a back-story that involves an entire civilization wiped out because of a prophesy. There’s a big daring escape from a deadly prison planet. And of course there’s an awful lot of badassery.

This is a completely different movie from the first Riddick film. It’’s not at all a horror or survival movie. Sure, it still has Riddick, and Vin Deisel continues to do a fantastic job of playing him as this righteous force of nature that lives by his own rules and cannot be stopped even by a vast army, but the entire mood of the film is a radical departure.

The movie starts out with a bounty hunter tracking Riddick down where he’s been hiding out on some remote ice world. This bounty hunter, Tooms, completely underestimates Riddick of course, and ends up getting his ass kicked. Riddick steals Tooms’ ship and flies off to New Mecca to politely ask his old friend the Imam from the first movie just how it is that bounty hunters have discovered his location. Here’s where it gets a little complicated. Imam has been working with an air elemental named Aereon to try and defend his adopted homeworld from a massive invading army. Aereon believes that Riddick is the key to defeating these Necromongers, who are led by a half-dead prophet who claims to have come back from a place called the Underverse as something more than human. So it was Imam who told the bounty hunters where to find Riddick in the hopes that he would come and stop the invasion.

Riddick wants none of it. He decides instead to rescue the only other survivor from the first movie, Jack, from the supermax prison she’s gotten herself locked up in. It’s a ball of hell where the sun melts the day side of the planet into lava and the night side is ice cold. Deep underground in a system of caves the prison is a chaotic place where the inmates fight constantly amongst themselves. Riddick conspires to allow Tooms to capture him so he can go to this prison planet (thus escaping from the Necromongers, who are intrigued by Riddick’s strength and are hunting him.)

The prison planet scenes are the best part of the movie. Jack has grown up into a badass in her own right calling herself Kyra now, and together she and Riddick get to play their favorite game “who’s the better killer.” There’s very much a sense in the prison that, as with Rorschach before him, he is not locked up with them – they are locked up with him. It becomes clear that Riddick has a plan for everything and is several steps ahead of everybody else all the time. In addition to being a guy capable of killing a man with a teacup.

Meanwhile there’s intrigue amongst the Necromongers. Vaako, the second in command and staunchly loyal supporter of the half-dead Lord Marshal is being manipulated by his mistress to attempt to take the throne for himself. They think that they can somehow use Riddick to achieve this end.

This is a beautiful movie, as is the first one. David Twohy has a great visual flare and works well with all the digital effects at his command here. I particularly like the design of the many Necromonger troops like their half-psychic bloodhounds with their green lit face masks. Another great plus for this movie is the astonishing cast. Vin Diesel is of course perfect as Riddick, the character he was born to play. Then there are big stars like Judi Dench and Thandie Newton as the air elemental and the conniving Necormonger mistress. Karl Urban, with his furrowed brow and pinched lips, is absolutely perfect for the role of Vaako. Everywhere you look it’s a familiar face in a cool role.

I have to say that the pacing of this movie is a little odd. It’s as though there are two movies here trying to occupy the same space. There’s the daring prison break and rescue of Kyra, which is by far my favorite part of the film. Then there’s the epic tale of Riddick defeating the vast army of the Necromongers, which is cool enough, but feels as if it’s slightly too large and epic to be contained in a single movie.

This movie borrows liberally from other genres. The entire defeat of the Necromongers and the last shot of Riddick on the throne is taken directly from Conan. The slaughtering of an entire race to stop a prophesy is one of the oldest legends in the human storybook (right up there with the man doing battle with a son raised by his enemies.) The backstabbing (litterally) and intrigue amongst the Necromongers feels familiar from a hundred tales of corruption within regimented societies. I love this film though. It combines everything into something stylish and cool, even if it isn’t new.

August 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 216 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – October 2nd, 2010

This is a slow movie. I will not lie. It doesn’t pass by in a frenzy. It doesn’t pick you up and make you run with it. It is over two and a half hours long. Almost three hours long. And in some ways it feels it. This is the story of lives. Not just one life, but several, and they need space to spread out and show themselves. It’s not a bad thing that it’s long, but I think one should be prepared. It is a slow movie, drawing out its moments in quiet ways in the way that life and time do.

We begin with a dying elderly woman and a story about a clockmaker who made a clock that would go backwards, in hopes that the boys who died in the first world war might some day return. The clock is symbolic, of course. This is the story of a man who ages backwards, after all. The elderly woman is Daisy, and she is in a hospital, kept company by her daughter, Caroline. And Caroline is reading Daisy a journal that tells the story of the life of Benjamin Button, born a wizened old man on the day World War One ended and abandoned by his father on the steps of a boarding house for the elderly only to grow younger and younger the more years passed by. It’s the story of Benjamin’s life, but since Benjamin and Daisy fell in love, it is also the story of Daisy’s life, if only in pieces. It’s the story of Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie, and of all of the people he met as he grew up in an old folks’ home and left to travel the world. It’s the story of an old man in a boy’s body at the end. It is the story of love and how things don’t last and how the choices we make change not just our lives but the lives we touch.

There’s a very quiet mood to this movie. It starts with the boarding house and Benjamin growing up unable to run and play and do the things most children do. He’s more like the residents of the house, needing help to walk, to eat, to bathe. It starts so still and slow and soft, which really sets the tone for the rest of the movie. There are loud bits, with church revivals and war and music, but what stood out for me were all the times when the quiet seeped in and the movie made me take a few seconds or minutes and just look at Benjamin’s life. That’s why the movie is nearly three hours long. It takes its time.

Really, the whole movie is about time. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind the length or that you feel every minute. I wanted to feel every minute. When Benjamin ends up in Russia, stuck in a hotel for a few weeks, having a midnight affair with the wife of a diplomat and spy, there are long times for them, spent in the hotel lobby, and the kitchen, tasting new foods, talking, being wrapped up in each other. Those aren’t moments to pass by in a montage. When the tugboat Benjamin works on gets commandeered by the US Navy in WWII, those are some moments to spend time on, and likewise when he gets home and Queenie welcomes him back. I want to see that welcome home. I want it to have the time it deserves. When his father finds him and tells him the truth and Benjamin carries him out to a dock to sit and watch the sun rise? I want every second of that sunrise. When he and Daisy travel to the Florida Keys to spend some time swimming and sailing and being in love, that time should linger. The movie should pause there.

Without the gimmick it would be similar to Forrest Gump but without the right-place-right-time schtick that Gump uses to place him in all sorts of famous moments. The times and places Benjamin finds himself in aren’t photo moments captured in famous magazines. But with the gimmick there’s a touch of bittersweetness through the beginning. You watch as he grows younger, stronger, unlike the people he grew up surrounded by. And it seems almost a good thing. Until you really think about what it will mean. We all lose people. We all go through life with other people around us and people die or go away. It happens. But this story is very similar to ones that deal with the problems of immortality. Benjamin is a man who doesn’t quite fit into the world, and he never will. The older he gets, the younger he seems, and that sets him apart. Regardless of what he wants.

This movie would not be what it is without several key things: The painstaking attention to time period is one, even with a few flaws that didn’t matter so much to me. The mood was right. And then there are the performances. Of course Brad Pitt is important to it all. He carries much of the movie. But his stand-ins for the extremes in his ages are also fantastic even in the short times they’re on screen. And then there is Cate Blanchett as Daisy, who also has to grow up in the movie. Taraji P. Henson is absolutely amazing as Queenie, and I loved Tilda Swinton as the frustrated and elegant Elizabeth Abbott. I also want to mention Jason Flemyng, who only has a few scenes as Benjamin’s father, but manages to make him such a sad figure in that short time. And while Julia Ormond doesn’t have a whole lot to work with as Daisy’s daughter Caroline, who reads her the journal in the present day, what she has she does well with. It is a movie full of performances that pass through time and show the course of people’s lives. Everyone in the movie seems to have gotten on board with the pace of the movie, which is why it all works so well, so I must also commend David Fincher for the direction that put everything in place.

I cried through the last half hour of this movie. Oh, I cried in the middle too, more than once. I cried for Mrs. Maple and I cried for Queenie and I cried for Elizabeth Abbott, the woman in the Russian hotel who seems at the time to want so much more out of life and not know how to manage it. I cried when the tugboat went to war. And I cried when the inevitability of Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship becomes so painfully obvious. And then I didn’t stop crying. I think the ending will likely resonate with anyone who’s lost someone to a slow, debilitating disease, but all I could think about were my mother’s parents, both of whom we lost slowly, one to strokes, one to a very gradual dementia. It is horrible. It is a terrible painful aching thing to bear witness to. And the movie lingers on that too.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 200 – The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story – September 16th, 2010

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I have never read through the book this movie is based on. I hate admitting things like this because I pride myself on being a bookworm, even as a child. I don’t know how I missed it. I don’t know why. I loved the movie and I devoured books by the shelfload. We had a wonderful little independent children’s book store near us when I was a kid. How did no one ever hand this to me? How did I not find it myself? I know why I haven’t picked it up as an adult. It’s long. A fast reader I may be, but with as many new books as come into my workplace, I just don’t always have time to pick up something that I know the general gist of already. So I never have. I am duly ashamed and will rectify this forthwith.

Looking at this now, I believe this was my first experience with meta-storytelling. It’s a story about a boy reading a story which then refers back not only to the boy but to the audience watching the boy reading the story. No wonder I’ve got a thing for that sort of stuff now. Hurrah for non-comedic fourth wall breaking! The reader of the story is Bastian, a young boy whose mother has recently passed away and whose father wants him to buck up and get back to real life. Bastian’s a bookworm and daydreamer at heart and as such is a perfect target for bullies. While hiding from them he finds a book. A special book. The Neverending Story, a beautiful book just begging to be read. And so he grabs it and runs, hiding out in the attic of his school building and reading it.

One level in and you have the story Bastian reads. It’s about the world of Fantasia, and the many and varied creatures and people who live there and the lands that make it up. It’s about how Fantasia is being destroyed by the Nothing, a force that wipes out everything it touches. It’s about a quest given to the young warrior, Atreyu, to find a way to cure the mysterious illness that is killing Fantasia’s Empress. And as Atreyu struggles his way through the Swamps of Sadness and meets a Luck Dragon named Falkor, contends with the two magical gates before the Southern Oracle and meets the Nothing’s harbinger, Gmork, Bastian (and us, the audience) is drawn further into the story and thus, the world. Eventually we all become aware of each other as the movie comes to its climax, which is part of the whole draw of it to me as well as being part of the story’s conceit.

Fantasia as a fictional world is one of those concepts that made complete sense in my head. The idea that there was a world out there where everything you imagined came into being if you truly cared about it? That was a wonderful thing to me. I remember, after watching this movie, sitting in my room or the back yard by myself for hours, coming up with people and creatures and places to populate Fantasia with. I’ve always loved the first scene at the Ivory Tower, where many of the peoples of Fantasia have sent representatives to petition the Empress for help against the Nothing. There are some fabulous creature concepts on display there and I wanted to think of something worthy of a place like that. Of course I’d never actually set foot there, but in the movie that’s not the point. The point is that Fantasia isn’t a place to travel to on foot, it’s a place to explore in your mind.

As a child, this movie was to me what the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is to me as an adult. It is the visual representation of a world I wanted desperately to explore. I tried to watch this with a somewhat critical eye and I can see flaws, certainly. There are bits that show the movie’s age. Some of the conceits of Bastian talking to himself in the school attic come off as overdone. But I find I don’t give a crap. This movie is so heavily nostalgic for me and so full of wonder and the memory of being totally sucked into the world that I can’t bring myself to really critique it. I identify so strongly with this movie. Bastian staying at school after it closes, reading through the night because he just can’t put the book down? That was me. My mother was a teacher through my youth and I spent plenty of time in the school buildings she worked in, wandering the halls after hours, or in June after school was out for the summer. There’s something about an empty school that I can’t describe, but this movie has it and I knew it. And I spent many a night reading until the sun came up.

I often get frustrated with my job. I spend a lot of time doing things like teaching the same person how to do email attachments seven days in a row, or cleaning up after a family ignores the no food rule. But at least once a day someone will come in and want suggestions. Whether it’s a kid who hates to read but has to pick something for a book report, or a kid who loves to read but doesn’t know what to pick up next, it’s always a challenge I dive into. I love finding the perfect book to get a reluctant reader to come in looking for more, or a new favorite for a kid who thought he’d read everything worth reading. I love prompting my storytime kids to go wild, whether we’re making beach collages or writing comic books. I feel like I’ve done my job well when the kids I work with get excited about their imaginations. That, to me, is the core of this movie. That’s why I still love it, flaws and all. And that’s why we picked it for a milestone movie.

And also? Apparently I totally married Bastian. Go me!

September 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 190 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – September 6th, 2010

When this movie came out there was a wonderful thing done at select theaters. They showed the other two movies the day before the release and capped off the trilogy with the new movie around 11 in the evening. So we bought tickets for all three, and we weren’t the only ones. We went with a couple of friends and joined an entire theater full of fans of the movies who hung out all day, surviving on theater food and excitement. They showed the theatrical release of this movie, but they’d done the extended versions of the first two, so we’d been there about seven hours total (including intermissions) by the time the opening scene of the third movie appeared on the screen. It was an amazing way to watch the trilogy. We went home after one in the morning, exhausted but thrilled at having had such a day.

Watching all three movies in a single day is a bit of a marathon. You need stamina to do it. Fountain soda and pretzel bites can only work once. Even though we were tempted to put this in last night after we’d finished the second movie, I’m glad we held off and did it tonight. For one, we need time to think about them and write. For two, as I said, you’d need stamina to do the whole trilogy at once. And spacing them out has been nice. Watching this one tonight I’m struck again by the sheer size of it all. The trilogy does an excellent job building up to the end. If this, the third act, is to contain the true climax of the story, then the other two need to lead you to it. It wouldn’t work at all to have the second movie feel larger and more dramatic than the third. And yet in my opinion it’s never overdone. Everything in the first two is taken a few levels higher in this one and brought to their conclusions.

There’s a persistent theme of the end of an age. Literally, it is the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth, with the Fourth Age beginning at the end of the movie. To bring that theme through the movies there’s the running plot of the romance between Arwen and Aragorn. While I find the Arwen plot to be a bit of a drag on the rest of the movie, I can’t help but appreciate the beauty of Rivendell in the end of its days and the bittersweet note of the elves leaving Middle Earth. Sure, it amuses me that apparently the elves can walk at a snail’s pace from Rivendell to the Grey Havens and no one bothers with them, but the visual of the procession of elves is a lovely one. It’s a bit slow, but a three hour long movie can’t be all action all the time and there is a point to Elrond’s reticence later on.

I know there’ve been criticisms of the portrayal of Denethor, but for the way the movies are built he fits. There is a theme here of people in the seats of power being unable to quite do what needs doing until prodded in just the right way. Even Elrond needs a bit of coaxing. So many are so willing to sit back and look out for themselves. Which, in my opinion, works as an overarching idea in the movies. There are many battles and rallying cries. Speeches and heroic moments. The idea of unifying the free peoples of Middle Earth together is a good one, and how better to set that up as a daunting task than to emphasize the unwillingness of the leaders to help each other. Not only that, but it underscores the lack of hope plaguing the land. So when it all comes together, it feels that much more triumphant. That much more of a reason to cheer and hope.

Watching the riders of Rohan charge the Orcs beseiging Minas Tirith is a truly inspiring and amazing thing. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s got a heavy impact as Theoden orders the charge and his men (and Eowyn and Merry) scream their assent. From a visual standpoint too, it has impact. The wide sweeping shots of the enemy and the new force on their horses are as gorgeous as one could possibly want. And from a technical standpoint it is impressive indeed. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of those shots are effects shots. They are so well crafted, they seem to be a real scene out of an ancient battle of gargantuan proportions. And then the battle has acts, much like the movies do. It escalates, first with the initial attack on the city, then with the Rohirrim coming to join the battle. Then the Mumakil charge in and the Witch King attacks Theoden, but then Aragorn arrives with the ghost army.

The battles make up a large part of this movie, of course. There’s the siege of Minas Tirith, which as I said is a multi-stage battle full of fantastic action. But there’s also the battle at the Black Gate, which takes place at the true climax of the movie while Frodo is battling with himself and with Gollum over the destruction of the ring. And that plot, Frodo, Sam and Gollum, are the other major theme to the movie. It’s cut into the battle scenes well, so it feels just right, and it’s also acted magnificently. I’ve got to give credit to Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, not to mention Andy Serkis, for carrying an entire plot between the three of them, and a plot that could come off not quite so serious. After all, they’re three guys camping and hiking, carrying a ring. How can that compare with Minas Tirith and the Mumakil? But it does. It really does.

I don’t know if I have the right words to express how impressed I am by these movies. By every part of them. The story in the books is so rich and full and when I said in my review of the first one that watching them is like hearing my father read them to me, I mean that as the highest compliment. My father loves these stories and sharing them with him is something that I hold close to my heart. So when I watch these, and I can hear his voice, that is because there is love here. It comes through explicitly when you watch the vast amounts of documentary material, but it’s also implicit in the movies themselves. There is no way these movies could be what they are without the love and dedication of the people who made them, and I don’t just mean Peter Jackson and the main cast and the leads of the various effects teams and so on. I mean everyone. I mean the entire cast, in full prosthetic makeup and not. I mean the stunt teams and Howard Shore and the scale double cast. I mean the miniatures team and the people who wove cloth at different scales for the Hobbit costumes. I mean everyone. It feels like the sort of thing that hurts when it’s over. I know I cry at the end every time I see it, not just from the emotion of what’s going on on the screen, but because I know the adventure has come to an end. It is a thing to end all things and as much as I’ve loved watching the trilogy this weekend, I’m also sad to see the end of it and move on.

September 6, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

September 6, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

We first saw this movie with friends on opening night as part of a day long motion picture trilogy event. We watched the extended versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers before finally, after two years had passed since we saw the first Lord of the Rings movie, we reached the epic end to this amazing film trilogy. It was a twelve hour marathon. The hardest part of the whole affair was subsisting on greasy movie theater food for the whole time. But in spite of the challenges it was he perfect way to first experience this movie. Seeing it as part of the trilogy, and with a crowd of fans was an adventure I will never forget. By the end we in the theater were exhausted and battle-weary. We were worn out and spent, much as Frodo and Sam are by the end of their quest.

Every time I watch this movie I am overwhelmed again as I was that first time. It’s not just the enormous scale of the picture, with its lengthy battle on the plains before the white city of Minas Tirith. The battles are amazing, and the effort that must have gone into creating them practically unprecedented in film making. The power of the movie lies more in the writing, the direction, the score, and the powerful performances of the cast.

Peter Jackson has this amazing knack. He stages these massive impossible battles with thousands of orcs and knights in armor and oliphants and undead warriors, but then he pushes in for these human moments. Pippin singing for Denethor while Faromir leads the doomed charge on Osgiliath. Gandalf telling Pippin about the Grey Havens at the peak of the siege on Minas Tirith. Eowyn and Theodin on the field of battle. Sam and Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. It’s these little human moments that really sell the movie.

To this end Peter has collected a fantastic group of talented actors to bring this epic to life and to imbue it with a heart and soul. The amount of superior acting craftsmanship on display here is truly daunting. There’s the classic Shakespearean power of Ian McKellen who perfectly fills out the robes and pointy wizard hat of Gadalf. For moments of unbelievable heroism there’s newcomer (at that time) Orlando Bloom as Legolas. For comic relief you have John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and the fantastic comedy duo of Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as Merry and Pippin. Viggo Mortensen, as Argorn, is a particular treat for me. He’s an actor I would probably never have discovered but for this film, and he’s one who throws himself with such passion into every role he undertakes that it’s always a treat to watch him. I could just go on and on. Karl Urban, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Hugo Weaving, Brad Douris, Cate Blanchette… every one of them lends gravitas and reality to their roles. Everybody involved treats Middle Earth with deadly seriousness. Nobody plays it for camp or seems to indicate that just because this is a fantasy it has any lesser worth than any other epic or drama.

Of course as with the quest at the heart of the series everything ultimately rests with two simple Hobbits and their twisted guide. Andy Serkis gave such a powerful performance as the sad, corrupted creature Gollum that even though he only has a very few minutes of actual screen time at the start of this movie I can still recognise him in the expressions of the computer generated character the wizards at Weta modeled on him. Elijah Wood and his captivating eyes is able to show just how destructive the One Ring is to Frodo’s very soul. As the film progresses you see the corruption set up in the prologue setting in, so that the climactic scene in Mount Doom is all the more perilous and powerful. And by far the biggest hero in the movie for me is the steadfast Samwise Gamgee. Sean Astin brings such a wonderful heartfelt dedication to the role that I can’t help loving him for it. When I read the books Sam came off to me as almost a servant to Frodo, a lackey who waits on him throughout the series. Astin, along with the writing of Peter, Fran and Philippa, makes Sam into a much more powerful character. He alone, more than any other character, is the force that brings the quest to its successful conclusion. (It’s worth it to listen to the commentaries and look at the making of interviews to get some insight into Sean Astin’s process as an actor. He talks a lot about finding ways to act out emotions that his character is feeling.)

Some have said that this movie has too many endings. The movie goes on for more than twenty minutes after the great climactic battle and the confrontation in Mount Doom. Twenty minutes of sniffles and tears on my part. The movie fades to black an fades to white and many times looks as though it has reached its conclusion only to go on with another scene. But the movie, and the trilogy, needs all this I think. Part of what the Lord of the Rings is all about is endings. It’s the end of the age of elves and the start of the age of men. It’s about all this magic and wonder leaving Middle Earth.

You have to picture me there in a darkened theater, exhausted after twelve hours of watching Lord of the Rings and a little sick to my stomach from too much popcorn and greasy theater chicken fingers. There I am, barely able to see the screen because there are tears streaming down my face. And I never wanted the movie to end. I still don’t. After watching the trilogy again this weekend I once again feel that these movies are among the greatest movies ever made. They brought to life a trilogy of books that were influential not just in my life but in the entire genre of fantasy which was the center piece of my adolescent life. And they did so with such class and power that I can’t imagine anything ever topping them. What a grand adventure.

September 6, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 189 – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – September 5th, 2010

I knew going into this that these were going to be a little tough to review. After all, these movies were almost made as a whole, split up into three, not as three distinct movies. We’re not dealing with the Matrix movies, or the Pirates trilogy. Of course each movie has its own plot, with its own goals and climax, but the overarching quest – for Frodo to get the ring to Mordor and destroy it – carries through the whole movie and is, at the same time, not the sort of big overarching plot that say, the original Star Wars movie have (to defeat the Empire). It’s a personal quest for Frodo as well as the goal of everyone else. This is one reason we wanted to watch these this weekend. We knew we would have three days with plenty of time to sit and watch the extended editions, no breaks needed. I don’t want to watch something else in the middle and break up the trilogy. I want to get it all. We’ve done it all in a single day before, but I’ll talk about that experience tomorrow.

This movie does what many other epics do: It splits the plot. The title alone should tell you that we’ll be going in two directions. There’s a lot of playing with twos here, and if I was going to actually go and analyze the content I’m sure I could find a lot to say about Gollum and Smeagol, Gollum and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Rohan and Gondor, Gandalf and Saruman, the Ents and Saruman, and so on and so forth. But I finished my academic career and while I love knowing that there’s a whole host of things going on here, I don’t want to spend my whole review talking about them. So I’ll point to them. Look at how many times you can see things paired here, as opposites, as mirrors, as divergences. Gollum is the most obvious example, but it’s everywhere if you start looking.

Let me take a moment to talk about Gollum. He is, simply put, one of the most amazing accomplishments in this movie. Technically speaking, he’s a brilliant effect, blending in impressively with the live action. His skin, his hair, everything about him is hideous, but in a wonderfully convincing way. And then there are his facial expressions and his character in general. And for everything but the visual effects, the brilliance of Andy Serkis is to be commended.

Also to be commended is the interweaving of the plots. With the party split up we follow Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) as they head towards Mordor with a pit stop in Gondor with Faramir and we follow Merry and Pippin into Fangorn Forest to meet with the Ents and we follow Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli into Rohan to deal with Theoden. There are difficulties in each as our main characters have to rally those they meet to their cause. There are battles in each as Saruman and Sauron attack from all sides with new allies to help them. Things seem truly bleak at the climax of the film. Bleak on all fronts, until everyone seems to come around. While the bulk of the movie focuses on the battle at Helm’s Deep, it’s intercut with scenes from the other two storylines. We see Frodo and Sam follow Gollum and go through the Dead Marshes before getting held up in Osgiliath while Faramir debates turning Frodo and the ring over to his father. We see Merry and Pippin growing ever more frustrated with the plodding deliberations of the Ents, who take an entire day to say good morning to each other. The way it’s all done, each plot is meant to have its own story but also follow a similar arc. So while there are a lot of things changed, they’re done to build a strong visual story and I don’t so much mind.

My one complaint about this movie is the Ents, and seeing as I really do quite like them, my complaint boils down to wanting to like them even more than I do. I love the feel of the Ents. I love their overall tone and the sound effects used for them. I love their faces and how different each tree type is. I love the details of them and their pacing. The thing is, they feel a wee bit spindly at times. Their legs aren’t trunks, they’re more like masses of roots or vines wound together. But everything else about them is so spot on, I can’t really bring myself to get too fussed. After all, whether the Ents’ legs are solid or not doesn’t really have much bearing on the larger part of the movie. And I must say, I love the Ents sacking Isengard.

There are some truly brilliant scenes and images in this movie. The approach to Edoras on the mountains is breathtaking. Theoden’s speech while he puts on his armor before the battle at Helm’s Deep. The Nazgul hovering in front of Frodo at Osgiliath. The Ents storming Isengard. All beautifully put together and all shining examples of the quality not just of the filmmaking but of the effects as well. Everything supports the story so well, but you have to appreciate the visuals. That’s why this is a movie, not an audio-book.

By the time we reach the end of the movie and there’ve been triumphs, but at great cost, it’s clear just how much more there is to overcome. The entire story of the second movie builds up the risk and danger. But it also builds up not just the tension, but the anticipation for the finale. To the point that even midway through the movie tonight we were both thinking about putting the third one in right away, review project be damned. Andy suggested putting it in at midnight so we’d technically be watching it on the 6th, but then it wouldn’t be over until 3 and that might be a bit much. But as I said, this is why we did this on a three day weekend. We’ve got to watch the third movie tomorrow. I can’t wait.

September 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

September 5, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Ever since I was a young lad and my father read these books to me and my sister The Two Towers was my favorite of the Lord of the Rings books. It has so much going on, with so many divergent plots as the fellowship all go their separate ways. It has a less enigmatic bad guy in Saruman, who is so much fun in his twisted attempts to take power for himself. And it has by far my favorite character in any of the books – the Ent Treebeard who shepherds Fangorn Forrest. So when I was waiting for this movie to come out in the theaters it was with the greatest anticipation and the greatest trepidation.

I said in yesterday’s review that I wanted to talk about the changes that Peter Jackson wrought upon the source material to make it work as a movie. The reason I wanted to leave that for today was that this movie, more than the other two, is filled with radical changes. There’s Aragorn’s fall in battle. There’s the inexplicable presence of the elves at Helm’s Deep. There’s Faromir’s radically altered attitude towards Frodo and Sam and their detour to Osgiliath. There’s the postponing of the battle with Shelob to the third movie.

I can understand why the changes are there. It’s all to make the movie more tense and cinematic. Aragorn has to fall so that they can have all these flashbacks to Rivendell and keep his romance with Arwen in the picture (not that romance is a big part of what Tolkien was about.) The elves at Helm’s Deep are there, I suppose, to re-enforce that the threat from Saruman and Sauron is to all Middle Earth and not just to the race of men. In the books Faromir is a worthy and upstanding man who simply acts to re-supply Frodo and send him on his way, which doesn’t make for much dramatic tension.

But there are a couple changes that sadden me somewhat. Mostly to do with the motivations of Saruman and Sauron. The movie says several times that Saruman is a puppet and a pawn of Sauron. It is implied that his mind has been taken over, or that he sees himself as subservient or thinks there is some advantage to be had for throwing in his lot with the side he thinks will inevitably win. It’s not at all how I recall Saruman from the books. In the books it’s pretty clear that he wants the ring for himself so that HE can rule all of Middle Earth. I’m not sure why this fell by the wayside. Perhaps Peter thought that the saga should have only one chief bad guy and that it lessened Sauron’s impact to have infighting amongst the evils of Middle Earth.

Then there’s Treebeard. Hoom. The depiction of the Ents in the movie never quite matched up with the pictures I had in my mind. Treebeard in my imagination was a vast, powerful force of nature. A broad wide rumbling wall of bark and leaves. And of course there are his eyes. Like deep pools of still water I remember them being described. The Treebeard of the film is all lanky and tall. Not at all what I had in my head. It just goes to show how brilliantly everything else must have been realized that this is the only thing in the entire trilogy that doesn’t live up to or exceed my expectations. Still… the Ents were always my favorite part of the book – nature literally fighting back and all – so in this one small way the movies never quite lived up to my expectations.

In most other ways, however, this movie is as awe-inspiring as the first one. It has things like Andy Serkis’ unforgettable turn as Gollum, supported by the huge team of motion capture artists and animators who distilled his performance into the digital character we see on the screen. It has the siege at Helm’s Deep, which is the primary focus of most of the action in the film. It has Grima Womtongue. It brings Theoden, Eomer, Eowyn and the rest of Rohan into the film world of Middle Earth. Where the first movie concentrated on introducing the world and laying out the stakes, this is the movie where things begin to take on an epic grandeur. It’s got larger battles, more characters, and deeper peril. And it lays the groundwork for the sheer unbelievable scale of the conclusion in Return of the King.

September 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 188 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – September 4th, 2010

When I was a child my father would read to me at night before bed. He had a fondness for high fantasy and so did I, but I was also a technically advanced reader and so it wasn’t much worth reading me shorter books because I got frustrated hearing them read aloud. I could read them so much faster to myself. So he read me longer things. Dense books. He read me his favorites. He read me Tolkien. I have vivid memories of listening to him read while I imagined the world he was describing and the people and creatures in it. I honestly don’t remember how long it took to get through The Lord of the Rings. But I loved hearing him read it. Reading it myself has never been the same.

When these movies were in production I hid out from them a good deal. I knew they were making them, but I’d seen bits of the Bakshi rotoscoped version and wasn’t impressed, so I was wary. After all, look at the books. When I mentioned above that they’re dense, I wasn’t joking. They are packed full of worldbuilding, backstory, as much detail as you could want and more. Not only do the main characters have piles of description but so do the secondaries and the tertiaries and everyone else. These are books with volumes of additional history to support them. The idea of packing everything in the books into a trilogy of movies that could be watched in theaters? It seemed laughable. Until I saw this for the first time.

This movie has a difficult task. If it hadn’t managed to set the stage, everything else would have been dimmed. It all begins with a prologue, describing the history of the ring and how it was forged by Sauron, claimed by Isildur, lost and reclaimed by Gollum, then lost again and taken by Bilbo Baggins. The prologue has to give us enough information so we know the stakes, understand the danger, and also the scale of the world we’re in. But it’s a narrated prologue. It could have been awkward, but it’s not. So by the time we meet Bilbo himself and are drawn into the land of the Hobbits, we know the world enough to want to follow. Or at least I do.

I feel like if I try and summarize the story it won’t be a summary, it will be the entire review. There’s a lot of story here. But I’m going to try. You see, there’s this ring. The One Ring. And it’s been imbued with the horrible and vast power of its creator, Sauron, who wants to rule all Middle Earth. The ring eventually corrupts those who possess it and now it’s in the hands of a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Bilbo’s nephew). A wizard named Gandalf, long a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo, realizes the nature of the ring and sends Frodo off on a quest to destroy it. And so to make a very long story short, Frodo leaves the peace and idyll of his home, the Shire, and embarks on a journey across Middle Earth, to the fiery volcano that is Mount Doom in Mordor. Along the way he picks up companions. Humans, other Hobbits, a Dwarf and an Elf. And Gandalf. There are, of course, specifics. Battles, betrayals, enemies. There are the Nazgul, wraiths who hunt Frodo for the ring. There are the Orcs, amassing in armies for the enemy. But those are things best left to the books or the movies to show.

This movie ranks up in my top five book-to-movie adaptations. I could count all three in the trilogy but I’d have to make it a top ten to fit in some non-Lord of the Rings films. Also, while I love all three, I have to give extra credit to the first one for making me believe in the others. There are beautiful visuals, amazing effects, powerful performances, and most of all a sense of the grandeur and wonder of the world of Middle Earth, and the peril it is in at the time of the plot. I’ve mentioned before that I have a sad love of things whose times have passed. And perhaps this story is at the root of it. Having heard it so early in my life, maybe that’s where it started, because this story is rife with the idea of the passing of an age. The Elves are leaving Middle Earth, the Dwarves of Moria are wiped out, Men are rising and yet also ushering in an age far different than the one that Middle Earth has been in. In the books it’s made clear that this is the end of the Third Age. The Fourth Age is what comes after. And this movie takes that and makes it a part of everything we see without spelling it out. It’s a beautiful example of showing instead of telling and uses the eventual breaking of the fellowship to great effect.

I cannot praise the care that went into making this movie enough. I don’t want to start reviewing the “making of” material, but even without watching it all you can tell how much attention to detail went into the film. Looking at the size differences for Gandalf, the Hobbits, Gimli, the Elves, the Men, you know it required a lot of playing with perspective, sets built in different scales, little people as scale doubles, lots of detail. And it’s pulled off amazingly. I never once question the size differences. And that’s how it is for me for every bit of the movie’s visuals. They all look amazing. The miniatures don’t look mini (and really, in comparison to most miniatures, they’re not), the sets don’t look like sets. The landscape of New Zealand is gorgeous and everything built for the movie fits right into it as if it was always there. And then there are the performances, which are all brilliant. And the score. I’ll probably talk more about the score in one of the other reviews, but there are moments in this one that bring me to tears whenever I hear them. Everything comes together to make an impressive emotional impact.

I honestly don’t give a shit what anyone says about these movies. I don’t care what the Tolkien nuts say, or the fantasy fans, or professional critics. They can bitch and moan about what was removed and elided and glossed over and they can nitpick characterization and motivation all they want. I can’t. I simply cannot bring myself to do it. Because I love this movie. I love the whole trilogy, to be honest, but I’ll get to the others tomorrow and Monday. But this one, oh, it packs quite a punch to me. Watching it, I feel like I’m back in my bedroom, seven years old and my eyes are closed as my father says “Oh, and they sing a song. Do you want me to try and sing?” and I say no, because I know he doesn’t like to sing, so he reads the words of the song instead and I can see everything he’s describing. And this is it.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

September 4, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

In the nerdish circles I inhabit there are people who have strong opinions about these movies. People who denigrate them as a crass popularization of Tokien’s masterwork. They point to the liberties that Peter Jackson took in adapting the books to the screen (and I’m sure I’ll talk at length about some of the more radical changes tomorrow when we review The Two Towers.) I am not amongst those people. From the very first I have been absolutely enthralled by these films.

Back in 2001 when this movie first came out Amanda and I started a three year quest. We took every friend and relative to see these movies as Christmas gifts. We took her father (whose knowledge and memory of the books is legendary in her family) and her mother. We took her brother, my brother and my sisters. We took our mothers and our friends. We went ourselves to midnight shows and sat in almost empty theaters. In the end we each saw this movie, and its sequels, probably about twelve or thirteen times each in the theaters during their first runs.

As such, watching this tonight, it is like a homecoming. This movie starts after the prologue which sets the tone and introduces the epic scale of the story with Gandalf the Grey riding on his cart into Hobbiton, surrounded by the rural beauty of this simple land. After nine years and with every frame of the movie carved into my memory I see it very much from his point of view. Arriving here once again in the peace and tranquility of the Shire I feel like I’m arriving back at a place I had almost forgotten. It’s been far too long since I was last here, in Middle Earth.

What Peter Jackson has done here, and what I love so very much about this movie in particular in the trilogy, is take the world that Tolkein created (forged from the trenches of World War I and his love of epic Nordic poems such as the Kalevala) and bring it to life on the screen. More than the story itself, more than the perfect casting for absolutely every character, it is the way that Middle Earth is brought to the screen that amazes me. The verdant fields of the Shire, the wasted land of Mordor, the ancient grace of Rivendell and Lothlorien… these are places that had existed only in illustrations or imaginations until Jackson and his army of talented artists brought them to life. It is the world itself that is my favorite character.

I’m pleased to see, it having been several years since I last watched this movie, that it has hardly aged at all. Naturally, since the world of Middle Earth is not our world, there is nothing in the costumes or setting or even the hairstyles that dates the film. Everything on the screen has been created specifically for this one purpose. The only thing that might have aged are the special effects, but happily they have not. Peter Jackson chose exactly the right time to make these films – just when the technology had reached the level where anything that a director can imagine can be brought to vivid life on the screen (if sufficient funds and time are available.) There is not a moment in this movie that requires suspension of disbelief. There are no seams that I can see or flaws in the numerous complex effects used. I can actually believe that Peter just took a camera crew to Middle Earth and found races of little people to work alongside his human sized actors. Even after watching all the special features and making of documentaries and listening to all four commentary tracks and going to see the traveling Lord of the Rings movie exhibit at the museum so that I know every trick and effect was accomplished I still feel like I’m really there. That’s a pretty significant achievement.

Another thing that stands the test of time and instantly throws me back into those darkened theaters where I first witnessed this world. From the very first, when the screen is still dark and before even the narration of Galadriel has begun there is the music. The first of many great themes that Howard Shore brought forth and entwined together to support the astounding visuals. Howard uses the languages and words of Tolkien’s creation to weave a kind of spell. They drive the action, the beauty, the emotion, the power.

I am ensorcelled by these movies. They may not be one hundred percent faithful to the books, but they are a major accomplishment and by far the greatest fantasy films yet made. They fill me with awe and wonder, and they take me to another world – one that has long been only within my own imagination and dreams. A world that it is a great pleasure to visit once again this weekend.

———–

Related reading:

There are many works throughout the internets that were inspired by these movies. Here are my two favorites:

DM of the Rings uses stills from the movies to tell the tale as it would be if Lord of the Rings were a D&D campaign. It’s great stuff, since so much of what Gary Gygax used for inspiration in the creation of D&D came from Tolkien.

The Very Secret Diaries tells the story behind the story from the POV of the characters in the movie – with a fairly tongue in cheek and not-altogether-SFW bent.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment