Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Review: "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" by David Pretty

Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring was so well-plotted and engaging, that the next two films in the trilogy feel weaker in comparison.  Admittedly, The Two Towers is rife with challenges that would task any director.

With the Fellowship now broken, Jackson is required to tell three separate stories.  Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), led by the sneaky Gollum (Andy Serkis), venture into Mordor on their quest to slam-dunk the One Ring into Mount Doom.  Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) attempt to rally the kingdom of Rohan against the growing threat of Sauron.  And finally Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape from their orc captors and encounter Treebeard the Ent (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), who they hope to turn against Saruman (Christopher Lee) in Isengard.  WHOOF!!!

This wouldn't be too bad if Jackson hadn't engaged in some bizarre deviations which actually lengthens the already cumbersome plot.  In the original novel, Faramir was always the antitesis of his flawed older brother, but here screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens make him just as horny for the One Ring as Boromir.  As a result, we're "treated" to a painful (and rather expensive-looking) detour as Faramir drags the hobbits back to Osgiliath.  The first time I saw The Two Towers in the theater this really pissed me off, but mercifully the "Extended Edition" reinstated scenes of Faramir chafing under the unreasonable expectations of his asshole dad.  Although the original story would have been better, these flashbacks do make Jackson's choices a lot more palatable.  

In fact, if the movie suffers from anything, it's the overuse of flashbacks.  For example, Liv's Tyler's Arwen is embedded in the narrative thread of The Two Towers like a glaringly obvious splinter.  I know that the original books suffer from a shameful dearth of interesting female characters so it makes sense to artificially inflate Arwen's importance in the film.  But the scenes between her and Aragorn, likely omitted from the first film for pacing reasons, have been awkwardly shoe-horned into this central chapter in the form of flashbacks.  This makes the film's already choppy narrative feel even more scattershot. 

Also, one of my favorite underlying themes from the original novel concerns the Kingdom of Men and how they're forced "grow up" and start fighting their own battles without the assistence of dwarves and elves.  I like to think that this was Tolkien's way of noting humanity's movement away from superstition and fear and into an era of enlightenment, self-determination and discovery.  Unfortunately, Jackson throws this right out the window by having the friggin' elves intervene during the Battle of Helm's Deep.

But given such a massive undertaking, I think that Jackson gets a helluva lot more right than wrong.  For example, Gollum is, without a doubt, the greatest CGI character in cinema history.  Having Andy Serkis on set to do live motion capture alongside Elijah Wood and Sean Astin is a technique that I really wish George Lucas had uniformally adopted for his generally Photoshopped Star Wars prequels. 

Speaking of our favorite ring couriers, you really get the sense that Sam's insistence in accompanying Frodo at the end of Fellowship is the single most pivotal moment in the entire trilogy.  I also think it's great that Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan get their own segment with the Ents, driving home a point once made by a certain diminutive Jedi Master when he famously intoned "Size matters not".  At face value, Merry and Pippin seem about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, but they end up having a major impact on the story.   

In the human camp, David Wenham is great new addition as Faramir, captain of the Ithilien Rangers.  If I didn't know any better I'd say that he was genetically manufactured in a factory specifically designed to produce siblings for Sean Bean.  He strikes an intense but honorable note as the family's Black Sheep and its heart-wrenching to watch him experience an epiphany that will alienate him even further from Denethor. 

The people of Edoras are also well-represented.  Before his triumphant turn as McCoy Mark II in the Star Trek reboot, Karl Urban was both commanding and authoritative as Eomer.  Veteran actor Bernard Hill (who also played Captain Smith in Titanic) is equally fantastic as Theoden, literally coming back to life right before our eyes and then rallying his people to war. 

Speak of the devil, Brad Dourif is appropriately slimy as the royal ear-poisoner Grima Wormtongue.  Finally the angelic Miranda Otto is hypnotic as Eowyn, which makes me wonder why Aragorn is so friggin' obsessed with the sniffly-looking Arwen.

The epic battle at Helm's Deep which culminates the film also ends up being something of a a mixed bag.  When Jackson pulls the camera back we get plenty of spectacle but he often frames the hand-to-hand combats in tight close up or, even worse, with inexplicable slow-motion.  And although the do-or-die heroics of Mortensen's Aragorn are truly inspiring his efforts are undone somewhat by the goofy, tension-shattering banter between Gimli and Legolas.    

The last few frames of the film pretty much sum up the merits and flaws of The Two Towers.  Even though his re-appearance is spoiled somewhat by yet another damnable flashback, a certain staff-wielding wizard leads us through a rousing finale.  It also gives him the opportunity to pre-sage the saga's finale by re-assuring us that "the battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin".

It's almost as if Jackson and his screenwriters are speaking through Gandalf, asking us to stick with them through the clunky bits until we get to the mind-blowing final act. 

But, once again, this is a tale for another time...

     Tilt: up.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" by David Pretty

When I heard that Peter Jackson was going to split the economically-paced children's book The Hobbit up into three films I immediately thought of King Kong.  During production of that failed re-make, director Peter Jackson could often be heard extolling the ample virtues of the original 1933 film.  Which is why so many fans were perplexed when Jackson took a perfectly good, lean-and-mean, pulpy, thrill-a-minute action film and inflated the run time with needless subplots and endless CGI demo reels.

Which is why the announcement of a Hobbit trilogy filled me with Nazgul-like levels of dread.

Admittedly, there isn't very much fat in the film's rousing trailer.  P.S. The dwarf-song doesn't count as extraneous 'cuz it's awesome.

The Hobbit is J.R.R. Tolkien's precursor to The Lord of the Rings.  In an extended dance mix prologue we learn about how the human village of Dale was razed to the ground by the dragon Smaug, who then decided to take up residence in the gold-choked underground city of Erebor.  Over time the deposed dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) gathers together a rogues gallery of refugees for the express purpose of liberating their subterranean home from Smaug.

Knowing that such a mission will require a modicum of stealth Thorin is keen to hire a professional burglar.  Just like in the real world, landing a job boils down to who you know.  After getting a solid reference from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), understated Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) shoots to the top of the candidates list.  Yes, apparently nepotism is just as prevalent in Middle Earth as it is here.

Although Bilbo is more sedentary then a High School Vice Principal, Gandalf is convinced that there's more to the diminutive Hobbit then meets the eye.  Oblivious to the fact that he's been tapped for the job of professional pilferer, Bilbo ends up hosting Thorin and company as they map out their expedition.  After much hand-wringing and soul searching, Master Baggins eventually decides to join their quest.

The journey to Erebor leads the company through a variety of environments, challenges and random wilderness encounters (see: D&D Expert Set).  Trolls, mountain giants, goblins, orcs and wargs all menace the adventurers at various points in time.  Since the first film only takes us up to Chapter Six in the book, Unexpected Journey hangs it's climax on the Bilbo and Gollum riddle-off and the dwarves flight from the Goblin Kingdom.

Now, before I go any further I want to prove to you that Peter Jackson wasn't the first dude to split The Hobbit up into a trilogy:

In fact, the first issue of this 1990 comic book gives us less of the story then Peter Jackson does in his first Hobbit film.  Indeed, the comic ends just as Bilbo and Gollum are about to begin their EPIC RIDDLE BATTLE OF HISTORY.

So although I'm no longer pissed that Peter Jackson made The Hobbit into a trilogy I am pissed that An Unexpected Journey clocks in at almost three fucking hours long.  Which brings me back to Jackson's take on King Kong.  Like Kong, I've always seen The Hobbit as a propulsive bit of kinetic fantasy, not nearly so serious nor as epic as The Lord of the Rings.  Why weigh it down with a slew of exposition and action beats that look clever on paper but fail to further the story or the characters?  Honestly, there's no good reason as to why this film shouldn't be under two hours long.

So why is An Unexpected Journey the Bombur of book-to-movie adaptations?  Well, it's because Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro decided to take a veritable shit-ton of casual references in the original novel and spin them out into long-winded conversations and fully-realized flashbacks.  And this level of indulgence very nearly cripples the first half of the film.

Want some examples?  Well, a throwaway reference to Bilbo's parentage in the book gets chewed over at great length by Gandalf.  A casual nod to Thorin's grandfather Thror being killed by Azog the goblin in Moria becomes an entire revenge subplot.  A deus ex machina question posed to Gandalf about wizards results in a superfluous sequence introducing Radagast the Brown (so named, presumably because he has no problem with little woodland creatures pooping all over him).

All of this leads me to believe that Peter Jackson might be suffering from a mild case of Georgelucasitis.  After all, he had to fight and scratch to make The Lord of the Rings three films instead of two.  Now fully vindicated and let off his leash, Jackson seems to be running riot with his newfound sense of freedom.  It's as if Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is here just to make up for Tom Bombadil's absence in The Lord of the Rings.    

I'd accuse him of living in Peter Jackson World for too long, but many of his alterations actually make sense.  Even though he nearly flat-lines his audience's attention span with an endless spate of prologuery, I'm glad he got it over with at the beginning of the film rather then derail the meeting scene via a Thorin Oakenshield flashback.  At least Jackson shows us what happened instead of telling us what happened.

It also makes sense to generate some more connective tissue between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Hell, even Tolkien himself was guilty of redaction.  Radagast investigates the sudden appearance of a mysterious necromancer who unearths a Morgul-blade-wielding Witch King.  Gandalf, Elrond, Sarumon and Lady Galadriel have a tense summit meeting about the possible return of Sauron.  Although it's great to see all of these accomplished actors in a scene together, it's superfluous to the central story and might have been better off in a home video extended cut.

The changes I liked most were the ones that empower the central character.  In the book, Gandalf practically has to root Bilbo out of his Hobbit hole with a Rake spell, but in the film Bilbo voluntarily runs to catch up to the dwarves after they leave the next day without telling him.  And instead of Gandalf pulling a Ben Kenobi to distract the trolls, it's Bilbo who jive talks them until the sun comes up.

Some of the other stylistic choices are a mixed bag.  When I first saw The Hobbit's dwarf-portrait poster, I thought that things looked a bit off but I couldn't put my finger on it.  And then, when I realized that the film wasn't going to have an Aragorn or a Legolas it finally dawned on me: actors made up to look like traditional bald n' bearded dwarves have absolutely no sex appeal whatsoever.  Hence the presence of Aiden Turner as Kili the Hawt Dwarf.  Not that I want to give the guy a hard time since he gives a decent performance and I thought he was good in Being Human.

Also kinda lame is the rock-fight between the "Mountain Giants" who look less like actual giants and more like the love children of Godzilla and The Thing from the Fantastic Four.  After the dwarves find shelter in a cave, they fall victim to a classic pit-trap and end up in the heart of the Goblin City.  And then, all of a sudden, all past transgressions fall by the wayside and the movie finally kicks into high gear.

A chief catalyst for this is the appearance of the Goblin King, voiced by the wonderful Barry Humphries.  Talk about inspired casting, who better to depict a bloated, vaguely-flamboyant monarch then the guy who played Dame Edna Everage for almost sixty years?  Weta's animation is equally game, bringing to life a fully CGI character who is by turns creepy, belligerent, decrepit and woefully overconfident.

From there on in, the film doesn't let up for a second.  Gandalf makes a timely re-appearance which sets off a frantic flight to the surface.  During this we're treated to some truly inventive and unrelenting action sequences involving a series of precarious catwalks, a pack of seemingly indestructible juggernaut-like dwarves and, by all accounts, approximately thirty-eight hojillion pissed-off goblins.  

And although Jackson still shoots a melee way too tight, he does give us some wondrous visual panoplies, dizzying camera angles and some gag-like stunts which flirt with the idea of slapstick.  But where Gimli getting crushed under an avalanche of dead wargs and goblins in The Two Towers seemed counter-intuitive to dramatic tension, the wackiness of the action here feels somewhat appropriate.  This is, after all, an adaptation of a kid's book.  A wildly imaginative, incredibly detailed kid's book, but a kid's book nonetheless.   

In terms of an effective application of style and crackerjack editing, nothing rivals the riddle-war between Gollum and Bilbo.  Fans who were blown away by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings will be thanking the technology gods for giving us ten years worth of character evolution.  Even more of Andy Serkis's brilliant performance can captured now, especially when it comes to facial expressions.  If I didn't think that it would result in the creation of a veritable host of vastly-inferior CGI creatures, I'd strongly suggest that Andy Serkis be given the inaugural Oscar for Best Motion Capture Performance in a Motion Picture.

Since I was already familiar with Martin Freeman's ample talents from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Sherlock, I knew that he was going to be perfect.  Above and beyond accusations of no-brainer casting, Freeman really does some exquisite work as Bilbo.  Not many actors can embody befuddlement, irascibility and indignation all in one line reading.  Above all, he's the perfect sounding board for the average shmoe in the audience who might be rolling their eyes at the sometime-ludicrous things happening on-screen.

Saying that Ian McKellan is great as Gandalf is like saying that Harrison Ford is great as Han Solo.  But at least Ian gets more to do here and fans are all the richer for it.  This time out you really get the sense that Gandalf is some otherworldly being who is gently trying to prod events away from ruin and towards the greater good of Middle Earth.  McKellen seems to be having a lot more fun in his "Grey" (as opposed to "White") persona since it gives him ample opportunity to carouse and be cheeky.  

As an appropriate Thorin Oakenshield, Peter Armitage has his warhammer jammed firmly up his ass.  Although a lot of his performance is filtered through a clenched jaw, he does start to defrost a bit as Bilbo begins to prove his worth.  Although Thorin is actually more of an asshole in the book, Armitage steers the character more towards Ahab.  You really get the impression that the loss of Erebor was a terrible affront to his family's honor and he's willing to do just about anything to get it back. 

Honestly, if a film is half awesome and half mediocre, it really helps that the second half is the superior one.  Even though I know that there's more appendix-plundering wankery to come I also suspect that the more tedious setup has dispensed with and there are better things to come.  

But a part of me really hopes that when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to home video it'll be the first film in cinema history with a Director's Cut that's actually shorter then the theatrical cut.  

   Tilt: down.

P.S. To see how the film stacks up without all of its 3D / 48 fps bells and whistles I decided to see the film in a standard presentation.  Which is no mean feat in this day and age.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Movie Review: "The Dark Crystal" by David Pretty

Sometime in the early Eighties, I'm convinced that Jim Henson told George Lucas "Hey, look, since Yoda worked so well in The Empire Strikes Back why don't you make more muppet aliens instead of dudes in masks for the next film?"  I'm pretty sure that Lucas took his advice, which eventually gave Dante Hicks a reason to declare in Clerks: "All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."

But what was a liability for the third Star Wars film is exactly what makes The Dark Crystal so remarkable.  Whereas a freaky-looking abomination like Sy Snootles stuck out like a sore thumb in Return of the Jedi, she'd probably be right at home within the framework of Jim Henson and Frank Oz's completely original and fully fabricated world.

Think about how important context is as you watch the film's trailer:

To be perfectly honest, the plot itself is no great shakes since it essentially boils down to a simple fetch-quest.  In a lengthy preamble we're introduced to a magical realm where a great, life-sustaining magical crystal once fragmented.  This resulted in the creation of two distinct races: the serene Mystics and the repellent Skeksis.  Wanna guess who's good and who's evil?   

We're soon introduced to our unlikely protagonist.  Like most fantasy heroes, Jen was orphaned at a young age but in this case he was adopted by a druid-like race called the Mystics.  At face value, he appears to be the last of the Gelflings, a small, slight, elven race that's been virtually eliminated from the world.  And, as you might expect, there's a prophecy floating around which maintains that a Gelfling will eventually overthrow the nasty Skeksis.     

From his deathbed, Jen's Master suddenly tells him that he needs to find a lost shard and re-unite it with the titular Dark Crystal before the three suns align.  If he fails in this task, the realm will be plunged into darkness and the Skeksis will rule supreme for all eternity.  Although Jen is understandably confused as to why no-one's ever told him this before, he strikes out on his quest in an effort to save his benefactors.

After the Skeksis Emperor dies in concert with Jen's Master, the sneaky Chamberlain squares off against the General in a Trial By Stone.  The General proves triumphant and the Chamberlain is promptly defrocked and exiled.  After he hears of the existence of Jen and his mission, the newly crowned Emperor dispatches the beetle-like Garthim to hunt down and capture him.

Meanwhile, Jen finds the crystal in the company of Aughra, an acerbic, one-eyed hippie astronomer in dire need of electrolysis and a sports bra.  Aughra's orrery is attacked by the Garthim and Jen barely manages to escape.  During his flight, he meets up with the winsome Kira, a female Gelfling who was taken in by a race of tiny farmers called the Podlings.  Together the two of them attempt to unravel the mystery of the Gelfling downfall, try and avoid the machinations of the wayward Chamberlain and strive to re-unite the shard with the Dark Crystal within the Skeksis castle.

Although The Dark Crystal didn't resonate with audiences enraptured by E.T. at the time, I think it had a tremendous effect on other film-makers.  Yoda's demise in Return of the Jedi is strikingly similar to the death of Jen's Master.  The Podlings are tortured like the the droids in Jabba's palace.  Jabba himself has a lot in common with the Skeksis, including abominable table manners and a predilection for eating little live things.  In fact, the Skeksis banquet sequence is nastier and more disturbing then anything glimpsed in the Hutt's throne room.     

And if I didn't see Avatar as derivative before, I certainly do now.  In fact, The Dark Crystal plays out like an analog version of James Cameron's inflated, desperate-to-impress sci-fi techno-fest.  Both films attempt to create a fantasy realm, but only one of them feel "real" and organic to me.  In The Dark Crystal every rock face, pond, ruined wall, blade of grass, underground labyrinth, creature and character was crafted, by hand, by skilled artist.  The "ecology" of Avatar exists only within a metric shit-ton of computer coding dialed up by a bunch of pasty-looking nerds.

The character designs are excellent.  Between the expert puppetry of Jim Henson, the voice acting of Stephen Garlick and the wide-angle costume work of Kirin Shah (who also doubled for Elijah Wood in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the character of Jen comes across as a pretty authentic creation.  Although both Jen and Kira's faces and hands look a bit stiff and waxen at time, this is just a minor quibble.  The voice work of Kira by Lisa Maxwell is particularly endearing and it really helps bolster the character's appeal.

Looking like skinned vultures, the Skeksis ooze more degenerate evil then most "adult" movie villains.  Although their screen time is limited, Jim Henson and Frank Oz take great pains to invest each one of them with distinctive appearances and personality traits.  The General-turned-Emperor is vainglorious and boastful, flaunting dominance over his rivals yet coveting elixirs to retain his "youth".  The Scientist is gleefully sadistic, using the Dark Crystal to distill the essence of captive Podlings.  The Chamberlain is downright Machiavellian, getting a ton of mileage from his mantra of "Mmmm...MMMMMMM!!!" every time he hatches a new scheme.

In contrast, the ur'Ru *slash* Mystics are Zen-like and passive.  Their design is fantastic: like narcoleptic, New Age sheepdogs crossed with pygmy brontosauri.  At first glance, the Landstriders might seem like impractical evolutionary designs, but at least they're original-looking.  And the Podlings get two incarnations: first as little Greek party-animals and then as zombie-like slaves after the Skeksis sap them of their life force.

Of course, I'd be totally remiss if I didn't mention Kira's ferocious but scaredy-cat pet Fizzgig.  If you crossed Kevin Smith with an electrified tribble and then gave him a set of bear trap dentures, you'd have this endearing little scamp.  When he's not threatening to bite everyone except Kira or rolling around using his own unique form of locomotion, he's barking up a storm or Hulk-raging at the entire world.  Although he might seem all bark and no bite, he's quick to come to Kira's defense when she really needs help.  I say fuck hover boards, I want a pet Fizzgig. 

Aughra is also a fantastic creation, invested with so much verve and hutzpah that she reminds me of a certain diminutive, green Jedi Master.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the two were briefly married at one time.  Again, with Frank Oz and David Greenaway as her puppeteers, Billie Whitelaw providing her voice and Kiran Shaw in costume for long shots, the character truly lives and breathes with a slew of physical tics, vocal cadences and mannerisms.  Hell, most contemporary Hollywood flesh and blood actresses aren't nearly as expressive.

But perhaps the greatest character of The Dark Crystal is the environment itself.  The dusty, Arizona-like valley of the ur'Ru resembles a lived-in Navajo camp.  Aughra's planetarium is an incredible spectacle, especially when you consider that it's a practical set.  The background and foreground of the swamp where Jen and Kira first meet is practically teeming with "life".  The smoky, knock-down environs of the Podling pub are also quaintly authentic.

The most wondrous sets appear in the Skeksis castle.  From the subterranean tunnels underneath the keep to the majesty of the main crystal chamber, from the animal-testing lab of the Scientist to the degenerate opulence of the Skeksis dining hall, every frame of The Dark Crystal feels like a Moebius painting come to glorious life.  Indeed, this film practically begs to be witnessed on the biggest screen imaginable.

Something a bit more ethereal but no less important is the incredible score by Trevor Jones, who also provided the music for Time Bandits, Excalibur, and Labyrinth.  His main title for The Dark Crystal is extremely evocative, giving me the impression that I'm about to watch a PG-rated segment of Heavy Metal.   

Admittedly the film's plot is scant and predictable.  Find the shard, re-unite it with the Dark Crystal and we're pretty much done.  But when Jen and Kira discover the ruins of the Gelfling city and the ur'Ru and the Skeksis start to perish in tandem, the scenario begins to develop some real thematic heft.  The concept of diverse beings having the same progenitor is a comforting thought.  It's like a fantasy version of the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within", in which Kirk gets split in two versions of himself: one passive and milquetoast and the other aggressive and cruel.  Although they're as different as night and day from one another, they're both undeniable a part of Kirk.

I think that The Dark Crystal wasn't a box office smash at he time because people had a hard time reconciling the film's sometimes dark elements with its muppet denizens.  Mercifully the film has since gained a cult following and it's now recognized as a genuine classic.  I just think it's sad that we live in a world where we've been spoon-fed two crap Phantom Menace sequels and we haven't even gotten so much as a single follow-up to this wildly original-looking film.

To hell with more Star Wars movies; The Dark Crystal really deserves more cinematic exploration.

     Tilt: up.

Monday, December 10, 2012

E.T. Roundtable - Episode Four: "Everything That Used To Be Cool Sucks Now"

In their fourth episode, the E.T. gang wax poetic about the following earth-shattering topics:
  • Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion space credits.  With the greatest threat to Star Wars out of the picture (I.E. its own creator) will the franchise experience a Renaissance?  Addendum: Harrison Ford has mentioned that he's willing to return to the role of Han Solo.  Why is he fucking with us?!?
  • What creative property was awesome to you as a kid but is actually complete crap when seen through adult eyes?
  • New Star Trek Into Darkness trailer is out.  Why does every Star Trek film have to involve "vengeance" now?  Plus, is it safe to assume that Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan and, if so, will a single fuck be given?
  • The early word on The Hobbit ranges from "epic" and "spectacular" to "bloated" and "nausea-inducing".  Did we call it w-a-a-a-a-y back in Episode One or are haters just gonna hate? 
  • What's your single favorite "fantasy" game, comic, movie, book or T.V. show?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Movie Review: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" by David Pretty

There've been a few rare but memorable occasions when I've been watching a fantasy-based cinematic adaptation and suddenly felt a giddy rush of excitement when I realize that the director's hit a home run.  It happened while watching Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie and it happened again while I was watching The Fellowship of the Ring.

Since a lot of fantasy literature offers up nothing in terms of real-world commentary or thematic relevance, I tend to avoid it like the plague.  Fortunately, the source material for these films is J.R.R. Tolkien's alpha and omega literary masterpiece.  Not only are the original books jam-packed with still-pertinent social commentary, they also launched the fantasy genre as we know it.  Let's face it folks, everything fantasy-related is just a thinly-veiled rip-off of what Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings. World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and even cutting edge video games like Diablo III owe huge debts to Tolkien.

Adapting The Lord of the Rings has to be a daunting task.  Just ask Ralph Bakshi, who tried to animate the story in the late Seventies but came away with a muddy-looking, charmless film that always had a whiff of abandonment about it.  Now, I don't know the exact circumstances by which a relatively obscure New Zealand-based splatter-film director came to be the new cinematic interpreter of Tolkien's works, but just minutes into Fellowship of the Ring I was convinced that he was a solid pick for the job.  In much the same way as Bryan Singer rescued the long-maligned superhero genre, Peter Jackson has since been crowned the savior of modern fantasy films.

"Love me, love my carrot.  *URP!!!*"

Starting with the epic prologue and the introduction of Bilbo and Frodo in the Shire, pretty much everything in this adaptation is note-perfect.  Indeed, if Jackson hadn't bothered to sweat the small stuff, we could have been left with yet another cheese-ball fantasy flop like Hawk the Slayer or the truly execrable Quest for the Mighty Sword.  But everything we've come to expect from Middle Earth is brought to life here in vivid detail.  For example, instead of representing the village of Hobbiton as a green-screen mirage a la George Lucas, Jackson decreed that an actual hamlet be built in New Zealand.  Replete with overgrown hedges, authentic structures and detailed props, Hobbiton really feels like a genuine milieu.  As a result, the actors, clad in authentic costumes and realistic make-up, seem to be just as taken by the illusion as we are.  

The casting is an achievement unto itself.  Much in the same way that Daniel Radcliffe has supplanted my mind's eye portrait of Harry Potter, Elijah Wood is now and forever Frodo Baggins.  Ian McKellan also makes for a prototypical Gandalf: sagely, commanding and vaguely befuddled at times.  Frodo's fellow hobbits are also well represented.  Sean Astin is completely unpretentious and stalwart as Sam and both Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd lend tremendous distinction to their roles as Merry and Pippin.

"Don't worry, Mr. Frodo!  I managed to save all of the tomatoes and bacon!"  

In another odd parallel to X-Men, Peter Jackson got a very lucky bounce from some "eleventh hour" casting.  Just as Singer had to replace Hugh Jackman for Dougray Scott as Wolverine, Viggo Mortensen had to assume the role of Aragorn just days into production after Stuart Townsend turned out to be too young and freshly-scrubbed for the role.  Movie audiences were the big winners here since Mortensen's discovery proved to be a real boon for The Lord of the Rings.

By the time Aragorn leads the hobbits to Rivendell, we've already been treated to some spectacular scenery and witnessed several brilliantly realized threats like the Nazgul.  It's at this point when the movie really kicks into high gear.  For the sake of full disclosure, I've always liked the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy best since the group dynamic and intimate tale of the "Fellowship" is much more interesting to me then the epic mass battles that follow.

"Hello, tiny sirs!  Do you have a minute to learn about Sauron's Good News?"

The brilliantly-staged Council of Elrond sequence gives us three more iconic characters and the stellar cast members who have been chosen to inhabit them.  The delightful John Rhys-Davies makes for an appropriately acerbic Gimli, Sean Bean manages to make the role of Boromir very sympathetic and Orlando Bloom is so perfect as Legolas I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was actually cloned in an elf factory.  In fact, the only casting that's slightly questionable is Liv Tyler, who's turn as Arwen is a tad overwrought, especially when coupled with some of the riper examples of her mock-Shakespearean dialogue.

As if the first half of the film didn't have enough evidence to convince jaded fans that Jackson was on the right path, his "hero shot" of the Fellowship cresting a hill together resulted in a geekgasm felt 'round the world.  Jackson then continues to pile on one spectacle after another.  The Fellowship's delve into the Mines of Moria is the highlight of the entire trilogy for me.  I love how the skills of this hastily-assembled group barely managed to sustain them through the "long dark" of Moria.  Well, most of them anyway.

"Look, just leave your pamphlets by the door and back the fuck off!!!"  

In addition to being a bona-fide gift to fantasy film fans, Fellowship of the Ring is clearly a labor of love for Peter Jackson.  Not only did he lay down some tremendous groundwork for the relatively intimate story contained in Book One, he would also prove to quite adept at prosecuting the epic "War of the Ring" which followed in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

But, alas, that is a story for another day...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" by David Pretty

To me, the absolute worst thing you can say about a movie is that it's boring.  Bad I can take, as long as there's a modicum of amusement value.  Unfortunately, The Twilight Saga: New Moon is the equivalent of watching a glacier move.  I can't recall the last time I actually nodded off while watching a film at home and, let me tell ya, I've made it through a lot of dull-ass flicks.

As I said in my Twilight review I was willing to give these movies a shot just based on their popularity.  At first I was pleasantly surprised with the first film's budding sense of mystery as Bella and Edward got to know one another.  I was also pleased by the indie-sensibilities of director Catherine Hardwicke, who brought an artistic eye to the composition.  Although gaping holes in logic and storytelling caused things to unravel somewhat in the second half, the film was still reasonably salvageable.

Then along comes New Moon, the cinematic interpretation of the saga's second book and sweet jeezum crow does it ever suck.  Now, I know I'm not the target audience for this sort of thing but I would gladly watch Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked over re-watching this under-baked hunk of garbage ever again. 

So here's the "plot": on the occasion of her eighteenth birthday Bella (Kristen Stewart) becomes paranoid that Edward (Robert Pattinson) will always look as if he's seventeen while she's eventually going to look all gross and forty.  I think a much more interesting conundrum is how a being who's over one-hundred years old can possibly find a callow teenage girl to be so fascinating.  But I guess that's up to higher authorities to answer.  Like Hugh Hefner.   

Anyhoo, during a birthday party organized by the Cullen clan Bella cuts herself while opening her gift and Edward's younger brother tries to eat her.  OMG, awkward!  Wisely, Edward decides that having a human girlfriend hanging around a group of blood-sucking in-laws is akin to leaving a Beggin' Strip-cloaked pot roast dangling around in a room full of Rottweilers.  So he unceremoniously dumps her and the entire vampire family disappears not long after.  Man, talk about severing ties.    

This leaves Bella sullen, cranky and despondent, er...even more then usual.  Months creep by (in both the story and what feels like actual screen time) until she starts hanging out with the be-mulleted Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who turns out to be a werewolf.  This revelation inevitably puts Bella in danger, which suddenly and inexplicably allows her to see fleeting images of her beloved Edward.  Uh-huh

Desperate to see her plasma-deprived beau once again, Bella begins to flirt with the possibility of suicide but regrettably she never quite succeeds.  After Edward is led to believe that his one true love is dead, he goes to Italy (?) to try and convince the elder vampire statesmen, the *yawn* Volturi, to let him follow her into the afterlife.  Naturally Bella somehow gets wind of this and tries to rescue him. 

They manage to prevent Edward from turning himself into a briquette but now the Volturi are super-pissed that Bella knows the secret of the vampires and demands that she...HEY!!!  Are you still reading this?  Really?  Why?!?  I'M not reading it and I'm TYPING it, fer Crissakes.  Seriously, gone are the artistic flourishes that made the first film half-way palatable.  Gone is any hint of mystery and discovery.

Also clearly absent is the participation of the actors.  Kristen Stewart has doubled her repertoire of expressions from one to two: alternating between focused intent (likely achieved by some sort of self-inflicted head trauma) or borderline panic (produced via the same procedure but with a brow-wrinkling twist).  Her line deliveries betray pure boredom with Bella's self-indulgence and she spends the lion's share of the film hunched over, scowling or rolled up into a ball.

L'il Cedric Diggory doesn't fare very well either, especially considering that he's virtually awash in pancake flour, lip gloss and enough hair gel to constitute a walking fire hazard.  Most of the time he looks like Marge from The Simpsons after Homer blasted her in the face with the makeup gun set to "whore".  Every time he appeared on screen I thought that a pouting vortex was going to cause his head to implode. 

Like the old saying goes "while the vamp's away the wolf will play" so Taylor Lautner gets a chance to shine a bit here.  Honestly he seems like a genuinely decent kid but the character of Jacob is completely and totally vacuous.  All that seems to matter is that you could conceivably grate a brick on his abs.

Although the run time of this thing is hideously protracted it still feels as if large chunks of the story were excised from the final reel in editing.  Why is everyone suddenly in Italy and how did they all get there?  Where did the sports car come from?  What the heck do these Volturi guys have to do with anything? There is absolutely nothing original or inventive here as it relates to the vampire vs. lycanthrope myth.

On top of all this we get this most ridiculous ending possible with Edward promising to turn Bella into a vampire if she agrees to marry him.  What the fuck??!  These are supposed to be VAMPIRES, people! Remember vampires?  Rip-yer-fuckin'-jugular-vein-out vampires?

Seriously, I have no friggin' clue what the appeal is here.  If your kids are hankering for some quality vampire-human relationship stories with some rich and clever world-building then steer them towards Buffy and Angel.  At least that way they'll be watching something that sucks in a good, traditional, neck-chompin' vampiry kinda way.

  Tilt: down.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Movie Review: "Twilight" by David Pretty

I'm always interested when something goes from pop-culture radar blip to a full-blown phenomenon  and like it or not, Twilight certainly qualifies.  In fact, I've been pretty quick to deny the Twi-haters since I personally took a fair share of ribbing for reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone back when it was still being dismissed as a "kid's book".

Twilight is one of the more notable publishing-to-film-to-number-one-with-a-zeitgeist-bullet success stories of late.  And frankly, I'd be lying if I didn't confess to a certain curiosity about the premise since I was such a huge fan of Buffy and Angel's trailblazing sparks.  So, is Twilight really worth all of the hype?  Well, after my first exposure to its inaugural cinematic incarnation, I have to admit that the jury is still decidedly out.

The first half of Twilight actually unspools like a competently-directed, modest little indie film which then flies apart in all directions in the second half.  Director Catherine Hardwicke certainly can't be accused of making an ugly-looking picture and I'm not referring to the cast.  The lush and verdant "Vancouver-as-Seattle" cinematography really helps to ground the film in a certain soggy milieu.

We also get some sharp dialogue and good performances early on which generates a modicum of  sympathy for young, castaway Bella.  The mysterious Cullen clan get plenty of tantalizing build up and the film actually flirts with originality as Bella slowly discovers the secret behind broody Edward's true nature.  Unfortunately, the film starts to pursue some obligatory plot paths and awkward action beats.  It's not long before everything begins to unravel to the point of ruin.

Every story, including fantasy, needs a certain semblance of logic in order to sustain it, otherwise everything becomes an exercise in futility.  When a rival vampire clan rears its ugly (but still coiffed) head, the Cullens inexplicably decide to isolate themselves by scattering across the country.   Since they already outnumbered the bad guys to begin with, I can only assume that the script made them do this just for the sake of isolating Bella and keeping the threat level elevated.      

Now I understand that Stephenie Meyer felt motivated to come up with some original vampire lore but her decision to make all of her bloodsuckers sparkly in direct sunlight is pretty fucking dopey.  And although the notorious baseball scene is reasonably well executed the realization of the vampire's super-human abilities makes them look like understudies to the cast of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Although I can accept that the Cullens want to interact with humans after taming their predatory impulses, the fact that Carlisle is a Doctor and his "kids" go to public school is downright ludicrous.  Look, I've been to Seattle and it isn't always under a constant dome of rain and fog.  So what happens when the sun comes out during the last homeroom period and Edward is forced to run screaming across the parking lot after turning into a undead disco ball?

The verve Kristen Stewart exemplifies in the first half of the film completely evaporates.  All of sudden she seem capable of only one expression: acting as if something foul-smelling is nearby.  Eventually I began to suspect that Bella wasn't in love after all and was just under some sort of old-school vampiric thrall.  By the time Edward turns into a pasty-looking emo dialysis machine towards the end of the film I was pretty much done with it.

Which is kind of a shame since I was still onboard while the characters were just talking and discovering things about each other.  Catherine Hardwicke might have been a solid choice to orchestrate the dialogue scenes but she stumbles consistently during the perfunctory dust-ups.  I also suspect that the meager budget might have hamstrung her true vision of the vampire's preternatural abilities.

If the film ultimately fails, however, it's because of the spotty plotting and wrong-headed stabs at "originality".  I think Twilight flirts with the concept of innovation but second guesses itself by following expectations set by a million other vampire movies.  If it had stuck to its humble little premise it might have resulted in something just as immortal as its undead subject matter.

        Tilt: down.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Skyfall" by David Pretty

After watching Skyfall, it's really hard to believe that this is the twenty-third entry in the 007 film series. Director Sam Mendes and his writing partners Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have delivered a film that somehow manages pay homage to Bond's cinematic history while generating some of their own.  And all they needed to do to accomplish this was turn their backs on the sort of convention that's been sustaining the series for the past fifty years.     


This time out, Skyfall's pre-credit sequence is actually relevant to the plot.  Cyber-terrorists have stolen a computer hard drive which contains the names of every MI-6 agent embedded with shady organizations around the world.  M (Dame Judi Dench), obsessed with making things right,  relentlessly spurs 007 (Daniel Craig) on in a desperate bid to recover it.

After M tells Bond to ignore a mortally wounded fellow agent, she orders him to stop the thieves by any means necessary.  007 manages to corner his final foe on top of a fast-moving train that's constantly ducking in and out of tunnels.  As the advantage swings back and forth between the two, M commands Bond's partner Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a shot.  Unfortunately, she hits the stalwart agent, knocking him off the train and into the water below.

Bond eventually turns up alive, living anonymously in a small village and using the veil of death to ponder his grim lot in life.  Eventually four months tic by and M is forced to declare that he's legally dead.  Meanwhile, the head of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) begins to hound M about the loss of the hard drive and the demise of several key agents.

Gareth Mallory:  Eleanor, be sensible. Retire with dignity...
M:  Dignity! To Hell with dignity! I'll retire when my goddamn job is finally done.  

Things get even more dire after a major security breach results in more fatalities and the destruction of MI-6 headquarters.  When news of the attack reaches Bond, he grudgingly comes out of hiding and returns to London.  Before he can be re-instated, however, 007 is forced to endure a series of condescending tests which call into question his capabilities.  Despite the spotty results, M is determined to get her star agent back into the field as soon as possible.  Not long after she dispatches him to Shanghai in order to recover the still-missing hard drive.

After a thrilling rematch with his train-top sparring partner, Bond recovers a mysterious token which leads him to an exotic casino in Macau.  It's here that our favorite super-spy meets the alluring Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a former prostitute rescued from the trade by the mysterious Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).  Convinced that Silva is the brains behind the scheme, 007 persuades Sévérine to bring him back to the villain's headquarters, located on an abandoned island.

Silva turns out to be former MI-6 agent and computer genius Tiago Rodriguez.  We soon learn that M willingly gave Silva up in exchange for six other captive operatives.  When Silva attempted to take his own life, the cyanide capsule caused horrendous internal injuries instead of killing him.  Seeking revenge over what he sees as betrayal and abandonment, Silva is now determined to exact his revenge on M.

At the half-way point in the film, Mendes and company convince us that it's going to be a very short film.  Bond outwits Silva and the villain is brought back to London under heavy security.  But it's soon becomes apparent that this was the fallen agent's plan all along.  Silva escapes and the rest of the story becomes a cat and mouse game with M's life hanging in the balance.

Along the way, Skyfall delivers some truly manic action sequences.  It begins in traditionally ludicrous fashion, with a motorcycle chase along the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  It then segues into the creative use of a back-hoe as well as a round of fisticuffs atop a speeding rail car as it vanishes in and out of tunnels.  The scene in which Bond fights a goon in the Kimodo dragon pit of the Macau casino is also goofily retro.

But then something wonderful and unexpected happens.  Knowing that it's futile to try and trump fifty years worth of mind-blowing set-pieces (as well as Skyfall's own prologue!), Sam Mendes lowers the volume on everything and the effect is still riveting.  In fact, the extended foot chase between Bond and Silva throughout London and the villain's final assault on the titular manor are equally arresting.

My favorite example of this is the scene in which Silva attempts to assassinate M right in the middle of a public hearing.  What results is a fantastic extended gun battle between Silva and his goons against Bond, Mallory, Eve and the building's security.  Not only is the scene stripped down, raw and realistic, it's unbearably tense and also gives the characters a chance to be tactical.  I also appreciate that Mendes and his editors Stuart and Kate Baird actually let us see what's going on during the firefight.

This low-fi approach to the action culminates when Bond whisks M away to his ancestral home in Scotland to try and protect her.  This move works on several levels.  First off, it gives 007 an excuse to blow the dust off of an old toy.  Secondly, we learn more about Bond in this sequence then we have throughout the course of the previous twenty-two pictures.  And finally, it sets up the ultimate battle in which the adage "the old ways are sometimes best" is conclusively proven.

This last sentiment becomes the film's central theme.  Throughout most of the story, Bond and his MI-6 division are feeling increasingly antiquated.  The main villain, after all, isn't a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent, a mad industrialist, an ubermensch or a Cold War rogue; he's just your average, run-of-the-mill cyber-criminal.  Even Bond seems let down after his freshly-scrubbed new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) hands him nothing more complicated then a customized Walther PPK and a homing beacon.  "What did you expect, an exploding pen?" he asks James after noting his disappointment.

But by the film's final act, Bond has been vindicated and revitalized.  Daniel Craig manages to sustain the character's changing climate throughout several stages.  His dogged determination in the pre-credit sequence is quickly neutered by what he initially sees as betrayal.  During the certification sequence, Craig is clearly wrestling with a palpable sense of self-doubt.  You can actually see a glint of fear in his eyes after he fails a basic marksmanship test.  On the flip side, his transcendental return to form is a lot of fun, reminding me somewhat of Kirk's epiphany at the end of Star Trek II.

Javier Bardem's Silva succeeds as character because he's essentially Bond's flip side.  As members of MI-6, both of them have been burned by mindless acquiescence.  The main difference is that Bond has convinced himself that M had no choice, while Silva still clings to feelings of betrayal.  Bardem's performance is a joy to watch, rife with cast-away details and juicy nuance.  Much will be said of the character's fluid sexual orientation but it's handled very tastefully and ends up creating some memorably original exchanges between Silva and Bond.

And who else but Dame Judi Dench could bring such an unflagging stiff upper lip to the role of M?  The character becomes a major player in Skyfall, even reaching the grand elevated status of "Bond villain MacGuffin".  Her role as Bond's surrogate mother is also heavily emphasized and you can tell that her consistent disapproval over her "sons" actions are designed to keep him at arms length.   "Orphans always make the best recruits," she confesses to James after he talks about the early loss of his natural parents.

Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as Gareth Mallory.  In any other color-by-numbers script, Fiennes would be relegated to the role of irredeemable dick.  Instead, Mallory's opinion of MI-6 actually changes and evolves as he gathers information about the situation and gets personally affected by Silva's insanity.  Fiennes sinks his teeth into his character's transitions, making each revelation genuinely surprising yet refreshingly welcome.

The secondary cast here is also fantastic.  Naomie Harris so winsome and charming that her reveal at the end of the film is applause-worthy.  Bérénice Lim Marlohe is inhumanly gorgeous as Sévérine but she isn't just a pretty face.  In fact, the actress really manages to tap into her character's desire to get away from Silva's aura of madness and revenge.  Her performance is both fragile and genuine and it's a real shame that she didn't get more screen time.

Skyfall's youngest and oldest cast members also provide some welcome diversions.  Ben Wishaw as Q instantly shatters expectations.  As soon as we see him, we immediately expect a jittery, socially inept computer geek but instead we get a well-spoken, fallible kid who's wise beyond his years.  Finally, veteran actor Albert Finney is a blast to watch as Kincade, the aged caretaker of Bond's ancestral manor.  Although I loved hearing him bellow "Welcome to Scotland!" as he blew away a pair of Silva's thugs, a part of me really wishes that Sean Connery had played this role.  It would have felt right somehow.

But it would also have felt obligatory and this entry is all about shattering expectations in lieu of a new paradigm.  Skyfall is to James Bond as the original Swedish version of Let The Right One In is to vampires.  Just when you think you've seen everything, some talented and bold film-makers come along and thumbed their collective noses at convention.

Honestly, before going into Skyfall, I wasn't all that keen to watch Daniel Craig punch out the rest of his contractually-obligated Bond films.

But now I'm friggin' stoked.    

   Tilt: up.