Thursday, January 28, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #8

If life were to suddenly become fair, I doubt it would happen in high school.

Warning: Spoileriffic blog post ahead!

If you asked a typical geek what he'd consider the prototypical superhero movie, not even just of the last ten years, but of all time, chances are good that he'd pick Sam Raimi's Spiderman (2002). The film was clearly a labor of love for Raimi, and Tobey Maguire was spot-on as the nebbish Peter Parker. As with any film, Spiderman wasn't perfect, and people who wanted to could find things to quibble about. Some I dismissed, such as criticism of Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of Mary Jane Watson; I thought it was a pretty solid success to take the Mary Jane character, seldom more than a fantasy girlfriend in the comics, and try to make a believable character out of her. Some I rejected, such as the update of the spider from 'radioactive' to 'genetically modified'; radiation in the 1960's was the genetic modification of today, a poorly-understood field of science from which all sorts of dangerous monsters were hypothesized to be waiting to escape. Some criticism, though, I took to heart, such as the oddly jarring decision to have Spidey's webs come organically from his wrists rather than from mechanical web-shooters of his own design, though this was less troublesome in this movie than in the first sequel, where the filmmakers had to introduce a mysterious (and seemingly otherwise pointless) cold in order to justify the iconic 'Spidey runs out of web fluid' moment seen so often in the comic books. I enjoyed Spiderman, and thought it was a good film, but it doesn't make my top ten of the 'decade'.

Some of those who didn't choose Spiderman would probably instead go for Brad Bird's The Incredibles (2004), an ersatz Fantastic Four in a world that turned its back on superheroes. I thought the film was fun, but not really great, and said so at the time:

This is a world that has learned to fear and mistrust superheroes, to the point where no good deed seems to go unpunished in the first two-thirds of the movie, and yet a single giant robot attack suddenly makes everything all right again. This is a world where being repeatedly told to stay out of the way gives a shy girl enough self confidence to be able to out-cool the cool guy in school at the end of the film.

While there were a few individual moments that worked for me, the film as a whole left me oddly underwhelmed, and it's not one that I go out of my way to watch.

Lastly, any geek who didn't name one of the prior two would probably pick Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). This is a film in the top ten of the Internet Movie Database's most popular films of all time. Frankly, I feel that if any movie made in the past ten years deserves a critical backlash, it's this one - yes, the late Heath Ledger gave an impressive performance as the Joker, but it wasn't his 'last movie' -- that would be Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus -- and while I'm a Maggie Gyllenhaal fan, I don't think she was used nearly enough in the film, seemingly out of fear that it would draw attention to the fact that the filmmakers couldn't get Katie Holmes back to reprise her role from Batman Begins. Finally -- and my biggest beef with the film -- is that it's a Batman movie that's got almost nothing for Batman to do. The whole 'normal citizens dressing up as Batman' subplot seemed tacked on, an excuse to justify why Batman seems to eager to take Harvey Dent's sins onto himself at the end of the movie, and the romantic subplot suffers, again because the filmmakers don't want to call attention to Gyllenhaal replacing Holmes. Without more depth in those two subplots, the movie is about Batman chasing the Joker and Two-Face around Gotham City, ineffectually at first, and then finally catching one and then the other.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that I thought any of these movies were bad -- quite the contrary. If someone wanted to put one (or all of them) on her own 'top 10' list, I'd understand the decision. Heck, you could probably put together a reasonable list of just superhero movies from the past ten years, adding in Iron Man (2008), Spiderman 2 (2004), and others to taste.

Only one of those 'others' makes my list at all, though:

8. Sky High (2005)

Since 2004 had seen the release of The Incredibles and Spiderman 2, this Disney offering didn't draw a whole lot of water when it came out in the summer of 2005. It wasn't a terribly 'marquee' movie: its director was probably best known for piloting Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and the writers were virtually unknown -- one was a freelancer known to Disney for his work on various projects like Kim Possible and the straight-to-video Aladdin movie sequels. The best known actor in the marquee was probably Kurt Russell, a Disney veteran himself (back from his Dexter Riley days). There wasn't much reason to think this was anything other than a cute little Disney movie about superheroes, trying to cash in on the success of the previous year's releases.

But oh, how wrong you'd be if you thought that.

First off, this movie is filled with 'hey, it's that guy' moments, which suggests that enough people liked the premise and pitch of the film to hop on board just for kicks. Among the lesser-billed performers include:

  • Lynda Carter as the school principal
  • Bruce Campbell as the school gym teacher
  • Dave Foley as 'Mr. Boy', the teacher for 'Hero Support' (aka "the loser track")
  • Cloris Leachman as the school nurse
  • Kevin McDonald as the big-brained science teacher
  • and, though you'd have to be a real fan to recognize it, Patrick Warburton as the voice of the villain following her 'big reveal'

So that's fun all by itself.

Plus the filmmakers weren't afraid to give these recognizable actors some call outs. (Example: near the end of the film, when Lynda Carter as the principal is leaving the detention room, she mutters "I'm not Wonder Woman, you know.")

But if all the movie was was a geek-fest for older viewers, it wouldn't be half as good as it is. Unlike Spiderman, which is a power fantasy masquerading as a coming-of-age tale (Peter supposedly learns 'with great power comes great responsibility, but in reality he already knew that and just needed to be reminded; the rest of the movie is how kick-ass it is to have super-powers, except for the personal life aspects), Sky High actually manages to pull off a coming-of-age tale, with a nebbish, powerless yet highly regarded child of two famous heroes discovering his own powers, letting them go to his head, and figuring out what he needs to do to be a hero just in time to save the day -- with the help of his sidekick friends.

And the truth is that the younger performers really do carry the water in this movie. Michael Angarano is perfect as the goofy, likable Will Stronghold. Danielle Panabaker nails the 'best friend who will take any amount of self-inflicted pain to make sure she doesn't lose her friendship with the guy she's secretly in love with' (and the look she gives Will after he's 'come out' to his father as a powerless sidekick made me wish I was back in high school). Steven Strait is the 'Draco in leather pants' that Harry Potter fanfic writers dream about as Warren Peace, a troubled teen forced to grow up too fast because of his father's supervillainy.

You get all this -- you can see these things in the characters. But the filmmakers never pound these things over your head to make a point about 'here is the bitter but misunderstood villain who just needs some understanding to become a better man'. It's a fun ride, with some serious backstory for anyone paying attention.

The best thing about it is that the filmmakers chose to eschew CGI for much of the film, using more traditional wire effects for much of the fight scenes in the film. And you really can tell the difference between a computer-generated Spiderman fighting CGI bad guys, and the real Warren Peace crashing through a wall and buckling a support pillar after being smacked by Will Stronghold.

There's just a lot to like about this movie, which is why I rate it my favorite superhero movie of the decade, and my #8 overall since 2001.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #9

Welcome to the next installment of my ten favorite movies of the 'decade' thus far, since I can't see 2000 as the start of a decade any more than I was able to see it as the start of a millenium.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

You might not have noticed unless you're a cineaste, read a lot of movie reviews, or caught Salon's film writers a few weeks ago, but a critical backlash has developed against Peter Jackson's 'good parts' adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's epic 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy.

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, who wrote the main story linked above, points out that, from his perspective, the folks who are dissing on the LotR series pretty much can't agree on exactly why they seem to dislike it so, and some of the comments make absolutely no sense. For instance, the following:

I don't really think it has to do with their length, but more with the fact that the films do not speak to a wider truth. For example, "The Godfather" is not really about the Mafia; it's an examination of the nature of capitalism and revenge. There is something very universal about the Corleone saga, and every time I've seen that movie and the sequel, I notice something different and have a different reaction. The LOTR movies are just about hobbits, wizards, elves and the rest. That's it. They do not offer us any insight into human nature or our culture.


'The Godfather' isn't just a bunch of Mafiosi shooting each other up while declaring undying loyalty to their 'families', but 'LotR' is just about elves and hobbits?

Let's move on to the section where I debunk this.

Why I liked it

There were a number of overarching themes in the LotR films, most of which began to come into sharper focus in this movie than they did in the first one:

- The durability and power of true friendship: Despite the breaking of the Fellowship at Boromir's betrayal and redemption, the three groups of friends go on to achieve truly mighty things -- Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas press themselves almost beyond mortal limits in attempting to save Merry and Pippin, only to be redirected by a resurrected Gandalf toward Rohan, where they serve as part of the balance that tips the scales in the favor of the human kingdom's survival at Helm's Deep. Merry and Pippin achieve by trickery what they can't achieve by force of persuasion with Treebeard of the Ents.

- The seductive lure of evil: Despite some critics assertions otherwise, Jackson actually changed very little of Tolkien's overall plot, though one of the biggest occurs here. In the books, Faramir, originally tempted by the power of the Ring, relents and allows the hobbits and their guide to go along their way after capturing them in the wilds south of Mordor. In the film, Faramir remains in the Ring's thrall until he and the tiny trio return to Osgiliath, in the hopes of using the Ring to break the orcish siege of the city, only to realize that the Ring will not deliver them, but destroy them. We also begin to see Frodo's recognition that, despite his fighting against the influence of the Ring, the Ring is slowly corrupting him, and thus he reacts by reaching out in the hopes of finding Smeagol redeemable, knowing full well that he, too, will need to be redeemed once this trial is ended. And of course, it appears that Smeagol can be redeemed, as he exorcises his own demon, Gollum, early in the film, only to have Gollum and his lust for the Ring return with a vengeance at the hands of Faramir's troops, in a sequence that, for Frodo was all about saving Smeagol's life, but to Smeagol was a betrayal.

This film also introduces us to my favorite character in the entire trilogy, and I need to point out that this was not, in fact, my favorite character in the books. Critics may try to say that Jackson's (more accurately Phillipa Boyen's and Fran Walsh's) screenplay reduced 'epic' characters to more identifiable stereotypes, but for my money, Bernard Hill's portrayal of King Theoden of Rohan is anything but stereotypical.

We first meet Theoden as he sits on his throne, ensorcelled by Wormtongue and Saruman. Gandalf releases Theoden from their control, yet thanks must remain brief, as Theoden must bury his last son and then mobilize his people for war with Saruman's uruk-hai. There are moments on the road where you imagine Theoden is barely holding himself upright for the sake of his people, having lost nearly everything he personally has to live for, yet being unwilling to abandon his responsibility to those who serve him. In the end, he accompanies Aragorn on a seemingly suicidal ride into the uruk-hai horde, only to have defeat turned into victory by the rising of the sun and the arrival of Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan.

And if you thought he was cool in this movie, wait till you see what I say about him in the third one.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Favorite Movies of the...what?

Well, when Eric Burns gets back to updating his blog regularly, I know it's time for me to get off the stick, so here goes:

Remember Veruca Salt?

No, not the band, though if I was more of a music aficionado, there might be an interesting post there, too.

No, I'm talking about the character from Roald Dahl's book, truly immortalized by Julie Dawn Cole's portrayal of her in the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl's book. The bratty, spoiled kid who meets a fitting end at the climax of the show-stopping song "I Want It All" by being identified as a 'bad egg' and sent into the factory's incinerator.

I was reminded of Miss Salt's character just over ten years ago, when the Year 2000 was approaching, and the air was filled with excitement about the imminent arrival of the 'new millennium'. I could understand that most folks probably didn't realize that Arthur Clarke had named his own famous S.F. book "2001: A Space Odyssey" specifically because 2001 would be the start of the third millennium, at least according to the Gregorian calendar. I could even get that most folks, blinded by the sight of so many zeroes in the upcoming year, wouldn't stop to consider that, since there was no Year Zero, the first millennium (had the Gregorian calendar existed then) would have started in Year One.

What I couldn't quite stomach was the insistence with which these people wanted to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Year 2000 would still be the start of the new millennium. It seemed petulant to me, as if people were saying, "I don't want to wait another whole year to celebrate the start of the millennium. I want my new millennium NOW!" Eventually I learned to just scowl at those folks, because after all, how many new millennia have I had the chance to experience for myself? It was a big enough deal that arguing seemed somehow to lessen the moment.

Then we reached the end of 2009, and I started noticing a flurry of retrospectives intended to recap the past decade at the start of a new one. Wha? Every argument that applied to 2000 not being the start of a new millennium applies to 2010 not being the start of a new decade. In addition, it's not as though people are missing out on new decades -- even short-lived adults get to see two or three before passing into the great void.

There's another point to be made about decades, though -- a Millennium has a certain connotation, just as a Century does. But a decade is, in some sense, just a period of ten years. So I thought I might wait a few years, then post a retrospective of the past decade: 2004-2013. It'd be just as valid as any other decade-wide retrospective, and would even make a snarky point about how people seem to feel about the turn of this decade.

In this case, though, there's another justification that can be used; in 2000, most people didn't have blogs that demanded regular content updates. So in that spirit, and because I need any excuse I can take to update my own long-neglected blog, I'll present my 10 favorite movies of the past this point, going from 2001 through today.

Ground rules: I'm only posting movies I've actually seen, thus can count among my favorites. I'm also going to avoid movies released in 2000, but I'll have an Honorable Mention at the end for one that would make the list if I was going with the seemingly-common interpretation of 'decade' as it's being used in the retrospectives I'm rebelling against.

10. Presto (2008)

You might not remember this one by name, or if you do, you might think it's a bit of a cop-out. "Presto" was the Pixar short film that played before "WALL-E" (about which, see more below).

Why I liked it

Two reasons, mainly:

1. The filmmakers gave an associate producer's credit to the late Jay Ward, creator of some of my favorite childhood cartoons (which, in retrospect, were a bit too subversive to be really targeted at children).

2. The film is itself a primer in the art of fantasy and SF storytelling, perhaps one of the best out there, despite not having a single word of actual dialogue.

Point two is going to require a bit of additional explanation, I can tell.

A lot is made of the idea that the fundamental ingredient of story is conflict, and a lot should be made. If your story has no conflict, it's not really a story -- it might be a well-crafted fictional essay, but if nothing happens in the sense of someone accomplishes something despite the resistance of some force or person trying to prevent that thing from happening, then all you have is an essay on utopia.

"Presto" presents a rabbit, whom we see at the beginning of the story trying to reach a carrot just out of his reach. He's hungry. Basic, understandable human need, and that the character is an anthropomorphized rabbit doesn't change our ability to empathize with his plight. The magician enters the room (in a nice touch, the magician has clearly just finished eating, as he wipes his mouth and licks his fingers as he enters), then suddenly realizes how late it's gotten and begins preparing for his performance by checking on the magical hat that makes him the 'amazing' magician that we saw written on the wall at the opening, while listening to the grunts of the poor rabbit trying to reach his own dinner. The magician tests his 'rabbit out of a hat' trick, then is just about to feed the rabbit when a knock on the door tells him that the performance is starting. Racing out to the stage without feeding the rabbit, the fundamental conflict in the story is thus established:

The magician wants to get through his act, and the rabbit wants dinner. Everything that happens from here on out is an escalation of this basic conflict to an energetic climax, with the occasional quick aside to make a joke about the situation.

Where does the SF/fantasy angle come in? Because of a premise in SF storytelling that the reader will give you one freebie in compositing your world. In "Presto", this is the MacGuffin of the magical hat, without which the action wouldn't be possible. Tricky stuff happens with the hat, but everything else follows from that basic 'gimme' premise.

(Those who might be inclined to argue that the anthropomorphic rabbit counts as another thing the audience must be willing to accept aren't necessarily wrong, but this is actually covered by the film being animated: one of the expected tropes of animation is that things like animals, plants, and even mechanical objects can have sentience and act like a character. Had the filmmakers tried to use a live rabbit and have it act the way the animated 'Alec' does, the story wouldn't have worked.)

Next time you're stuck trying to figure out where your story needs to go, ask yourself: which character is Alec and which is Presto, and whose turn is it to escalate the conflict? And if you can't answer that question, consider re-working your story until you can.

Next time: number nine!