Monday, February 22, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #5

"Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it."
- voice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)

#5 - Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Why I liked it

What's not to like?

OK, let me be more precise.

I did try, when I was in high school, to read through JRR Tolkien's trilogy -- it seemed something of a geek rite of passage, and it was mentioned as an inspiration to those who put together Dungeons & Dragons, a game to which I was devoted in those days even when I had no one to play it with.

When I tried to get through the first book in the trilogy, though, I found it very slow going. So slow that I gave up about a third of the way through. Sure, I recognized elves and halflings, things I'd first encountered through D&D, not Tolkien directly, but those things weren't breathtaking. And yeah, there was ancient Elvish history and such, but everybody who's ever tried to write a campaign world has ancient Elvish history, and I didn't see that Tolkien's (at least as far as I'd read) was markedly better than any number of his professional and even amateur imitators in world-building that I'd encountered in my travels through D&D campaign settings.

The thing that should have tipped me off, oddly, was "The Princess Bride".

By the time the film version of "The Princess Bride" came out in 1987, I'd learned to avoid things that my fantasy-obsessed friends thought as wonderful, based largely on my experience with Fellowship. I skipped seeing Princess Bride in a movie theater, waiting until it came out on VCR tape (we didn't yet have DVDs in those days).

Once I'd seen the movie once, I realized what a mistake I'd made in dismissing it. It's become one of my favorite movies of all time, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it if I have any ability to do so.

But if anything, the book was even better than the movie.

The great conceit of the book was that William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Princess Bride, was only transcribing the words of a Florinese writer named S. Morgenstern, who'd penned a story that Goldman's father, an immigrant and poor English speaker, read to him during a long stretch of illness. Interspersed with sections of Morgenstern's story were snippets, outtakes if you will, of bits of Goldman's own memories of his childhood, his attempts to turn on his son to the book as he was originally turned on by his father (though not, significantly, by reading the book to him).

It's that last point that turned out to be the most significant. Turns out that what Goldman's father was reading wasn't the book, per se, but a variant of his that Goldman, in his own book, called the 'good parts' version -- a version focusing on the main plot of the princess bride and her perils, and avoiding the side trips into political discussions and dissertations on historical fashion, etcetera.

It didn't hit me at all, until this movie came out, that Goldman's comment was a satirical dig, not at the fictional S. Morgenstern, but at Tolkien.

Seeing the movie, a movie that captivated me for over two hours, compelled me to go out and get the book again, just to be sure my adolescent memories of boredom weren't some kind of youthful hallucination. They weren't -- but what Goldman (and Jackson, et al) had taught me was that, if I found something that didn't seem to relate specifically to the plot at hand, I could probably skip it, then come back later if it seemed relevant to understanding some plot point. I very rarely backtracked, and realized only later that some entire sections that looked like plot (such as the whole section featuring Tom Bombadil) could have been skipped without harm.

With all that said, though, the main reason that Fellowship appeals to me is in its hero.

Those of my D&D-playing friends who weren't much into Tolkien growing up tended more toward fantasy that featured uber-competent heroes: Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, etcetera. A story might begin with its hero in a fairly weak and impotent state, but that would only be until the hero understood the power he was growing into; one day, he'd be the most powerful being in his world, as was his right.

Turns out that most fantasies following this sort of trope bored the undistilled piss out of me. (One of the very few exceptions was the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist.) Turns out the fantasy that I like best is that where your normal, run-of-the-mill person (with perhaps one or two not-quite run-of-the-mill attributes) ends up saving the world, at least in part because they aren't the uber-competent super-warrior that can do anything or win any fight. While Fellowship featured a few of those kinds of characters (specifically the hyper-competent Aragorn and the fanboy-fetish-object Legolas), the odd thing about Fellowship, and the rest of the series (which I greedily devoured before the second movie was even released), was that, while these characters had their own adventures and successes, none of them could have accomplished what Frodo accompished, and without that latter accomplishment, everything else done by the hyper-competent heroes would have been for naught.

Now that's the kind of story that gets my engine running.

With all that said, though, one thing I didn't get at the time the movie first came out (and one reason I think so many critics have since backtracked on the nice things they said about it at the start of the decade) is the supposed echoes/parallels with September 11: men of the west duelling with an ancient and implacable evil from the east, intent on overthrowing the world and leading everyone to a time of utter darkness. I've never seen the alleged War on Terror as being of that sort of Manichean scale (perhaps that comes from being on a bus heading to a plasma center on 9/11, trying to fend off starvation for another week), and now that it's obvious that the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 weren't real-life analogues for the once-human Nazgul, servants of ultimate evil, but were more accurately just guys who got lucky while attempting something of tremendous audacity, everybody who once thought that the story of Frodo and Gandalf was somehow a reminder of What We Faced in this New Era of Terror now realized that what they said was, if not hilariously misaligned, at least hyperbolically overblown. It's no wonder so many critics have performed a volte-face with respect to this film.

As for me, who never thought Fellowship was anything but a marvelous adventure well-told, I can go on thinking that it's one of the best movies I've seen in the past nine years, and even of all time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #6

#6 - Hot Fuzz (2007)

I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a police officer... apart from the summer of 1979 when I wanted to be Kermit the Frog.
- Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg)

This is likely to be the most 'controversial' entry on this list, assuming anybody cares.

Of the ten films on this list, six are on the IMDB top 250. (If you want a partial spoiler of the films to come, the seven on the IMDB list are, ranked in order of the films released from 2001-2009: #2, #4, #5, #7, #13, and #25). The four not on this list are this one, and three films already covered: The King of Kong at #7 (a documentary), Sky High at #8 (a Disney film), and Presto at #10 (an animated short). So in that sense the pick is at least in part defensible.

Those who feel inclined to argue, however, will wonder why this Simon Pegg movie is the one that makes my list. After all, 'Star Trek' has Pegg, is also on the IMDB 250, and is a sci-fi movie that, based on my preferences thus far, you'd think I'd have liked. (I did, not just enough to get it into the top ten.) Or, if not that one, Pegg's best-known film, the George-S-Romero-homage 'Shaun of the Dead', is also in the IMDB 250 and considered by many critics to be one of the best genre-bending films ever, not just of the decade.

The latter is the reason why I rank 'Hot Fuzz' higher. 'Shaun' was a very funny, yet very faithful Horatian satire of 'Dawn of the Dead'. 'Hot Fuzz', meanwhile, was also very funny, but a much more Juvenalian satire of not just one but two genres: the murder mystery, and the 'buddy cop' film. (One could argue that Pegg and his co-writer Edgar Wright are also satirizing the 'hard boiled detective' genre of literature and film, but I consider the 'buddy cop' movie to be an heir to many of the Chandlerian traditions of the earlier 'hard boiled' genre.) Regardless, the film is far more ambitious than 'Shaun', and thus deserves praise for that.

But this isn't a list of my 'most admired' films of the past nine years; I very much enjoyed the degree of skewering of the traditional tropes of both the murder mystery and the buddy cop film, particularly the reveal of the mastermind(s) and the reasons for their murderous activities. If you found this reveal disappointing, all I can say is that you must have been expecting the movie to play it straight -- and why would you think that given everything that went before?

If this 'review' seems deliberately vague, well, it is -- 'Hot Fuzz' is available for instant viewing via Netflix and is probably sitting in the bargain bin at your local video store, and I'd hate to ruin someone's appreciation for the degree to which this film tickled exactly the ideosyncratic and contrarian bits of my personality. Go, see it, then come back and explain why you did or didn't like it.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #7

7. The King of Kong (2007)

I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, "Hi, I see that you're good at Centipede."
- Walter Day, "The King of Kong"

Begin with the obvious. It's a movie, in large part, about video games. Specifically about Donkey Kong, the ur-classic arcade video game of most Gen-Xers' childhoods. For a self-professed gamer, that's one point in its favor.

Next up, there's a decent amount of history here. You might even consider it 'secret history', not because it's been hidden away, per se, but because most folks probably don't care much about it. But you can find out a lot about the pastime of competitive video gaming, as well as the founding organization that brought it into public view, at least for a moment in 1982: Twin Galaxies.

(I can also see in Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, an older version of a friend of mine who had a similar combination of organizational drive and desire to make a permanent mark on the world. Verisimilitude, then, racks up another point.)

Now, throw in a whole crap-ton of controversy:

  • The film itself presents Billy Mitchell, the man whom Twin Galaxies recognized as the world-champion Donkey Kong player in 1982, as the major villain, and Steve Wiebe, a former Boeing engineer and Redmond, Washington area school teacher whose quest to dethrone Mitchell makes up the dramatic heft of the film, as the main hero. The director, Seth Gordon, claims that he actually lightened up Mitchell in the film, using only those moments that would be applicable to the story he was telling, and that using more of Mitchell's actual personality would have resulted in a far darker film.
  • Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, has posted on the Twin Galaxies internet forum that he believes the film is dishonest with a number of facts regarding the Donkey Kong record, including the presence of a third player, Tim Sczerby, in the race for the title who does not appear at all in the film.
  • Blogger and pundit Jason Scott (who himself created a documentary about the early days of computer bulletin-board systems, takes the charge of dishonesty up another notch with a post on his blog, ASCII, claiming, among other things, that Gordon played so fast-and-loose with the facts that the reaction from sources for his own potential video-game-history documentary decided not to cooperate, fearing that Scott would manipulate their stories as much as Gordon is alleged to have done. (Scott doesn't claim the movie is bad, just dishonest and damaging to the genre of capturing the true history of early computing, including video games.)

So you can watch the movie on the level that the director intended, reveling in the 'sad sack mokes good despite conspiracy to defeat him' storyline presented there. You can look deeper and see more complex patterns not just among the principals, but between the filmmaker and those he's interacting with.

And of course, along the way, you can learn a crap-ton about a subject geekier than most of us will ever really want to know about; assuming, of course, that you end up trusting the movie after finding out about the online controversy.

What's not to love?