From the archives: Capsule reviews

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The kids stay in the picture

Saturday, 24 February 2007 — 10:56pm | Capsule reviews, Film

Now that I can hardly ever find and justify the time to be as thorough as I used to be when writing about cinema (newcomers to the site can find examples here, here, here and here), capsule impressions will have to do. So here are a few brief thoughts on the five theatrical releases I’ve seen since my last summation of the sort. For a few words on the Oscars and my picks for the best films of 2006, skip to the end.

Pan’s Labyrinth: A masterpiece, the best film of 2006, and certainly in my top ten of the decade. Or is it? A second time through will confirm it. As a character study of fascist villainy, it’s on par with Schindler’s List. As a film about romance and fairytales crushed under the boot of a harsh and violent reality, yet resisting and persisting in a way that only the imagination can, I’m racking my brain and its repository of memories from hundreds of films for a treatment that operates at the same level of excellence as Guillermo del Toro’s, and the only one I can think of is Brazil. No small feat, considering that this has been one of the defining themes in all of literature since Don Quixote, or even further back, that Chinese wise guy who dreamed he was a butterfly (or however the story goes). It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic in a way that out-Narnias Narnia, and it’s resolutely human. I recommend it without any hesitation.

Happy Feet: Surprisingly good. As a non-Pixar CG motion-capture film with generally indistinct character designs marketed for its celebrity voices and suffused with pop tunes (a manoeuvre that worked for Moulin Rouge! and nothing since), a movie like Happy Feet is a hard sell for a tough customer like yours truly. For the most part, I was sold: there is a tremendous level of visual craftsmanship on display here, and it would be unfair to dismiss the film based on its motion-capture tap-dancing alone, though one would be right to question how convincing tap-dancing is when applied to animals that don’t even have legs.

Thematically there’s nothing new – just a gravitation from the usual message to the kids about conformity to a hero-quest about environmental consciousness. The former is a wash; it takes a film smarter than this one (The Incredibles, perhaps) to say something with more substance than “being different is okay.” As for the latter, it fares better simply because in its final act, the film’s stunning visuals manage to convey the sense that Mumble, our fluffy footloose protagonist, is on an epic journey to save his homeland – and that furthermore, this is worth doing. The state of mainstream computer animation after Shrek is such that we’ve seen the emergence of a dominant paradigm. While that set of conventions should go straight out the window, and is finally showing signs of collapse, Happy Feet is about the best it has to offer.

Tideland: This is the anti-Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam at his most rebellious and esoteric. I hope none of those bigshot executives with Hollywood money saw it; if they did, they’ll never fund him again. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tideland is a film about a child protected from the outside world by a shell of fantasy and adventure, and everything about it that works can be traced to the strength of an outstanding child performance by Jodelle Ferland. The cinematography is lavish, the musical score is not to be ignored, and I was sufficiently familiar with Gilliam’s oeuvre that the story worked for me in a way it won’t for most. However, it would be dishonest of me to overlook the fact that the film’s perverse indulgence in its Faulknerian grotesqueries is so disturbing as to deter me from ever seeing it twice. Human taxidermy, for crying out loud.

Letters from Iwo Jima: Cinema, especially American cinema, is so saturated with images depicting the Second World War that the test for every new war movie has become, “Does this film have anything to add?” In an environment where every WWII film is reverent, patriotic or nominally anti-war, do Clint Eastwood and company have anything novel to say? Letters from Iwo Jima says they do. Setting aside the fact that it is a film told in Japanese and about the Japanese, Letters is in many ways conventional in style and structure, but that is hardly a fault when in recent years, Eastwood has demonstrated a complete mastery of orthodox filmmaking, always finding a way to apply its lessons to new stories and unexplored ideas.

If I were to sum up the organizing idea of the movie – the “point,” if you will – I would call it the failure of the Japanese to maintain a façade of ruthlessness, discipline and honour at all costs. We saw shades of this fifty years ago in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and we see it explored from a more concentrated angle in Letters. Obviously, a film that portrays the Japanese on the defensive is going to humanize “the enemy” in the American imagination, but I don’t consider it anti-American or apologetic. The subtle reprimands of the conduct of soldiers and officers apply to any flag in any period of history, and that lends the film its power – as do the strong performances, appropriately dry cinematography and erudite screenplay. Deserving of its Best Picture nomination, and an effective advertisement for Eastwood’s other Iwo Jima movie, Flags of Our Fathers, which I now intend to see.

Dreamgirls: It’s fundamentally nice to see that musicals are alive and well. I couldn’t have said that six years ago, before Moulin Rouge! arrived on the scene and revived a genre that was presumed dead for the better part of three decades. Here, Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon adapts a Broadway musical with which I was not already familiar, so I saw it without any preoccupation with adaptation issues. I admire how fluidly it flows in and out of the songs, and how smooth the apparent transitions are from one scene to another within the same number. The camera is active and dynamic, and in spite of being a musical about stage performers, the film never feels confined to the stage. As a motion picture, everything seems to be in place. If I have any reservations about Dreamgirls, it’s that it doesn’t appear to have been a terrific musical to begin with. It’s not even so much that it’s a shallow story about shallow showbiz folk; on a perfectly superficial level, most of the greatest musicals on stage and screen were about precisely that. I don’t find the music or lyrics as challenging, diverse or cohesive as I’ve come to expect from the best of the format.

Is it because I have a prejudice that favours more traditional showtune writing over soul and R&B? No: see Rent for details (and for an example of what I mean by great musical writing). Is it because I’m not familiar with the source material, and I’m therefore not predisposed to find the musical numbers memorable? No: I never saw Chicago onstage either, and it stuck with me just fine. Is it because the large ensemble cast, with no clear lead, leaves the characters ill-defined? Not in the least. The performances are exhilirating enough that each of the major characters hold their own. Never mind that Jamie Foxx spends most of his time grimacing and being very heartless and businesslike: Jennifer Hudson is a commanding presence; Beyoncé Knowles finally acts and sings, and almost makes up for that boneheaded decision to let her croon all the Oscar-nominated Original Songs two years ago; Eddie Murphy is full of life, though an Oscar winner he is not. There’s nothing specific about why the film didn’t blow me away: it just didn’t, on a simple, holistic level. Still, Dreamgirls is good, colourful fun, and it is not my intent to discourage anyone from seeing it. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

And that about wraps it up for 2006. Oscars are just over the horizon, and this year is too much of a crapshoot for me to do any thorough predictions; besides, I haven’t been following the precursor awards or the awards-season politics, neither of which can be ignored when placing bets. Of the five Best Picture nominees, Babel is my favourite. While I enjoyed all five, and they all deserve the accolade of being on the shortlist even if they’re not on mine, the only other one that I think would deserve to be elevated to the winners’ pantheon is Letters from Iwo Jima.

I don’t do Top Tens, though in the past I’ve occasionally done a February review of the year in film, like the one I did here for 2004. I’m not even going to bother justifying myself this time around – I’m just going to toss out the titles, and if I don’t feel the same way a month from now, tough. The order within the tiers is arbitrary… or is it?

The best of the best: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fountain, Babel.

The best of the rest: Cars, Casino Royale, Brick, Children of Men, Letters from Iwo Jima, United 93.

Any questions?

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Think of the Children

Saturday, 6 January 2007 — 12:55am | Capsule reviews, Debate, Film

I’m back from the World Universities Debating Championships in Vancouver. Maria and I finished on 13 points over nine rounds, the minimum of the range I expected (floor: 13; ceiling: 15), based on our performance on the third day and the knowledge that we had 10 points after the sixth round. Live coverage of the Grand Final can be found here and, over multiple posts dated 3 January, here. It appears I was not alone in thinking Oxford D (Closing Government) should have won, upon an initial assessment, though I discovered afterwards that I generally had a much higher opinion of the final round on the whole than most others did, thanks to the clarity of the argumentation, which could have very easily been mired in economic jargon. (The motion: “This house believes that economic growth is the solution to climate change.”) Unfortunately, those who actually have a clue about how economics work subsequently informed me that the participants in the round were evidently not of their tribe, and convinced me that nobody really knew what they were talking about. So let’s concede that I’m unqualified to offer a proper adjudication.

Scores by team here. Scores by speaker here. Scores by round MIA.

Since I’ve obviously been preoccupied this holiday, there hasn’t been much time to catch up on cinema. That said, let’s make another attempt at offering a few capsule impressions of what I’ve seen since the last film post, though I do want to engage in a more thorough discussion of Children of Men, which I saw tonight.

The Fountain: I’m usually reluctant to call something the best film of the year until I’ve seen it twice. So I reluctantly offer that The Fountain is the best film of 2006, noting that I still have a lot of catching up to do. This is Darren Aronofsky’s most digestible film, and probably his finest. Its tripartite structure delivers storytelling of the finest visual intricacy, and its mythic ambitions to be a tale of life and death undisplaced – a mortality play, if you will – elevate its soft, human underbelly to transcendent heights of splendour. While there isn’t anything quite as iconic as its predecessor, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the cosmic imagery (a microbial visual effect) is more emotionally grounded. After reading the online impressions of others, I have to say that I’m quite surprised at their fixation with what’s “real” and what’s not, as if that were central to understanding how the movie fit together. Personally, I don’t see how what the diegetic realities are or aren’t have any effect on the experience as a whole: besides, so much of The Fountain is about writing yourself into a fiction, and living it. I can’t wait to see it again.

The Queen: An admirable production, fuelled by a quintessentially British dignity. I feared it would take the easy way out and simply subvert the relevance of the royal family by humanizing them in the name of populist social critique. Instead, I find myself questioning the state of the Great British Public if their media-driven obsession with the former Princess of Wales empowered them to exert so much pressure on their fragile monarchy. Is this the result of a commanding manoeuvre to show that the Queen is only human for the subtle purpose of sympathizing with her threatened position of isolated privilege? Or is it evidence of an unintended failure to make a bold republican statement? It’s hard to tell. At any rate, historical dramas – good ones – have a way of making a news item, or an entry in a chronicle, a much bigger deal than you remember. To me, it is an interesting experience as a filmgoer to see events from my youth pass into historical subject matter, as they do in The Queen.

The Good Shepherd: I’m not at all surprised that Eric Roth’s screenplay drifted in the flotsam of development hell for over a decade before Robert De Niro picked it up, because this is safe, old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. I never say that as a pejorative, so don’t take it as one. The Good Shepherd is a film replete with gripping moments that stay with you long after the credits roll; De Niro is a capable visionary, and Matt Damon’s performance carries the day. It does, however, encounter some serious and perhaps crippling problems. The first is the shallowness of its supporting characters, which is not, by all indications, the fault of the cast. As for its complexity, there comes a saturation point when the plot’s capacity to baffle is no longer, I suspect, solely due to the audience’s interpretive inadequacies. Most problematic is the movie’s willingness to reduce history (the failure of the Bay of Pigs, for instance) to a coincidental series of individual happenstances that all conveniently lie within the main character’s personal orbit. It’s fiction, of course, and I’ll buy it if it’s done within reasonable bounds of plausibility. I bought it in Forrest Gump, where it was more of a joke.

Children of Men: I used to go on and on about how Terry Gilliam would be a great choice to direct one of the Harry Potter films. Then Alfonso Cuaron came along and made what is far and away the best of the Potter movies, The Prisoner of Azakaban. In Children of Men, Cuaron enters the realm of dystopia, which is very firmly Gilliam territory (please refer to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, both of which I cherish). However, he does it quite differently. The film that Children of Men is closest to is, in many respects, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: there’s the same logistical marvel of extended tracking shots that immerse you in a gritty anarchistic spectacle, and the same backgrounding of man’s destruction, self-destruction and miraculous renewal to a secondary concern that occupies little to no exposition. This movie is sublime in virtually every aspect of filmmaking technique.

But like War of the Worlds, it’s not enough for this movie to be sublimely visceral when it has to present the argument that a few individuals’ struggle for survival is a microcosm for the salvation of all mankind. The former must happen before the end credits, and the latter almost certainly can’t (though we are meant to believe it eventually will). Does anyone remember Reign of Fire, where we were meant to believe a global infestation of fire-breathing dragons would just bugger off and leave us alone as soon as the main characters blew up a particularly important dragon? Children of Men comes dangerously close to doing just that.

Like most dystopic speculative fiction, the science of Children of Men – an unexplained eighteen-year cataclysm of global infertility, redressed by a miraculous and similarly unexplained birth – disappears into a corner and pleads for suspension of disbelief. We’re implicitly told that we are not to concern ourselves with scientific causes, but political effects. That’s okay by me, mostly because everybody else does it. And in many cases, perhaps no explanation is preferable to a bogus one. It’s a concern, yes, but a relatively minor one.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap that the Turkey City Lexicon calls “As You Know, Bob”: since there is no need for the characters to speak to each other at length about the state of the world, which they already know and take for granted, the story’s speculative history has to be presented by other means. Indirectly, we are given a state of affairs in 2027 where widescreen LCD panels are cheap and ubiquitous, but man has made no other discernible progress because everyone is too busy rioting in the streets and making life miserable for everybody else, given how the species is going kaput anyway.

Do we buy this? Can we accept the idea that a two-to-three-generation extinction warning is sufficient cause for the human species to go completely bonkers? Children of Men never attempts to establish a causal connection, but I think it does so implicitly: if there’s no model of cause and effect, there’s no reason to put the infertility problem, the oncoming global apocalypse and the nightmare of a fascist Britain in the same movie instead of three separate ones, one of which is entitled V for Vendetta.

The logic, as far as I can discern it, is that as soon as people realized the human race was doomed, they did one of two things: a) without any long-term obligations to the prolongment of the species, they could act out of immediate self-interest alone, which does not entail happiness, but rather, the seizure and consolidation of power; or b) they turned to the eschatalogical reassurances of religion, which inherently devalues our material existence and therefore condones the collapse of earthly societal order. This is my own interpretation, but Children of Men comes off as a film that is intelligent enough to be conscious of it, if only just.

What about Britain’s sudden turn to fascist isolation and its refusal to accommodate the refugee crisis of the end times? If the Nazis proved anything, it’s that no government is incapable of abruptly becoming unimaginably horrifying. There are no limits to the political plausibility of what a reign of terror will do. However, we are also asked to buy the notion that the far right is so preoccupied with stuffing illegal immigrants into cages that the survival of the species is nothing to them, and a refugee baby is no baby at all. Then again, when the palace guards have traded in their bushy hats for the pointy hoods of the KKK, this isn’t so far-fetched. Autocracies are not known for making plans for long-term sustainability.

I haven’t read the P.D. James book on which the film is based, The Children of Men, but I’m quite interested in what it has to say on the subject. Obviously, Cuaron’s film is equally informed by what I would begrudgingly call post-9/11 politics, and overtly so; the novel, published in 1992, is not.

Since I only saw the film a few hours ago, I can’t guarantee that any opinion I harbour will still be true in the morning. Naturally, I recommend it quite highly; it remains to be seen how much. The scope of imagination in the visual narrative outstrips that of the actual content, and I think this is primarily responsible for my ambivalence. Children of Men dismisses considerable avenues of exposition in favour of confining itself to the perspective of Clive Owen’s character, Theo; I at least appreciate that this is done consistently. Like Theo, we can very easily get too caught up in the frantic action – which is terrific, by the way – to concern ourselves with the details of how and why.

Does it all make sense? And if the movie does just enough to open up a universe of causal possibilities, but too little to explicitly commit to anything, does it matter?

You’ll recall that upstairs in my capsule gushing over The Fountain, I said it didn’t. With respect to Children of Men, I haven’t decided yet.

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Unresolved appoggiaturas (shaken, not stirred)

Friday, 1 December 2006 — 7:30pm | Capsule reviews, Film, Video games

A few disconnected notes from recent weeks:

Prior to last weekend’s Vanier Cup, the top prize in CIS “football”, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix ran an article on the players permanently affixed to the bench (“‘Redshirts’ key to Green and White”, 22 November 2006). I mention this primarily because they interviewed my elementary-school partner-in-crime Russell Webb, who is now at the end of a five-year career sitting on the bench for the Huskies, but also because I can’t help but notice that Star Trek terminology has entered the general lexicon.

Wikipedia tells me that the use of the term redshirt has a distinct etymology in the context of college sports, since red is a common scrimmage jersey colour, but I don’t buy that. I think that has at least been absorbed, if not superceded, by the more familiar meaning that refers to the junior ensigns on the Enterprise who serve as dutiful away-mission cannon-fodder.

Next: Cartoon Brew recently linked to a post on the five lamest Charlie Brown cartoons. #3 is a Cheerios commercial (and a link to a special about leukemia), and #5 is a Family Guy clip as uninspired as the rest of that show has been in recent seasons. They are new to me. Not only do I remember the other three, I own them. Yes, that includes the disco-fever Snoopy of It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. Hey, it was catchy at the time. In my defence, I would say that I do consider Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Come Home to be rather good; believe it or not, the melodrama works. (The latter is legendary in its own right for the “No Dogs Allowed” sign and accompanying jingle.)

Next: I am six dungeons into Twilight Princess, and at the gates of the seventh; naturally, this comes directly at the expense of my academic work (and so, for that matter, does the act of confessing that in writing). I am astounded by this game’s continued ability to surprise at every turn. You see a pit you cannot traverse, and you think you’re going to pick up some Hover Boots. Nope! You see a block of ice in your way, and you think you’re going to pick up a Fire Rod. Nope! The surprise, though, is that what you actually do obtain is a lot more fun. Aesthetically, I still prefer most of the enemy designs from The Wind Waker, but that’s neither here nor there. More on this some other time; I don’t expect I’ll be shutting up about Zelda anytime soon.

Next: While I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to current cinema, and while I have a lot of elaboration to do on all of the below (if only I had the time), I want to offer a few brief, undefended impressions. I’ve only seen each of these once, and opinions may change.

Death of a President: Technically and logistically interesting, but surprisingly tame. There is nothing controversial about this movie. Speculative history doesn’t work if you don’t take any risks. No, the assassination of George W. Bush is not, in itself, enough of a risk.

Babel: In recent years we’ve seen the popular emergence of ensemble films consisting of parallel stories connected only by thematic material and trifles of cause and effect. Traffic was nominated for Best Picture in 2000, and while I admired it, I found the actual parallel storylines to be weak in isolation. Crash won Best Picture in 2005, and while it was both engaging and fun, the thematic material was often much too overt and heavy-handed to make an effective statement on racism. I would argue that Babel is a better film than both of these, and perhaps the best film I’ve seen in this ensemble format, precisely because it is strong on both accounts. I will be returning to this movie, and unless I was fooled by first impressions, I think it should be a legitimate contender this year.

Flushed Away: To paraphrase a scene from the film – “amusing”, and by that, I mean “diverting”. There’s a lot of classic Aardman irony that begs to come out in this film, and a lot of their stop-motion character designs survive the translation to CG (watch the exaggerated mouth movements and how they sync with the dialogue). However, I think the pace of the action is often much too frantic, and it’s really quite inexcusable to have so much forgettable licensed music obscure the score by Harry Gregson-Williams, one of the most interesting film composers of the past decade and such an integral part of Chicken Run. I may come to think better of this film in time, but I do think that despite its strengths, it doesn’t distinguish itself from the Great CG Cesspool of 2006 as effectively as I’d hoped.

Borat: Occasionally hilarious in the tradition of “informed silliness” pioneered by the Monty Python troupe. That said, this movie runs into the same problem as Rowan Atkinson’s Bean did back in 1998: it fails to situate its disconnected sketches within a narrative good enough to justify its feature-length running time. The Pamela Anderson business simply doesn’t cut it, and I do wish it was there as more than just a middling excuse for a frame story. Also, in the odd moments when the jokes are misfires, there’s an awkward dead space in Cohen’s timing where laughter is supposed to be, and it’s very obvious. I speculate that the larger the audience you’re in, the less often you will see this happen.

Casino Royale: I can’t praise this film enough. I haven’t seen all twenty-one Bond films, but I am ready to declare this one the best. It is certainly the closest to the Ian Fleming ideal, and without a doubt, exactly the kind of Bond film I’ve wanted to see for years. As trepidatious as I was of the substitution of poker for baccarat, when the baccarat scenes in the book were probably the most electric card-playing passages I’ve read in any novel, the execution is superb. I may write a more thorough post on Casino Royale at some point, because there’s just so much to applaud.

Next: nationhood. Maybe. It’s an infuriating issue exacerbated by the wild stupidity in this country in the past few weeks. I know this blog is predominantly apolitical, unlike those of my compatriots in the immediate vicinity (Dan Arnold, for instance), but poke a sleeping dragon in the eye with sharp enough a stick and he’s bound to wake. Or, as J.K. Rowling would put it, draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

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I give the Old Republic a week to live

Wednesday, 11 May 2005 — 9:35am | Capsule reviews, Film, Star Wars

Gentle readership, I humbly apologize for the lengthy hiatus. Aside from the many worldly distractions and commitments that have impaired my ability to sit down and crank out a good post of late, there is another reason for my absence that should not go ignored: there has simply been too much to write about.

It all started – the descent into a state of non-posting, that is – with an attempt to give the Garth Jennings film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the absurdist discontinuity of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Phantom treatment – all the while geeking out about the obscure references to the BBC television series like the cameo by the original Marvin and the appearance of the “Journey of the Sorcerer” theme music with the introduction of the Guide, and singing the infectiously catchy “So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish” to the end of the earth (in about twelve minutes). By the way, AMPAS should realize by now that the Oscar for Original Song had better be kept under lock and key, because we have our first surely-should-win of the year, and I don’t imagine anything topping it. As for the rest of the experience, it was hit and miss, and for reasons that only erratically intersect with concerns for how close it was to Adams’ multiplicity of contradictory universes.

Before I was more than a paragraph into my scene-for-scene rant and roar, which I hoped would balloon into a critique as holistic as Dirk Gently’s detective agency, I had already thrust myself into yet another galaxy-spanning epic comedy of infinite philosophical resonance, only this one was twelve minutes long and sketched by Don Hertzfeldt. And that was only one highlight of many of The Animation Show 2005, which I wish I could spare the time to applaud in writing. Then there was Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow’s over-the-top martial arts fantasy – not as outright funny as Shaolin Soccer, but more ambitious, and successfully so. It is likely to remain the best superhero film to see release this year.

Opening last weekend was Kingdom of Heaven, a refreshingly sober gentle brushing of the dead horse that pretend-epics spent all last year beating, and with another keeper of a Harry Gregson-Williams score beneath it. It’s not as fun as Gladiator and does not have the pulpish charm that will preserve it as well, but stakes out its own position as a very different sort of beast – indeed, a tamer one, and a thinking man’s history.

As far as books go, those into children’s literature should spend these precious remaining pre-Half-Blood Prince days with Eoin Colfer’s fourth Artemis Fowl, The Opal Deception. I’ve always thought the Irish techno-thriller fairytale series was a pleasant diversion, but this one goes well beyond the call of duty and plays off everything that has come before it so thoroughly that should Colfer write a fifth volume, it’s unlikely he could spin a yarn quite as all-encompassing. Deception takes all three of its predecessors and uses every part of the buffalo. I’m still not over what a gut-busting action-packed romp it is, and it makes me wonder why so-called adult sections don’t get escapist spy stories this good. Tom Clancy’s making video games – no, video game sequels, Dan Brown’s off in his own little world publishing prosaic Cliff Notes to Umberto Eco’s obscure waxings on historical secret societies, and here we have a children’s writer from Wexford stomping all over their turf. One can only hope he keeps on stomping.

I do not enjoy capsule-summary judgments that say nothing of value aside from what one recommends seeing or reading and what one decidedly does not. I wish I had time to talk about every last detail of all the blossoms of storytelling springtime I mentioned. But no – there’s just too much.

And beyond that, I haven’t had time to think about them. No, everything is bent towards one upcoming story right now, one chapter in a grander story decades in the making that is finally on the verge of congelation. I think we all know what I’m talking about.

I’ve been going back and seeing all the existing movies over the course of the week, and already I have a laundry list of essays to get through once the last piece of the jigsaw is in place, dissertations I’ve been waiting for the chance to dissert for the better part of the last seven years. I want to talk about modern divergences between philosophical and scientific thinking, particularly with regards to determinism, and discuss them in the context of the collapse of the Jedi Order. I want to return to the age-old question of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s success or failure as a Jedi Knight and infer from it a model of causality that applies to the operation of the Force. I want to whip out my copy of The Hero With A Thousand Faces and see how the Lucasian approximation of Joseph Campbell’s formalization of the monomyth holds up to its specification. I want to evaluate and possibly reinforce my claim that Vader was not in the suit when Luke sets it afire. I want to look away to the future (never my mind on where I am, what I am doing) and close the book on the canonicity debate now that the circle is at last complete. I want to watch the saga I-II-III-IV-V-VI after I complete my current cycle of watching it IV-V-VI-I-II-III (which I will of course repeat for the sake of reliable experimentation) and see how the story unfolds empirically and inductively – then maybe try something unorthodox like IV-I-V-II-III-VI, which would actually make a lot of sense now that I think about it.

There is a very real possibility that for several months, this could undergo a full conversion to being a Star Wars blog. If you can navigate your way through this or this, you should be fine, but otherwise, I make no claims to comprehensibility. You have been warned.

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2004: Film in review

Thursday, 24 February 2005 — 11:45pm | Capsule reviews, Film

As was the case last year, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country, where “aid” consists of making sweeping recapitulative generalizations and comparative value judgments, and “country” refers to films classified as 2004 releases that caught my attention.

I will first begin with an identification of some of the major trends and overarching themes that characterized 2004 as a film year. Consider this an exercise in completing the sentence, “2004 was the year of…” – as in, “2001 was the year of preposterously explosive opening hype-driven weekends and precipitous second-week plummets,” or “2003 was the year of The Lord of the Rings and not much else.” So, 2004 was the year of the following:

The episodic bio-pic: This year saw a collective, synchronized movement to reduce the genre of the dramatized biography to a series of unfortunate events, to borrow a phrase. Initially there seems nothing wrong with this – after all, isn’t biography just the story of someone’s life? – but what separates a dramatization from a documentary is its engagement in the act of interpreting the life of its subject into a cohesive, selective narrative that makes decisions about what to focus on.

De-Lovely forgot about this and ended up being a lot of pretty pictures and good songs – great scenes, but not much of a movie. Ray fared considerably better, but it is a film that I would put on the shelf next to A Beautiful Mind, alphabetical considerations notwithstanding; both consist of visionary representations of their subjects’ talents and limitations, but fall victim to an episodic structure proceeding from event to event without an eye for priority. Superb filmmaking, yes, but with an asterisk. Alexander… well, we all know how that turned out.

The Aviator is a remarkable case study in that it, too, takes the conventional episodic approach complete with an abundance of title cards, but there is something to be said for the effect of title cards that read “Hell’s Angels, Year Two” and later, “Hell’s Angels, Year Four.” The events themselves are disconnected as we proceed from Howard Hughes, the filmmaker to Howard Hughes, the titular aviator to Howard Hughes, the openly obsessive-compulsive recluse – but what makes it all click is that everything feels like it lends itself to a consistent revelation of who he is, and who the film says he is.

It seems like the only high-profile bio-pic to break the one-event-after-another curse was Finding Neverland, which steers clear of being the Life and Times of J.M. Barrie and instead focuses on his relationship with a specific family and relatedly, a specific work of literature for which he is known.

The good sequel: I keep hearing people in both the critical community and the filmgoing public complain about what a bland year 2004 was. Well, for films that bodies like the Academy would actually consider awarding, that is to some extent true. But unless you are Francis Ford Coppola or Peter Jackson, you accept that sequels just don’t get a lot of recognition; justifiably so, most of the time, on the grounds that relative value judgments like awards, star ratings and Lettermanian decuples should generally offer a handicap for novelty.

This is a shame, as three of the very best films I saw in 2004 were, in one way or another, sequels. Spider-Man 2 is, hands-down, the best comic-book superhero movie I have ever seen (aside from The Incredibles, but that’s an equine of a different pigment). It’s smart, funny, and involving – and the fights are great. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was underage wizardry finally done right, and everyone from John Williams to Steve Kloves to Emma Watson churned out their finest work in the franchise. It only took them three tries, but as Alfonso Cuaron hadn’t stepped in yet, I guess the first two don’t count.

And then there’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – not a sequel so much as the quieter half of a deeply schizophrenic movie, where one half cannot exist without the other (at least, not very well), but the two are in so many ways completely different. On its own, Vol. 2 does not stand up, but it justifies the first part, which justifies it back in return. Taken as a whole – and at some point, I should like to see the two parts cut together – I consider Kill Bill a career-best for Quentin Tarantino.

The Mad Genius archetype: In no other year has the Incredibly Talented Crazy Person been treated with so much respect by so many films, each of which have something unique to say. There’s Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, who, unlike the Green Goblin, is a character and not just a bad guy on drugs. There’s the Phantom of the Opera in a little film curiously entitled The Phantom of the Opera, whose disfigurement and isolation drive him to a misdirected self-consciousness, a heartbreaking denial of the love he seeks, and a penchant for nooses. Then there’s Syndrome from The Incredibles, who fails to recognize the special ingenuity that resides within himself and applies it to weapons of mass destruction as if they were a necessary equalizer. We don’t see much of Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but in him we see the convergence of the man-machine dynamic.

The most thorough take on the Mad Genius was what Scorsese and DiCaprio did with Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but that is because after a very lengthy sit-through clocking in at almost three hours, one really comes to know the ins and outs of how a character is portrayed. We really do get a complete picture of the young Hughes, and the film says enough about him that I shall not repeat it here; go check it out for yourself.

Snow: Last week I watched the DVD restoration of the Vincente Minnelli classic Meet Me In St. Louis starring Judy Garland, which is a generally great movie with a major distraction – that being how in the Winter vignette, the snow is really, really, really fake. Considering that this is the film that gave us the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this is a big deal. But it does give us a sense of how far movie-snow has come in the past sixty years, and not just when it comes to how real it looks, as in the Caradhras sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring.

In 2004, snow wasn’t just real – it was beautiful. Some of the most memorable and downright gorgeous scenes of the year involved snow. The Phantom of the Opera spun high romance on the rooftops with little flakes of snow in “All I Ask Of You,” and then painted a breathtaking cemetary in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”; the latter was as perfect as perfect gets when it comes to staging an Andrew Lloyd Webber number, and I wouldn’t change a frame of it. The Prisoner of Azkaban not only harnessed snow to show off the Invisibility Cloak in a way we had not seen before, but squeezed a great scene out of it in Hogsmeade upon Harry’s discovery of the truth behind Sirius Black’s connection to the Potters. The Polar Express was an hour and a half of lush animated snow with a movie buried somewhere underneath. Perhaps the very best scene in Alexander is when an endless expanse of snow-capped mountains presents itself as something even Alex the Great could not surmount. And one would be remiss to neglect the signature shot in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of a couple lying on the frozen Charles River; which, I might add, I will have to try sometime.

If there were an Oscar for Best Snow, though, the clear winner would be House of Flying Daggers. It delivered the fluffiest, puffiest snow you can imagine, but more than that, it highlights the brutal emotional anguish of the finale; autumn turns to winter with a ferocious blizzard, and it captures a certain mythic poetry of a fight that lasts from one season to the next. This, my dear readers, is great snow. Andrew Adamson, take note: when Lucy wanders into the wardrobe and steps into Narnia next December, I want to see snow this lovely.

Now, without further ado, let us move on to the lists. As always, I find ranking movies in an enumerated fashion to be far too discriminating and always in flux, even as someone who is willing to call some movies better than others. So, in an effort to offer some compromise between relative appreciation and subjectivity, I will delineate films into tiers.

Instant classics built to last: For the past few years we have been spoiled with life-changing landmark films that will identify this decade in the history books and more importantly, have earned a permanent place in my heart as a total movie geek – The Lord of the Rings, for instance, or Finding Nemo. This year was lacking in masterpieces that would contend for positions in the upper echelons of my all-time favourites, but I did manage to identify two for which I harbour a boundless love: The Incredibles and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Must-sees both, and the best films of 2004.

Reservations are negligible at most: These are movies I enjoyed and will probably continue to treasure once I have them on high-quality DVD, if I don’t already, and can watch them over and over again. You should watch them too, and stand in awe of what they achieved. I had an absolute blast with Spider-Man 2, A Very Long Engagement, House of Flying Daggers, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Garden State, and I remain in awe of how good they are. They are in plentiful company, but good company.

In my opinion, terrific: The following have certain properties that make them open for some very valid criticisms in the eyes of their occasional detractors, but on balance, those alleged flaws either did not detract from the piece on the whole or did not appear for me at all, and what I saw was an astoundingly good movie. They are The Aviator, The Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby and Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

The ones that didn’t make the above: Funny how when you start naming a bunch of films at once, it doesn’t feel like such a bad year after all. Nevertheless, I feel it necessary to artificially extend this discussion so Steven Spielberg doesn’t get left out, and mention that I saw a lot of films in the past year that demonstrated some very skillful movie magic at work, though ultimately, I do not consider them to be what I expect I will remember most about 2004. There’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – stupendous fun from beginning to end, but in the end just a diversion; Ray, a marvelous but sometimes unfocused achievement that I assessed in the above discussion of episodic bio-pics; The Terminal, because even when Spielberg tries to be as standard and mainstream as possible, he does a good job of it; The Passion of the Christ, which is so commendably good at hurting the audience that I never want to see it again; and Finding Neverland, which legitimately earned its Best Picture nomination but is really nothing revolutionary.

And now, for the ancillary mentions:

Worst film I paid to see: In retrospect, I let The Punisher off easy. Aside from the origin-story killings that set the plot in motion and a good performance in a sea of dreck on the part of Thomas Jane, there is nothing about it that I can recommend. On the upside, maybe it’s setting itself up for a Most Improved Sequel prize a few years down the road, which Marvel has a knack for doing.

Most Improved Sequel: Spider-Man 2.

The Holdover Prize: This is awarded to a film from recent years that I did not or could not see until this year, and I give it to 2002’s Hero. Miramax finally got its act together, and in spite of the extraneous prologue and epilogue text that was tacked on for the North American release, we got to see what I think will be remembered as a true wuxia classic.

I don’t get it: I have a feeling that I will fall in love with Sideways when I am forty and divorced. Right now, I am neither, and while I found it to be a highly enjoyable and smartly-written character comedy, I am befuddled at how the vast majority of critics in professional circles have stopped just short of calling it the Second Coming. Most overrated by the general public, as reflected by box office returns, was Shrek 2. Cute, funny, and full of visual gags, but the first one was so much more than that.

Nobody else got it: Well, most of the lay-audiences I have spoken to got it, but it would be hypocritical of me to cite them now when most of the time, I let them eat cake. That said, The Phantom of the Opera was clearly the most underrated movie of the year, and it continues to astound me how so many others decided to pick on it at once. Having read most of the negative reviews in an attempt to understand where the detractors are coming from, I have come to the conclusion that they either have no affinity for the music (a sentiment with which I absolutely cannot empathize) or like the musical, but want Michael Crawford to reprise a role he played on stage fifteen years ago.

It could have been a contender: I desperately wanted both Alexander and De-Lovely to be among the best times I have ever had at the cinema. As it turned out, I was asking for a bit much, and instead of great movies I got a bunch of great scenes scattered about here and there. A ho-hum expedition like Hidalgo can fizzle out like it did and be excused and forgotten, Troy can be evaluated with severely lowered standards and dismissed with a “What did you expect? Besides, the fights were great,” but Alexander… what a shame.

There you have it, folks. Still to come, time willing, is a pre-Oscars assessment of this year’s nominations, what they mean, where they went horribly wrong, and where they will in all likelihood go horribly wrong when the awards are announced on Sunday. Then it is time to pull out the calendar and start booking off weekends for the major releases of 2005, and by golly, they’re numerous. Somewhere in between I may even sneak in a Constantine review, but I make no promises.

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