Blown Out of Proportion — The Dark Knight Rises

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences.  And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it.  Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably.  The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled.  It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.

Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing.  He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action.  It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should.  Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.

Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing?  ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision.  Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.”  This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it.  We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters.  Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.

The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode.  There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to.  Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again.  Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.

Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film.  First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman?  In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing.  Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake.  Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good.  But this should have been a grand climax to this film.  It is not so here.  The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version.  And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.

Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question.  Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments.  Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons.  Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun.  In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal.  This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder.  Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.

And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again.  It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist.  It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do.  A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here.  I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work.  And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest  as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds.  It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat.  Not a lot, but a little.  And a little is all it takes sometimes.  As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements.  All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.

In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment.  The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur.  This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.

In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre.  And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes.  But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.

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War Horse

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Before going to see ‘War Horse’ with my family on Christmas Day, I caught a glimpse of Christopher Kelly’s review, which described the film as a “magnificently mounted, yet utterly soulless shell of a movie.”  I was intrigued by the idea that this could potentially be one of Steven Spielberg’s rare blunders in filmmaking (he has made a couple.)  I attempted to watch the film with the mindset that I was viewing an inherently bad one.  I critiqued every potential flaw, every plot hole; I questioned the films credibility; I tried my hardest to see the film as having no emotional weight and being truly “soulless,” as Christopher Kelly put it.  However, despite my best efforts to see this as a bad film, I failed.  ‘War Horse’ is many things, but poor filmmaking it is not.

‘War Horse’ is not “soulless”; it is conventional, however.  It seems pieced together from a wealth of other films.  Countless animal pictures, including ‘Lassie’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘International Velvet’ are channeled during the first half hour as a boy befriends a colt, Joey, in pre-World War I England.  Later, as the horse is sold to the British army and makes an incredible journey through the war, a thousand different war films — not the least of which is Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — will seem to pass on the screen as well.  Furthermore, at no point during the film does Spielberg pull any fast ones — the story that the audience, from countless experiences at the movies, believes will happen does indeed unfold, albeit in a very beautiful way.

So yes, the film does rely on conventions, but that’s not necessarily bad. Writer/actor Harold Ramis once mused that conventions and clichés were essentially the same thing, conventions were simply done well; and that’s certainly true of this film.  There is a reason conventions exist — they do tend to work — and Spielberg does not abuse them here.  Rather, he executes them well, molding them into a story that feels organic and strong.

Simply put, this film is incredibly well put together and shows more genuine heart than I’ve seen in a while.  A lot of that has to do with the characters.  As the horse travels from new owner to new owner during the course of the war — the core piece of the film — Spielberg balances a plethora of roles without cheating any principal character of their humanity.  British and German, civilians and soldiers, parents and children, young and old; Spielberg makes them all feel real.  No one seems like a caricature, and certainly none a stereotype.  A scene of a British soldier working with a German to free the horse from barbed wire shows beautifully the complexity and sympathy he has given to each character; it’s consequently one of the best and most powerful film scenes of recent memory.

I would especially like to point out the outstanding performance of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from this year’s ‘Thor’), in the role of a British captain.  During his brief screen time, he exudes so much emotion and depth that he deserves at least a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s one minor complaint I would levy against the film in terms of its characters, though, it is that there are so many that no one really gets an adequate amount of screen time.  However, I think that is ultimately a good problem for the film to have — we like these characters enough to want to see more of them, and that is a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling.  Perhaps an extended version down the road will rectify this.
Lastly, I commend the performance of the true star of this picture, the horse himself.  From subtle gestures to gallops and leaps, Joey is an incredibly well-trained animal, and his personality in the film shines through brilliantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much for an on-screen creature.

In closing, ‘War Horse’ is a film you’ve already seen, but it’s told so well you’ll want to see it again anyways.  Spielberg has proven once again that what matters most in filmmaking is passion and heart, and that certainly bleeds through here.
One final note on conventions: In these modern of times of art and individuality, a lot of us live under a myth that to be conventional is to be unambitious.  To be conventional, is to sell out.  To be conventional is to create something fleeting and shallow.  And that does happen… sometimes.  But if Spielberg hadn’t been willing to be conventional, he never would have made ‘War Horse’.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

The Tree of Life

Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream.  It is not for amateurs.

Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity.  On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours.  On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer.  Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.

Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art.  A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere.  This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak.  There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’.  Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.

The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole.  The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer.  We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories.  The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action.  It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us.   The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length.  Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question.  These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish.  To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea.  Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.

If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition.  They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography.  This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.

Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions.  That is, after all, the entire point behind it.  I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience.  The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity.  This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes.  It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust.  Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.

As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this.  To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain.  Steak is not for babies.  You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal.  It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying.  There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.

In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion.  It is almost guaranteed to surprise you.  It will, one way or another, move you.

Classic Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Summary:  A superb adaptation, the most suitable cinematic echo of Tolkien’s immutable trilogy, and one of the greatest epics ever put to film.

Review: In setting out to review Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s supreme fantasy epic, I’m forced to consider the three films in their entirety (i.e. the extended editions) and as one work, because unlike other famous trilogies such as, say, ‘Star Wars’, the studio didn’t wait to pursue a sequel after a successful first installment — it was a single gamble from the beginning, and divided only by marketing and logistical necessity, as with the source material.

But to tackle such a monumental work, something that is so inseparable from my personal development, a little biographical reflection is necessary.

Tolkien first captured my imagination when I was about 9 years old, as I read his playful ‘The Hobbit’, the witty, straightforward adventure that serves as the prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  As anticipation built for the upcoming film trilogy, I absorbed the giddy excitement of my friends through osmosis, and plunged into the thick prose of the greater work with gusto.  I came out the other side somewhat changed, in ways I of course can only now appreciate.  Being an imaginative boy, I had always loved fantasy, but Tolkien’s lengendarium was different — it had substance, having in fact less in common with strict fantasy than history.  What Middle-Earth lacked in physical reality in made up for in spiritual truth — both in the religious sense and the broader rational sense.  I would never touch The Shire, but it was nevertheless solid to me.

When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ hit theaters, I was simply too young to handle the emotional intensity of it, and so I had to rely on the secondhand experience of my older brother, my parents, and my friends.  To me, it was like hearing from people who had visited Middle-Earth, and could describe it as fresh observers.  I relived the book, again, from the perspective of a witness.

A habit of mine at the time was to stay up way too late and wait for the creative part of my brain, perhaps in want of the dream-state, to be released.  Then I would write, draw, and imagine with the freedom only a child can possess.  As if I needed any more motivation, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its two forms, literary and witnessed, inspired a new burst of creativity, as I intuitively sought to capture the emotions of reading the novels, the anticipation of revisiting the world in a new way, hearing about it from friends, and finally seeing it.  To the point, Jackson wasn’t just adapting the story I loved, he was adapting me — into a filmmaker.

My fate was sealed when ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released on DVD.  The experience was everything I wanted, and more.  It was actually not as though the filmmakers had reached into my imagination and created my vision of Middle-Earth — the dissonance, in fact, made it more profound.  The emotional intensity was great, but my absorption into the world was complete, and I believed once again.  A great film is like a stage magic act — you know that somehow the artist has fabricated what you are seeing, but the method escapes your notice, and the thrill of magic, the mystery of it, appears.  The magician is at the top of his form when you most want to be like him.  The best thing a magician or a filmmaker can win is not applause, nor critical adulation, nor an apostle, but an apprentice.

The second most beautiful thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films is that the filmmakers never compromise on the level of graphic detail that is present in the source material.  The plot is highly condensed, and with good reason; Tolkien’s dense, meandering prose is impossible to translate beat-for-beat to cinema.  What works for an invented history does not work for narrative film, even one that stretches 726 minutes.  The story itself survives.  Filmmakers should always understand story in the sense of a retelling, as if you had to explain everything that really mattered in a short amount of time.  Proper film craft stresses  economy and emotion.  When the key emotions are tied up in how real the world feels, it takes a special effort to achieve immersion.  Here Tolkien’s description and the filmmakers’ production design synchronize; the visuals suggest all the depth of history that Jackson never has a chance to share with us.

By far the best quality of the trilogy is the cast.  Their chemistry is fantastic.  Not a single actor is miscast.  It’s clear from the extensive behind-the-scenes material that they grew into a family.  There’s not a relationship, scene, or line that feels wrong.  If life did not so directly compliment the art, these films would not work.  There’s no such thing as a flawless film, only a film you can’t quit.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is highly addictive.  Like the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the people give this production, which could have easily collapsed under its own weight, such soul that the story transcends standard cinematic storytelling.  In this way, its emotional detail alone equals the historical detail of the novels.  You couldn’t hope for a better adaptation.

Considering the films as a single experience, it becomes much more difficult to criticize the weaker sections of the narrative, in particular the ending.  In the theater, I did not begrudge Jackson’s decision to follow Tolkien to the Grey Havens.  Later on, as other viewers complained that it was too long and perhaps too sad, I flipped over.  Now I’ve flopped back.  I understand why the long ending is the right one.  After all the darkness and despair, to transform the final section of the film into a potion of joy through a veil of sadness  — well, I think it’s obvious that it’s poetry.  Heck, the ending is kind of short in the proper perspective.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the ‘Star Wars’ of my generation, because obviously the ill-conceived prequels were not.  All things considered, I’m pretty happy with that.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pushed filmmaking craft forward in all the right ways, with a timeless story at its core, and it is undoubtedly a classic, one epic to rule them all.

Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.

Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Highly underrated, but a sure-fire masterpiece of a Western.

Review:  At some point in the latter half of the 90’s, I remember flipping through channels on the television before landing on Turner Classic Movies.  I didn’t know the movie they were showing, but I could tell by the dress and terrain that it had to be a Western.  As it happened, I had come in on one of the greatest Western finales ever shot.  The driving music, the stark imagery, the shootout (the Western climax is always a shootout, it seems).  As a child no older than eight, I was amazed and speechless.  Afterword I ran upstairs to my father, who I knew liked Westerns, and, describing the scene best I could, asked him what the name of the movie was.  He told me it was ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’.  As it turns out, he missed the mark but hit the tree.

The movie I saw that day was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the last “real” Western from the man behind the famous ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ was the final installment.  I have to give my Dad credit for being close given my description as an inarticulate child.  Certainly, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ bears many of Leone’s spaghetti western trademarks (epic showdowns, nameless anti-heroes, operatic music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and gritty violence).  And yet, looking a littler deeper, this film is actually a horse of a much different color.

The fundamental difference between ‘West’ and Leone’s earlier films is that, where as the ‘Dollars’ trilogy was a bit quirky and slightly ridiculous (a tone that works well for those movies, mind you) ‘West’ goes for a grander, dramatic approach.  It’s very serious in a way Leone’s prior films hadn’t been.  The story is as dark as any Western has ever been, a dark tale of greed, murder, and revenge; and yet it also celebrates the vibrancy, grandeur, and surprising complexity of the American West and its people.  The West was, in many ways, the last “final frontier” for civilization.  It was an untamed land, filled with danger and peril, and devoid of law and order.  On the other hand it was a rugged and pure place, devoid of the corruptions of the modern world.  One of the films themes, the coming of the railroad and thus, civilization, shows beautifully this conflict and tradeoff between the arrival of civilized-order and the loss of wild-innocence.

This theme of the dying west dovetails strangely well with the change in the Western film industry at the time of the film’s 1968 release.  Up to that point, Westerns had been relative juggernauts, both on television and film, despite their lack of historical accuracy and often-insensitive depictions of Native Americans and Mexicans.  By the late sixties, an increase in ethno-history, civil rights, and historical accuracy had begun to take their toll on the Classic Western’s credibility.  By the seventies, classic television Westerns went off the air, and Revisionist Westerns pictures, much more somber and realistic, were taking precedent at the box office.  These new approaches were intriguing and involving, and many of these Revisionist Westerns are outstanding films.  However, they do lack the pure, undiluted spirit of the earlier films.  In the West as well as in Western Films, a simple and pure world was traded for something less straightforward and less innocent.

Back to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, this film is one of the last to celebrate the Classic Western style, ironically directed by a man who was accused of ruining it with his earlier works.  The key to the Classic Western was the central theme of men, lone warriors, standing against something larger than themselves, the vast, untamed West.  Westerns are about the enduring human spirit against danger and evil.  ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’‘s multi-layered tale of a stranger seeking retribution, a cold-blooded killer, an outlaw framed for murder, and a widow caught in the crossfire shows the many ways this spirit is tested and eventually overcomes.  Thematically, this is one of the most powerful films, let alone Westerns, ever filmed.

In addition to the story, the actors in this film are just plain awesome, as is the music.  Henry Fonda as the film’s villain was a surprisingly brilliant casting choice, as was Jason Robards (a very under-appreciated actor) as a bandit with a heart of gold.  Charles Bronson adopts a role similar to the Man With No Name as a nameless, driven gunfighter, and he pulls it off well.  Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress not too well-known in the States, delivers an especially moving performance as Jill, a widow who finds herself at the forefront of the film’s bloody tale.

Ennio Morricone has always been one of the best film composers ever, and, in no exaggeration, this is his best film score. His combination of electric guitars, harmonicas, operatic screaming and classical orchestration has never sounded more perfect than in this film. His ability to move from delicacy to driving power is nothing short of amazing. This score, worth owning independent of the film, is truly a masterpiece and adds brilliantly to this already stellar film.

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s combination of story, acting, music, and style make it one of the best Westerns ever made and a wonderfully cathartic piece of story-telling. Though initially overlooked when first released, this film has grabbed people’s attention overtime, much the way it did for me as a child, and it is now revered as a classic. It’s worth watching for anyone who claims to be a fan of Westerns. I’m so very glad I was watching television that day…