November 30, 2010

#50: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

"The world is changed. I feel it in the air."

Nothing much hasn't been said about Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy that won seventeen Oscars total at the beginning of the last decade, so trust that probably nothing you read here will be all that insightful. (I don't know how often I'll be able to use that disclaimer here in good conscience, knowing that the top half of this list will probably be even better movies than the bottom half.) Nonetheless, I'm growing up in a generation that has these three films to thank for our incredibly high moviegoing standards. And I have to at least try.

(PS: perfect movie day conditions [cold snowy day] plus nothing to do all day plus roommate skipping work equals ... we ended up watching all three. We were in it to win it. AND really, isn't this movie on the list, the newest of the 100, as a placeholder for the entire trilogy? It is.)

Company: Stephanie, Tolkien loyalist and film-score-singer-alonger; Kecia, does a perfect ringwraith screech

Cuisine: as it was the day after Thanksgiving, we had a smorgasbord of leftovers -- scrambled eggs with roast chicken, proscuitto and green peppers; Gruyere au gratin; toast; coffee; and homemade pumpkin cheesecake near the end.

J.R.R. Tolkien's trio of novels is really one story spread out into three books to prevent broken backs, and the three films were similarly split, although the films make a much more linear narrative than the books do, and the books encompass a different set of events than the films do. But I'm not critiquing the books: this is a movie blog, and I haven't read the books (Stephanie tried but hasn't finished). This film begins with a prologue, narrated by Galadriel the elf (Cate Blanchett), chronicling the creation of the rings of power, and the One Ring To Rule Them All. In the first few minutes, we're treated to a taste of the computer-generated imagery that the entire trilogy will showcase, in the battle at the foot of Mount Doom. The camera sweeps over an impossible number of elves and men fighting Orcs and Sauron, and your breath is taken away. And it won't come back for several hours.

Flash forward several hundred years to the shire...

... and the ring falls from hobbit to tinier hobbit, who inherits the task of its destruction. Frodo (Elijah Wood, only 18 during this filming!) and three pals (Sean Astin, who should have been at least nominated for his work in Return of the King, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) unwittingly begin an incredible journey that takes them everywhere we can imagine, and hunted by freaky Dementor types.

But of course, the drama is heightened by Frodo's inability to keep his shit together. It'd be one thing if he just had to carry the damn thing to Mount Doom and avoid getting stabbed or tortured, but that ring! It has a mind of its own! And it wants to be found.

When taken alone, Fellowship still stands alone as a remarkable feat of storytelling, but my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, in which a frightened villager takes refuge in a very vulnerable spot while the ringwraiths speed past him, with only one goal in mind. I love the efficiency of the shot, and the way it encompasses so clearly the entire feeling of the first film: regular people involved in and terrified by a conflict they have no way of fully understanding. The whole world to our eyes seems magical but I think the Shire really represents ordinary folk, and that hobbits are regularly peaceful creatures who don't belong in such a violent world. It's not in their nature.

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

The complicated politics involved in keeping Frodo and the ring safe from Sauron run deep, surely simplified in the film version, but Frodo, our tiny hero, agrees to take the ring to Mount Doom, even after facing many dangers so far. He feels as though the task has fallen to him, but in this scene at Rivendell, it seems that no one else can agree on who should take it, or perhaps that everyone else knows to be afraid. Frodo, on the other hand, is just innocent and ignorant enough to take responsibility from his much more eligible friends and embark on a journey that will last him several more months, and us several more hours.

And several more thrills. Creepy cave monsters abound in movies nowadays, but few as humongous and terrifying as the Balrog, which Gandalf (Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, the only performance from the trilogy to be so honored) famously slays but in doing so falls to his death. It occurred to me on this viewing that when he lets go of the bridge ("Fly, you fools!") that perhaps Gandalf the Grey had the foresight to know that he would be brought back to life as the more powerful Gandalf the White. I don't know if I necessarily believe that, but this time around I thought, "whatever, he could have pulled himself up ... or magicked himself outta there."

This battle with the Balrog seems so final -- in any other movie it might have been the end -- but Fellowship, I had forgotten, has about an hour left after this. I don't know if I felt like the rest of the film was a letdown, but it's hard to top that bridge duel. But we've got a lot more story to pack in before the film's end, inevitably leading to Two Towers (which does not stand alone as well) and the finale, Return of the King (which does). The Fellowship visits the elves, paddles down the river, battles with Uruk-hai, loses a member (Boromir) and parts ways, leading to the next film's need to tell three separate stories (Frodo and Sam encountering and travelling with Gollum; Merry and Pippin's escape into Fangorn Forest and befriending Treebeard; and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas anticipating and finally leading the battle at Helm's Deep). If the middle section drags, it's not the fault of the other two films, but ultimately it does what it needs to do -- tell the story.

The Lord of the Rings ushered in a new era of CGI, certainly, but also told an immensely complex story to fans and newbies alike without alienating too many. You can't please everyone, but you can sure as hell try, and I'm very glad Peter Jackson and his crew made a valiant and commendable effort. We're not likely to see this trilogy's equal any time soon.

Next up: from the newest to the oldest. 1917's silent epic Intolerance.

November 3, 2010

Cine-Smackdown: #51-#60

The fifth cine-smackdown, chumps! Half-way done, and feelin' fine. Now that the weather's cooling off, I'm seeing frequent moviegoing, movieblogging and movieloving in my future.

51. West Side Story
52. Taxi Driver
The Deer Hunter
54. M*A*S*H

North by Northwest
The Gold Rush
60. Duck Soup

I had not seen M*A*S*H, Rocky or The Gold Rush previous to the blog. Sometimes I think I like to see movies that are new to me more, but it's still fun to revisit the classics.

Of these ten, which would I move further up the list?
It might just be my penchant for lightness right now, but I'm thinking Duck Soup just now. At only 68 minutes, it doesn't have much not to recommend, and doesn't veer off the path too much to stir up much complaint from me. For some of the same reasons, The Gold Rush is probably my second choice.

Of these ten, which would I get rid of?
It might have to be M*A*S*H: there are other films that deal with war more effectively, even comically (see the upcoming Dr. Strangelove), and other Altman films I prefer to this one (Nashville is one, The Player is another that didn't make the list). While I understand its place in American cinema, it just doesn't have as much to recommend it for me as the others here.

Who in these movies do I want as my best friend?
Michael from The Deer Hunter maybe. He goes all the way back to his worst nightmare just to save his friend Nick from roulette doom. Or maybe the Little Fellow from The Gold Rush. He's not super resourceful or helpful (at least, on purpose) but we'd probably have a few laughs after I snapped out of my hunger coma.

Who in these movies do I want to have my back in a bar fight?
Um... duh. Rocky. He's not gonna back down when Apollo Creed comes after me! Also, maybe Eve Kendall (North by Northwest): she's tricky and could probably entice the enemy into giving up.

Who in these movies is your worst frienemy?
Anita (West Side Story): way to betray me just because my boyfriend killed your boyfriend! Or the crazy guy from Jaws. Let's go nowhere near that guy. Or those bitches who blow off Charlie Chaplin for his awesome New Year's dinner-party-stravaganza in The Gold Rush. The Plastics of the 20s.

Who do I take home to Mom?
My mom looks a whole lot like Margaret Dumont from Duck Soup, so my first instinct is to bring home the men of Freedonia, but something tells me I'd just end up with a leg in my hand and my hat on fire. I'd probably have to say the Little Fellow again! That bread roll ballet! My mom would love that.

You're going on a date with these movies. Who do you agree to meet for coffee but never call again?
Rocky. You're all right but I'm not crazy about boxing. Although I admire your stamina.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then say you'll call but never do?
Taxi Driver: you're hot but way too mysterious for me. I like there to be a little less mystery in my romance, and that Herrmann theme is pressing all the wrong buttons ... or are they the right buttons? Whatever.

Who do you agree to meet for coffee, and then not show up?
M*A*S*H: somehow I think Hot Lips has it out for me.

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and makes you breakfast in the morning?
Tony (West Side Story) is not only a good singer, but is also Polish: he might have a good pierogi recipe. Be still my heart!

Who do you meet for a first date, ends up staying the night and then leaves in the morning without saying goodbye ... and steals your favorite sweater?
Iris (Taxi Driver): can I really blame her? She's only 12, and she's had a rough life. Someone should really go try to save her from a life of prostitution.

What other questions would you have asked about these movies? I'd love more ideas! Leave your thoughts, reactions, passionate defenses and harsh critiques in the comments!

#51: West Side Story

"There's a place for us ... somewhere, a place for us..."

West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. The stage show, not the movie. Ten years ago I was in a production of the Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins musical in my hometown with two of my dearest friends (both of whom were here tonight) and it was an amazing experience, not in small part due to the incredible story (that source material ain't shabby) and music. To a lesser extent, the film version strikes a chord, and although it is outdated in many ways, it still remains an incredible example of a musical story transferred to the screen.

Company: Kecia, known as Rosa (a Shark) in that production; Ali, known as Consuela (also a Shark); Sheena, Sondheim fan; Katie, wants to dance like that (don't we all); and Matt, Katie's berfrend who showed up in the middle

Cuisine: We went all out! The roomie was in her element here as she cooked up a film-appropriate feast:

first, chicken and black bean empanadas (for the Puerto Rican faction) ...

... followed by New York-style pizza, one veggie ...

... and one margherita. I have not eaten this well for any movie so far (except maybe Cabaret, damn those fish were tasty! What is it about musicals that make me want to eat extravagantly?) and it left me full for several days.

Onto the movie! West Side Story won ten Oscars in 1961, nominated in nearly every category it was eligible (notably, and appropriately, not in the leading actor categories, as Richard Beymer [Tony] and Natalie Wood [Maria] did none of their own singing) and still stands as a major achievement in the history of the movie musical. Telling the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in present-day New York amongst warring immigrants is ballsy, but composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim (a baby!) and choreographer Jerome Robbins created a masterpiece that, while somewhat dated, still rings true and presents the most consistently masterful score, with tunes like "Somewhere," "America," "Maria," "Tonight," and "Mambo."

What's still groundbreaking about the musical is its brilliant musical storytelling. The entire prologue is without words, and yet we are told an entire story through song and dance (but mostly song). So many musicals written now forget to, or can't manage to, weave a musical narrative, but West Side Story is a textbook example of blending story with song.

I always thought the screen version felt long, and at two and a half hours it does start to drag. The musical numbers were rearranged slightly to lessen this problem, but it slows nevertheless. That is not as much of a problem for me as what wasn't really an issue then but what's glaringly apparent now: the cultural casting of the Sharks and the Jets. Natalie Wood (Maria) is a Russian American woman playing Puerto Rican, and George Chakiris (Bernardo) is Greek, and while it's perhaps only a technicality, it does interrupt a story that's mostly about relations between two warring factions. Partially as a result of this, Natalie Wood's performance as Maria suffers from lack of believability. Add to that that Marni Nixon dubbed all her singing and she's very easily forgotten. The performance is bland.

But what you remember about her and Richard Beymer (as Tony) is not their acting, and certainly not their chemistry, which Robbins and co-director Robert Wise try to inflate with directorial flourish. It's a love story, folks: we need to believe these two are in love, and we need to care deeply. Richard Beymer (also dubbed but at least ethnically appropriate, although just as tan as many of the "Sharks") has the range of a styrofoam cup.

Perhaps these two lead performers are doomed to walk in the shadow of the much showier supporting roles, Anita and Bernardo (Oscar winners Rita Moreno and Chakiris, respectively). At least they do their own singing.

Casting and the out-of-date vernacular aside, we're left with a gorgeously romantic epic about forbidden love that's clearly told with visual panache. Most of the numbers transfer very well to the screen (the Mambo at the gym is one of the most exciting dance sequences in cinema, and "Gee Office Krupke" is great fun), while others suffer from cinematic treatment (the quintet that ends Act One fails to find a way to cinematically represent all five points of view at once, something that's comparatively simple onstage).

Where the film enhances the source material is through Wise's and Robbin's direction. I particularly love this shot, after Bernardo and Riff lie dead and abandoned after the Rumble under a red overpass, as though the city and their surroundings have finally gotten the best of these arrogant young kids constantly toying with death. If there's any blood on the ground, we can't see it, but the image is bold and haunting.

My other favorite shot is this one, from "Somewhere," the hopeful if not altogether convinced number in which Tony and Maria affirm "a place for us" that exists outside their realm of knowledge. The stark colors behind them, as well as the lighting on the actors faces, suggests doom: sometimes, it truly is black and white, and gray doesn't stand a chance. The directors know it, the audience knows it; only Tony and Maria are still wishing against wish that the colors can be blended, that they can be together.

I just had to include this shot. Air!

West Side Story broke new barriers for musical theater, and is still a gold standard by which other musicals today are judged (amazingly, it won the Tony for Best Musical in its year to the safer The Music Man). The film adaptation is a classic in its own right but is not without its problems. I don't think this is an invitation for a remake, but I wouldn't rule it out, folks. Hollywood goes that way.

Now. I must take a moment to recognize that with the publishing of this entry, my blog is half-way finished. Only took me ten months! Yes, it's going slower than I expected, but slow and steady wins the race, my little chicklets. A cine-smackdown, and then onto the newest film on the list: the first entry in Peter Jackson's visionary saga The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.