I haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien
‘s classic fantasy saga. I tried actually, but after ten pages of painstakingly detailed description of Hobbits doing Hobbit stuff, I just quit. Having now seen the first of three movies adapting “The Lord of the Rings”, I kick myself for not having stuck with it. Then again, I might not have been as amazed by what unfolded on that giant screen. As directed by Peter Jackson
, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the kind of experience you wish for every time you go to the movies. Right from the opening prologue, which brings virgins like myself up to date on the basic elements of the story, the film is fascinating. Sitting among a sold out screening, I gradually zoned out from my surroundings and emerged in Middle-Earth, witnessing the creation of Dark Lord Sauron’s rings, which he divides among elves, dwarves and men, maybe to make up for being, well, a Dark Lord. But surprise surprise, turns out this is only another devious trick from Sauron, who’s also crafted another ring out of all his might and evil, “one ring to rule them all”. He’s soon embarked on a war to take over Middle-Earth but against all hope, one man throws his all into battle and manages to destroy Sauron. Or so it seems.
Flash forward to centuries later, as the little dudes of Hobbiton are preparing to celebrate the 111th birthday of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Among the guests is his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a powerful but rather down-to-earth wizard who likes to smoke a little weed and to mess around with fireworks. These early scenes are a treat, some quiet and fun before the sinister events depicted in the introduction cast their shadows into the present. I liked the way Bilbo and Gandalf quickly felt like real persons and how they related to each other, and what felt tedious on paper now seems natural and stimulating. Through a handful of little moments, we get an understanding of who Hobbits are and how they live, and we accept them as an existing species in this world. This is one of the most startling things in the film, how it often doesn’t feel like fantasy as much as a historical drama, so richly detailed everything is.
The festivities end abruptly when Bilbo slips on a mysterious ring and disappears, to his guests’ shock. Gandalf finds this strange, so he forces his buddy, who is about to leave town, to leave his ring in the care of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) while he does some research. And thus Gandalf realises that he’s been in the presence of the supposedly mythical yet ever feared ring of Sauron, and his unholy armies have already sensed its reawakening. And so they get riding to its pursuit, set to get it back to their master. Gandalf hurries back to poor Frodo, and together with a Fellowship overcoming racial barriers, they embark on a quest to destroy this ring which no one could behold without being corrupted by its infinite power. But, having been made in the fire of Mount Doom, “only there can it be unmade”, hence the Fellowship will have to venture through forests, rivers, mountains, fields, caves, snow and more, all while fighting back attack after attack from various deadly foes.
As stated, I’m not familiar with the source material, so the film kept surprising me. I heard about how imaginative it was, but I didn’t know it was so ruthless. This isn’t a fairy tale: characters can and will die, failure always seems imminent, and a nameless dread inhabits every other frame. It’s a wonder the Fellowship manages to survive and that they keep going. I aren’t sure whether they’re admirable heroes or desperate fools who can’t accept that they’re bound for a horrible fate. Maybe it’s a little of both, with Frodo, specially. He doesn’t say much, but you can feel what a burden having been entrusted as the bearer of the ring is for him, 4 foot tall, barefoot, innocent and inexperienced Hobbit that he is. Elijah Wood is great in the role; you can see all the vulnerability and the fear but also the purity and the courage in the world in those big blue eyes.
The 8 other members of the fellowship are also portrayed memorably. As Gandalf, McKellen is as intense as it gets, appearing threatening, but also warm and friendly when it’s befitting. Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn, the mortal human royal heir who lost faith in his potential as a ruler, is great. He’s pretty much our badass hero, but he’s a rather unlikely one, all rogue and brooding. Though he does have a few sweet moments with Liv Tyler, playing a beautiful Elvish princess or something whose love motivates him. Sean Bean‘s Boromir, also human, is a bit of a wild card, often driven more by passion than reason, but he’s a fierce fighter and he’s obviously determined to stop the evil forces. Then there’s Frodo’s Hobbit friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Sam (Sean Astin), who are quite careless and foolish, but who have good hearts. Sam, specially, is the most loyal friend Frodo could hope for. They have a very touching scene together late in the film which establishes intriguing ambiguously gay undertones. Also on hand are axe-wielding dwarf Gimly (John-Rhys Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf who can do no wrong with his bow and arrows but, at least in this first chapter, they’re not really defined into clear characters. They still leave a strong impression, if only because they kick major ass during the fight sequences!
You know, I don’t think any film has ever deserved to be called epic as much as this one. The sheer grandeur of the settings, the large cast of colorful characters, the larger than life confrontations. I spent nearly all the film wide-eyed and slack-jawed. New Zealand by itself appears to be just gorgeous, with its tall waterfalls and green prairies, its mountains and its great big skies. Then, through impressive work from set builders and digital effects teams, plenty of marvelous castles and cities are worked into the world near seamlessly. As if it wasn’t enough, filmmaker Peter Jackson pulls all these impossible shots which fly though his locations, further enhancing how big in scope it all is.
Yet Jackson doesn’t just shoot a lot of pretty scenery. He’s telling a big, sprawling story and, as the film rolls on, the narrative becomes more and more urgent, fast-paced and action-packed, with always more terrifying threats to our heroes. The Black Riders chasing down the Hobbits, Gandalf’s magic duel with the corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee), the showdown with the Cave Troll (which makes a similar scene in “Harry Potter” feel so silly and harmless in retrospect), the hellish Balrog demon, the attack of the Uruk-Hai army. Take the best things about “Conan the Barbarian”, “Braveheart” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, filter them through the manic energy Peter Jackson brought to his “Dead-Alive”, match it with resources usually only accessible to the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, and you’ve got some of the most breath-taking set pieces ever crafted.
“The Fellowship of the Ring” is such an engrossing picture that you completely lose track of the time and the 3 hour running length just flies by. I’m telling you, when it ended, I wasn’t even spent or anything, in fact I was dying to see “The Two Towers” right there, and then bring on “The Return of the King”!
A couple of months ago, I rented “Abre Los Ojos,” the 1997 Spanish film which was the basis for “Vanilla Sky”, and I was utterly blown away. So much that I just had to watch it again, right there and then. That doesn’t happen often, but here was a movie that was so complex and stimulating cinematically and thematically that I just had to take a second trip down that insane ride to process it. You would think that, having loved the Alejandro Amenabar original so much, its remake could only be a letdown. But this would be overlooking two things: 1) It’s not very fashionable to say, but I generally prefer American movies. I like Hollywood movie stars, I like not having to read subtitles, I like being able to catch pop culture references. 2) This is Cameron Crowe’s new film, silly! Remake or not, that’s a near-guarantee of a wonderful time at a movies. As I expected, “Vanilla Sky” is indeed easier a film to get into, with great use of pop/rock/electronic music, and the kind of irresistible romantic comedy moments only Crowe is able to pull off this well. And then, as the twists and turns grow more and more confusing and dark, Crowe is prompted into artistic territory we’ve never seen him explore.
Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a hotshot New York magazine editor with everything a man could want: money, two spacious bachelor pads, a black Ferrari, movie star good looks, an overall glamorous lifestyle and countless gorgeous babes aching to jump his bones. We meet him as he’s about to celebrate his 33rd birthday, with a snazzy party of course, but there are a few wild cards. First, there’s growing tension between David and his best pal Brian (Jason Lee), who’s tired to see him treating carelessly women he would dream of being with. Speaking of which, the date he’s brought to the party, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her “Abre los Ojos” role), seems to fit just right his idea of the dream girl. Unfortunately, despite much pleading by Brian for his friend not to, David has her in his phasers, always the seductive alpha male. Though this time, it’s more than plain lust ; he’s really amazed by this Sofia. Enough so that he turns away his fuck buddy Julie (Cameron Diaz)’s advances, shoving her into becoming a truly wild card.
Okay, enough with the summary. What I’ve described is only the very edge of this complex tale of obsession and despair, a mostly warm, fun edge which hardly prepares us for what’s to follow. Without going into specifics, “Vanilla Sky” unfolds twists upon twists, as David’s whole life and being are torn to pieces. True love is denied to him just as he finds it, his self-image is shattered, and that’s still only the beginning! This pretty much follows with what Amenabar’s film did, but the two pictures differ quite a bit in the execution. In “Abre los Ojos”, there was a certain bleakness in tone from the get go. Crowe’s movie, on the other hand, doesn’t hurry through the calm-before-the-storm set-up. For nearly an hour, this is not so different from, say, Crowe and Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire”. David and Sofia have this great night together, full of witty, flirtatious conversation and little moments of joy.
Cruise is at his charismatic best, and Cruz is more lovable than in any other movie I’ve seen her him, even “Abre los Ojos”. The two of them have palpable chemistry, I have no trouble believing that the sparks continued long after Crowe yelled “Cut!” Jason Lee is, not surprisingly, perfectly cast, having mastered the art of playing the smart-ass best friend in Kevin Smith’s flicks. The real surprise is Cameron Diaz. I’ve adored her ever since she first entered that bank in 1994’s “The Mask”. She then proved surprisingly game in “There’s Something About Mary”, and she revealed an edgier side of her acting in “Being John Malkovich” but this (for lack of a better term) psycho bitch turn is still quite shocking! I’ll never see her as a harmless blonde sweetie ever again! Cruise also does some of his most interesting acting when events spin out of control, showing a much darker side of himself. As in “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Magnolia”, I think the fact that we’re used to see him as such a successful stud makes his breakdown even more affecting.
Behind the camera, Crowe is as “on” as he’s never been. With the help of cinematographer John Toll and his wife Nancy Wilson doing the score, he crafts a constantly stimulating succession of sounds and visuals, sometimes to rivetingly surreal effect. Plenty of scenes are still haunting me, from the Times Square opening to the breathtaking finale, through countless other great moments. And what about the soundtrack! A former Rolling Stone writer, Crowe always puts together bitching soundtracks for his movies. Think of the use of “In Your Eyes” in “Say Anything”, of “Free falling” in “Jerry Maguire”, the Seattle grunge in “Singles”, or the Led Zeppelin tunes in “Almost Famous”. Now in “Vanilla Sky”, we can hear such great artists as Radiohead, REM, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, all used to near perfection. I mean, some will disagree, but I found the “Good Vibrations” music cue just priceless, I had “Solsbury Hill” caught in my head for the whole day and even Joan Osborne’s “One of us” took on creepy undertones!
Like the original, “Vanilla Sky” evokes “Phantom of the Opera”, “Vertigo”, and Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction writings, among many other influences. It explores some very intriguing territory, which will confuse the hell out of a lot of people, but give it time, this isn’t “Mulholland Drive”, there is a point and some sense to make off it all in the end. Lynch fans might argue that it’s better to leave things unexplained than to tie everything up, but in this particular case, I thought the exposition served its purpose, and as delivered by Noah Taylor (“Tech support!”) and Tilda Swinton, it doesn’t feel tedious. And then, the movie reaches a payoff even more satisfying than the original. To reverse one of the film’s leitmotiv, since you got more into the sweet early scenes, the sour elements hit even harder, and when you don’t expect it no more, “sweetness follows” and you leave the theatre still on a high, wondering what it is that would make you most happy.
Russell Crowe stars as John Forbes Nash Jr., who we meet as he arrives to Princeton University in 1947, a poor young man whose remarkable skills in mathematics won him a scholarship. He doesn’t really fit in with the other students though, and he has no interest in actually going to classes. He just wants to find a truly original theory, to think of something that will matter. Something that will make him matter. He does calculate some brilliant stuff, which opens up opportunities for him, all the way to a code breaking gig at the Pentagon, but something is tearing him loose : schizophrenia. Combined with Cold War-era conspiracy theories paranoia, this might make him go totally insane. All he’s got left is his caring wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and even she is tempted to give up on him.
It’s taken me a while to process my feelings on Ron Howard’s latest film, as they’re kind of confused. In short, I thought the first act was mediocre, then the film did something I perceived as a cheat, but finally it redeemed itself in its powerful last hour. So how am I supposed to review the whole film, as I found its first half to be generic and maudlin, but by the end I was moved to tears? Well, let’s start at the beginning, or the “Good Will Hunting” part. These early scenes aren’t that bad, they’re just bland and harmless. Nash is somehow interesting already, with subtle hints of personality troubles, but he’s surrounded by walking clichés, like the snobbish daddy’s boy (Josh Lucas), the wisecracking buddies, the kind old teacher, or a newer obligatory staple (see also : “Notting Hill”, “Undeclared”), the quirky British roommate (Paul Bettany). Plus, it’s all so timid, a little joke here, a little touching moment there. Yawn.
Another thing that bothered me was the seemingly random, unnatural pacing. It’s the first day of the semester, then wham!, it’s six months down the line, boom!, Nash’s made his discovery, watch out! It’s now five years later and he’s called in to break some Soviet code. It gets even more frustrating when Nash starts teaching and Alicia, who’s his student, catches his eye. It literally goes from ‘what’s your name’ to ‘I find you attractive’ to ‘will you marry me?’ to ‘you’re pregnant?!’ Meanwhile, Nash, is recruited by a Secretary of Defence agent (Ed Harris) who wants him to peruse periodicals to look for secret Communist codes. Come again? That’s not all, there’s tense dropouts, mysterious men in black, chases, shoot-outs. It makes little sense, and it’s hardly all that interesting. I was ready to pan the film.
Oh, but wait a second there, that’s only the first hour or so of the film, before what I called the big cheat. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna spoil it. Let’s just say that the film reveals that it isn’t really concerned with code cracking or Nash’ love life; “A Beautiful Mind” is ultimately about one man’s struggle to retain his sanity, to sort out his mind at once capable of genius and madness. Once the narrative settles on this, the film becomes more and more engrossing. It remains conventional in form as Ron Howard, hardly a daring filmmaker, can’t help but go for melodrama and little bittersweet comic beats, or something as predictable and schmaltzy as the “pen scene”. But the screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, adapting the Sylvia Nasar novel, presents us with a very interesting, complex character who hits bottom, degrading into the kind of fidgety old weirdo kids mock on the street. This makes his eventual getting back on his feet oh so touching, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room during the final scene.
It takes many people to make a film, and it’s usually unfair to single out an individual as being most responsible for its success, but in this particular case, I feel it’s obvious that this is Russell Crowe’s movie. Writer Goldsman did, after all, commit “Batman & Robin”, and as mentioned, Howard has a tendency to lay things too thick, overdoing each moment as if he’s trying to show off to the Academy (but oooooooh, that’s not his intent, natch). Fortunately, he’s at least made one brilliant decision in casting Russell Crowe, who brings depth, pathos and humanity to his character. We see him age nearly fifty years in the film, and I was never thinking ‘make-up’, Crowe just seemed older in the way he held himself, spoke and appeared altogether. Likewise, with his schizophrenic behaviour, Crowe is not one to chew scenery and go over the top. This is a performance full of nuances and rough corners. His relationship with Paul Bettany and Ed Harris’ characters lingers hauntingly in our minds, and even though it’s underwritten, his screwed up romance with Jennifer Connelly is affecting. She herself is pretty good (and gorgeous), despite a false-sounding shrieking breakdown scene.
Overall, I’d pretty much recommend “A Beautiful Mind”. There are quite a bit of things to dislike in what can be summed up as a tearjerker posing as a psychological thriller, but ultimately it did surprise me by making me cry, and Crowe’s performance alone is worth the admission price. If he hadn’t won the Best Actor Oscar last year, I’d say he’s sure to get it now, and the movie itself will probably get noticed here and there as a reaction. Check it out.
As you might gather from the low star rating, I really hated this film. It made me angry, but not good-angry, like if it had made me think and question my reaction, but plain bad-angry at wasting 83 minutes of my life watching a lazy, misguided pseudo-art film. “À ma soeur” (or “Fat Girl”, as it’s insultingly titled in the US) is the latest from Catherine Breillat, whose big thing is to rock snobbish intellectual circles by making so-called feminist movies depicting graphic but cold and impersonal sex acts. The best example of her close-minded vision is a scene in the overrated “Romance” in which a woman is stuck through a wall, with only her legs and private parts on one side, where dirty men rudely screw her or jerk off on her. I found it insulting as a man, and I can’t see how a woman wouldn’t feel the same way. Sure, some men are lowly dogs, but it’s paranoia to put them all in the same league.
Okay, so about this new chapter in Breillat’s long “women are victims” craptacular saga. You’ve got these two French sisters whose parents have brought on a holiday to Italy. Anaïs (Anaïs Redoux) is 12, a bit chubby (I wouldn’t call her fat) and rather conflicted and self-conscious, thanks to her sister’s relentless taunts. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is 15 and pretty but naïve and often bitchy. Both girls are intrigued by sex, but not in a giggly schoolgirl way ; this is a Breillat pic after all, so they’re already weird and bitter about sex, even though they never did it. They just wanna get rid of their virginity, like it’s a chore. Or so they say? For when Elena hooks up with twenty-something Roman dude Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), she falls back into clueless, love-blinded girly patterns, believing all his obvious bullshit which is only meant to get her in bed, in which he succeeds. And then… Well, not much really happens in the film. The sisters yell at each other a lot, but sometimes they’re friendly. Elena falls more and more for Fernando, giving him access to one orifice after another. And then… Well, more on that later.
Right away, I have to stress how mediocre a film this is. Maybe the premise has the potential to be developed into an unflinching look at teenage girls’ sexuality, but the way writer-director Breillat goes at it, apparently girls have as much fun getting laid as when they’re vomiting. Breillat obviously feels contempt for the male characters, from Fernando as the insincere, lying dick, to the unavailable, grumpy workaholic father. But even the females are portrayed in a bad light. The mother is an impulsive, bitter woman who yells and slaps her kids, Elena is dumb, illogical, slutty and cruel to her sister, and Anaïs is this pathetic “fat” girl who’s always stuffing her face, making out with inanimate objects or singing some whiny ditty which spells out her despair and has her imploring crows to devour her aching heart. Oh, brother.
All this is shown through long, boring scenes of no cinematic or thematic interest, such as a more than 10 minute long sequence in which all we see is highway driving. I’m not kidding, Breillat just shoots the family car passing by other cars and countless trucks, for minutes on end. Oh, the girls are sobbing in their seats, and they say a few words, but it’s still endlessly dull. And then comes the oh-so-shocking ending, which I found retarded and despicable. ***SPOILER AHEAD*** In an even more extreme strain of paranoid nonsense, a big bad wolf of a guy kills both the mother and the older sister and rapes the 12 year old in the woods. It’s depicted almost exactly like the earlier consensual sex scenes because, wouldn’t you know it, all sex is rape and all men are predators, right? =sigh= ***END OF SPOILER***
Don’t encourage Breillat by watching her self-indulgent, utterly unenjoyable and shallow little exposé, and don’t get fooled by the controversy which surrounds it into thinking this is a daring film. Naked teenagers or not, this is still the work of a feminist reactionary without any notable filmmaking skills.