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Why Do Prequels Suck?

This past November saw the release of “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, the second installment in the Harry Potter prequel series. After the first entry, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, performed somewhat admirably, “Grindelwald” has been panned by critics and has served up a general lackluster box office take nationally. There will always be Potterheads who will go to anything J.K. Rowling has penned, but it’s interesting to see another prequel series somewhat fail. It all begs the question: Why do prequels fail?

Let’s examine three big budget prequel series as our baseline: the “Fantastic Beasts” films as a prelude to “Harry Potter”, the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” films as a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings.”

All of them had their fans to be sure. All still made servicable box office gains, but not as large as their predecessors (compared to inflation). But all are seen as lesser than the originals. Let’s delve into some possible theories why.

The first is rather obvious: they’re not particularly well-made movies. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they were given a pass because of their previous success and lacked that urgency to wow the audience. But the same thinking would apply to sequels as well, so why are “The Return of the King”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince” still so good?

A more crucial point to consider is that we know how prequels will end. That critical element of suspense is missing as to who will survive, who will die, how will this turn out. In “Star Wars”, we know Anakin will turn into Darth Vader and betray the Jedi. In “Harry Potter”, we know Dumbledore will survive and Grindelwald will fall. In “The Hobbit”, Bilbo will be just fine along with Gandalf and Legolas. It’s harder to be emotionally engaged in a story where the ending is not a mystery. The only element of suspense we have is with characters we don’t know and the enjoyment of seeing how things came to be. Neither is as strong emotionally as an original story with new characters with an undetermined fate.

Perhaps it is that prequels feel the responsibility to explain everything. How did this character get that? How did this couple meet? Some things are better left unexplained. A + B shouldn’t always equal C. Anakin needn’t have had visions of his wife dying to turn to the dark side. Thranduril needn’t have told Legolas to seek out Aragorn so they could be friends. Dumbledore needn’t have made a no-duel pact with Grindelwald so they wouldn’t have a need to fight until later. Sometimes things just happen because they happen. Anakin turned to the dark side because he was seduced by power, Bilbo went on a great adventure because he wanted to and Dumbledore has many regrets in life because of his character. Motive need not apply.

Another possible reason is the audience’s ability to determine story for themselves. The human mind is incapable of not seeing a character and hypothesizing about their past. We see Darth Vader and learn that he is Luke’s father and fell from grace. For each of us as viewers, we imagine how that came to be and that becomes a part of the story for us. We imagine the rise of Lord Voldemort and the stories of James Potter, Lily Evans and Sirius Black and have our own ideas about these characters. We hear the tales about Bilbo’s past adventures and the friendship between him and Gandalf. Our ideas about the histories of these characters become ingrained in our psyches. Then when those assumptions are challenged after so long an amount of time, our reactions are negative. Wait, Anakin was a whiny brat? That’s not what I had pictured. Hold on, Dumbledore had a younger brother? That’s not what I had thought. Wait a second, Bilbo didn’t have that much to do with his story?

Our challenged assumptions decrease our enjoyment of a story. It’s something I like to call “the storyteller’s release.” Once a story is out in the public, it’s no longer the author’s or director’s anymore: it’s the audience’s. They interpret the tale for themselves and in so doing complete the narrative cycle. An author creates a story, shares it and the audience takes it and gains emotional value from it. It’s the joy of story, why we put such stock in them in the first place. Prequels undermine that pleasure by retrograding our involvement.

Similar to that, prequels often suffer when they introduce new themes or concepts that were not present in the original story. Take “Star Wars” for example. Luke’s journey is about recognizing the dark side of his nature and conquering it, redeeming his family’s history. The prequel series is about the graying of light and dark and the imbalance of the world. It illuminates inherently different themes than the original and muddles the theming. “Fantastic Beasts” carries some of the same themes from Harry Potter such as good triumphing over evil and the value of the natural world giving us inner peace, but the true theme of “Harry Potter” is that accepting death is the key to mastering life, a theme absent so far in the “Fantastic Beast” films which focus more on social concepts of accepting others. “The Hobbit” is not as guilty of this sin, but its narrative lacks punch. The world is on the brink of collapse in “The Lord of the Rings”, brought down by greed and desire, Frodo needing to resist the power of the ring to succeed. “The Hobbit” has a similar theme of greed and desire destroying hope, but that is exemplified in the character of Thorin, not Bilbo, diluting the film’s power.

This is not to say that new themes should not be introduced in prequels. Far from it. It is one of the ways that prequels can add to the story of the original. But they can not contradict the original’s themes as in “Star Wars” or be lessened as in “The Hobbit.” “Fantastic Beasts” actually seems to do a good job of illuminating new themes, a plus in its column.

But perhaps the biggest knock against prequels is their inherent need to be beholden to their source. How many asides are there in the “Star Wars” prequels to the first trilogy? You have Chewbacca showing up for no reason, the Death Star, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin, Padme wearing white, an asteroid belt sequence, Jedis training with blast shields and on and on and on. In “The Hobbit”, the series is framed as an aside in “The Fellowship” as Bilbo writes his book. You have references to Gimli and Aragorn and Elrond and Frodo and Sauron on and on and on. “Fantastic Beasts” references Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall and Nicholas Flamel and Hogwarts and on and on and on. Nothing can stand up on its own. Everything is in service to the original, cutting the prequel’s credibility and making it instantly seem less than. The prequels become just an advertisement for the original, a retread that serves purely for nostalgia. It’s easy to see this occurring again and again as filmmakers such as George Lucas and Peter Jackson and writers like J.K. Rowling journey back and relive their glory. It’s human nature to idolize the past, and it seeps into their attempts to create new stories.

To look at a good example of a prequel, let’s actually examine a sequel: “The Godfather Part II.” While the majority of the film is a sequel to the original, it cuts back and forth with the rise of Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the first film.

“The Godfather Part II” navigates story structure to enhance the first film’s themes and characters while also standing up as its own film. We know how Vito’s story will end since we’ve seen the first film, but we don’t know how he achieved his tremendous power. Seeing that in comparison to how Michael loses his morality presents an interesting examination of family and choices, enhancing the first film’s message. Our preconceived notions of Vito are displaced because of the importance of his narrative. The storytelling is so strong, so vital, that it easily erases our previous ideas about his past.

And references to the first film are minimal. Yes, the flashbacks nod to Clemenza being fat, but there’s no “Gosh, Clemenza, you eat like a pig” line. We just see Clemenza eating constantly and getting bigger and bigger. There’s shots of Michael as a baby and lines of Vito coddling him, but they are in service to the plot, enhancing the pressure on Michael in the present, showing how his father’s love has morphed him. Every inference to the original enhances the plot rather than just serves as its own wink and nod.

Most important of all, if taken away from its predecessor, “The Godfather Part II” would still stand on its own as a great story. “Fantastic Beasts,” the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” would not. They all have moments of ingenuity, but they are all beholden to the past.

The list of terrible prequels just keeps growing and growing. “Alien v. Predator”, “Dumb and Dumberer”, “Exorcist: The Beginning”, “The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas”, “Hannibal Rising”, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (and to a lesser extent “X-Men: First Class”), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”… on and on and on.

The first for any prequel should be: is this a story that needs to be told? Far too many times, that answer is no.

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Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a disappointment

Peter Jackson has finally finished The Hobbit series, a series that pretty much everyone knew beforehand should have been at most two films. As the third entry ends, everyone’s worst fears are vindicated. This was too long, too monotonous with too much shoved in to create three films from what should have been a very simple story.

The film begins exactly where the last left off, the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) intent on destroying Laketown. After his demise, the kingdom of Erebor, long sought by Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company, is up for grabs, with orcs and men and elves and dwarfs all converging in one climactic battle. This battle consumes most of the film, but with no real characters of consequence other than Bard (Luke Evans) involved, there’s not a lot to be emotionally involved with, and the overabundance of CGI effects (in stark contrast to the first trilogy, which heavily used effects, but in conjunction with actual props and locations) renders the spectacle more tedious than thrilling. In much the same vein as the reviled prequel Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Jackson has sacrificed emotion at the expense of attempting to create awe, but awe is created with a blending of grand spectacle combined with concern for characters. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was immersive in scope, a grand attack on a large scale, but at its heart was a concern for the people of Rohan, our heroes laying everything on the line in a last desperate attempt to save humanity. The Battle of the Five Armies has several random armies fighting for gold and jewels and strategic advantage. With Bilbo, Thorn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pretty much on the sidelines, there is not a lot to care for. Bilbo needs more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series suffers from a lack of direction, torn between adoration for the original trilogy with its hardened war analogies, and Tolkien’s original novel, more whimsical and youth-based. For every scene where the dwarfs are in danger of being eaten by trolls (youth), there is a gory battle scene involving orcs and decapitation. The lack of a cohesive vision has hurt the series overall, giving it no real identity. Audiences can only wonder what originally-planned director’s Guillermo del Toro’s films would have been like. A new director with a new style may have served the story well, differing in tone from the first trilogy while still fitting into the same Tolkien world.

Somewhere hidden in this mess of forced romances, overlong battles and dismissive comic relief (the character of Alfrid is not only not funny, he is downright painful to watch) lies a pretty good four hour film. Perhaps some fan edit will give us the Hobbit film audiences deserve. What Jackson and company have given us however are three films that pretend to deliver heart, but abuse that sentiment under an avalanche of CGI nonsense and subplots that offer nothing to the tale of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the supposed protagonist who is often relegated to secondary status, the single worst sin by the filmmakers. Bilbo’s tale, and his relationship to Thorin and the other dwarfs, should have been the heart of the film. What we have instead is a mess.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 2

Link to Part One

17. The Social Network (2010)

The finely tuned tandem of director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin create a fascinating examination of the dawn of social media with “The Social Network.” Swirling testosterone mixed with betrayal and the potential of billions of dollars combines to alter the lives of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) in ways none of them can imagine as their project, Facebook, shoots off to become a phenomenon the world has never seen before.

16. No Country for Old Men (2007)

A masterpiece of cinematic craft, the Coen brothers create a folk tale from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel. When Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a bag full of money after a drug deal goes wrong, he runs off, initating a cat and mouse chase that features one of the greatest villains of the modern era in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays the cop chasing the whole situation and who realizes the depths of carnage in the world around him. It is a brilliant examination of violence and the harm it does not just to the perpetrators and victims, but the soul of every man in the community.

15. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Hollywood had never really made an honest look into the slave trade until Steve McQueen’s immersive “12 Years a Slave”, a film that brought home the horrors of slavery and the crushing weight of its history. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man kidnapped by a couple of journeymen and sold into Southern slavery. His journey takes him across two plantations, one run by a semi-decent man (Benedict Cumberbatch) and one by a sadist (Michael Fassbender). A reminder of the pain and disgrace of slavery in United States history, the film examines how the act of slavery is not just a restriction of freedom, but a perversion of basic human decency.

14. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Perhaps no company has defined the past 25 years more than Pixar. Using ground-breaking CGI technology, the original “Toy Story” changed not only animation, but all filmmaking. The fact that it is a great film is an added bonus. But it is with “Toy Story 2” that Pixar officially became a cinematic powerhouse, with a film that added to the first film’s heart, humor and durability. When toy Woody (Tom Hanks) is stolen by a toy store owner who will sell him to a foreign collector, the rest of the gang (Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney)) will team together and venture out to save him. It is the story of Jessie (Joan Cusack) however that steals the heart of the viewer, a cowgirl toy abandoned by her owner and unsure if she can ever love again. A story about friendship and youth, all the “Toy Story” films are remembered by the child in each of us.

13. Groundhog Day (1993)

A modern day Frank Capra film, “Groundhog Day” takes a comedy premise (What if you lived the same day over and over again?) and imbues it with a deeper quest about life’s purpose and the value of love and community. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a grumpy weatherman sent to Punxatawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony. Phil can’t leave however because he keeps living that same day over and over again. As he falls in love with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), Phil must cope with his seemingly hopeless situation as it drives him to near-insanity. Perhaps Bill Murray’s finest performance, he and director/writer Harold Ramis craft a film that simultaneously makes the viewer laugh, think and love all at the same time.

12. A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a brilliant interpersonal drama about gender, marriage, responsibility and truth. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) are trying to secure a divorce because he doesn’t want to leave the country due to his ailing father while she does. He hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), but when Nader’s father nearly dies when he is out, he blames her for negligence and attacks her. As events spiral out of control, the viewer can’t help but think of the state of the globe and the changing dynamics of old world versus new world in it.

11. Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki has been at the forefront of Japanese animation for the past quarter century and perhaps no film of his Studio Ghibli has been more admired than “Spirited Away.” Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents are moving to their new home when her father takes a wrong turn while driving, and they enter a magical world. When her parents are turned into pigs, it’s up to Chihiro to navigate the mystical land and find the help she needs to save her family and return to the normal world. The film is among the most creatively inspired movies ever made with breathtaking images and a moving story seemingly taken out of mythology.

10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Perhaps the greatest trilogy ever made, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” is a composition of everything we love about cinema: big, adventurous, thrilling and heartfelt. In the land of Middle-Earth, young hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given the ring of power. He must destroy the ring before it falls into the hands of its master, Sauron, who will use it to enslave the world. With a fellowship to guide him, his journey takes him across the world as war breaks out among the kingdoms of the land. The trilogy brought writing, acting and special effects together in a way that may be unequaled, and it has become a beloved piece of cinema history.

9. The Dark Knight (2008)

Boldly asserting a new type of superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” incorporated many of the lingering feelings of the post-9/11 world into its narrative. Batman (Christian Bale) joins forces with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to bring down the mob plaguing Gotham city, but the Joker (Health Ledger) emerges from the darkness, threatening their hopes and pushing each of them to their limit. Heath Ledger’s defining performance as the Joker gives the film edginess and charisma, and the encompassing idea of heroism and what that means makes “The Dark Knight” the greatest superhero film ever made.

Part 3

Could it have been saved?- The Hobbit Trilogy

Peter Jackson’s sequel trilogy to his now-classic The Lord of the Rings had so many problems: it was too long, unfocused, relied too heavily on CGI, had random subplots that did not add to the story. It is quite hard to fathom just how wrong things went. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, which you could lay at the feet of George Lucas being out of the filmmaking business for so long, Peter Jackson is still a filmmaker at the top of his game. He has a deep love of Tolkien and accomplished a monumental feat with the previous trilogy that few thought possible just a few years ago. So, what exactly did go wrong?

We’ll never know for sure. Hubris, studio involvement and too much attachment to the original may have contributed. But could it have been saved?

Gandalf
Gandalf

Let’s start off by acknowledging that The Hobbit trilogy are not bad films. They are simply misguided. The filmmakers were so enamored with what they had achieved with The Lord of the Rings that they did not want to stray too far away from that formula. The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is about a band of individuals with one hope to save the world. The Hobbit is about a troop trying to slay a dragon and reclaim their home. It is far more fantasy than the real-world parallel that The Lord of the Rings has with modern day wars and conflicts. It is the adolescent to the adult novel. So tying it in to the first trilogy is inherently problematic because you suddenly have scenes with trolls trying to make dwarves into chili and characters riding down lakes in barrels in a world where people are brutally decapitated and mass genocide is taking place. It just doesn’t mix.

This is one instance where a new director with a new vision may have really improved the dynamics. For awhile, Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the films. His unique approach to storytelling may have really added a contrasting design that still fit in with the universe. Instead, Jackson stuck to the tone that was successful for him in the past, but inappropriate for the current story.

Then comes the problem of Bilbo Baggins. In the novel, he is often just carting around with the dwarfs, seldomly driving the plot. That is a major problem in a motion picture. The protagonist needs to initiate the action. He needs to be actively involved with the outcome of the film. He is the vessel we feel emotions through (so something better happen to him), and he is our view into the world. Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, but he is very underutilized. The best moments of the trilogy are when he has his confrontation with Gollum or saves the dwarfs with the barrels or meets Smaug. We relate to the story through him through these circumstances. We feel his apprehension, his relief and his desire. When the film pivots away from that interaction with him, we are left emotionally distant. More time is focused on Thorin and Gandalf, but their journeys are less defined and less empathetic. Bilbo is our vessel and for far too much of the story, he is unavailable to us.

Bilbo
Bilbo

Thorin and Gandalf’s narratives should have been told through Bilbo. Thorin can be unsure of Bilbo in the beginning, come to regard him as a friend, break away from him as Bilbo realizes his dissent into madness only to have Bilbo save him from his sickness and regain his trust. With Gandalf, there should have been some tension. He recruits him to join the adventure, Bilbo resents him for it when things get dangerous, Gandalf convinces him of the necessity of living one’s life and not lounging around at home all day, they get separated, get back together and on. Some of this happens in the film, but it is separated by hours of subplots and universe-building so its effects are nullified.

In short, Bilbo needs to be in just about every scene. We should see all the events through his eyes. He should build up relationships with each of the dwarves (some he trusts, some he doesn’t) and all of the characters. And through it all, he learns about the need to fight for one’s home and help his friends. The films greatly struggles with why Bilbo should even care about the dwarf’s plight since he has no personal stake in the outcome. Only through a strong emotional arc about living adventure and helping your friends can we understand why Bilbo acts the way he does. In the trilogy, we are given just about nothing.

Bilbo’s journey is muted primarily because of a strange insistence on the part of the filmmakers to overcrowd the film with secondary characters. It almost seems as if they were afraid to focus on a singular protagonist and needed to built up a supporting entourage of storylines similar to The Lord of the Rings, but those storylines diverged on one single goal: helping Frodo destroy the ring to save the world. Now there are storylines about Legolas and his relationship with his father, a romance between a she-elf and a dwarf, Gandalf discovering Sauron is still alive and Azog trying to murder Thorin. None of these exactly go together, and they clutter up the films. The overarching goal, just like the first trilogy, should be simple: Find the gold and defeat the dragon to reclaim their home. Anything outside of that endgame should be left out of the film.

An unnecessary subplot
An unnecessary subplot

This necessitates another drastic change to the story: abandon the idea of a trilogy. The subplots add extra weight to the films which can easily be cut down to two or even just one movie. Multiple films could have been used if there had been natural ending notes, but there are not. In The Lord of the Rings, the first film ends with the fellowship breaking. The second ends with a climactic battle and the gaining of the appropriate courage to finish the journey. There are no such breaks in the much shorter Hobbit source material. A single film would really focus on Bilbo and his plight, his relationship with Thorin and Gandalf and the overall lesson about friendship and adventure. This is what fans deserved.

The rest of the issues hurting the value of The Hobbit trilogy are trite in comparison. Fans can complain about the overuse of CGI or the portrayal of characters, but those points are moot if the final product had been great. The Hobbit is simply too long, too convoluted and too distracted with itself to be a worthy followup to The Lord of the Rings. A different approach was needed. Fans are just left wanting.

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