When Hollywood Gets It Right

My last two posts
(If Hollywood Were Really Brave
and Out of the Frame)
have slammed Hollywood pretty hard for cranking out preachy, boring crap
while congratulating itself on its bravery. I’ll make it a triptych by
examining some recent movies that I found truly excellent.

Lord Of The Rings (2001-2004)

Tolkien fans went into these movies dreading a disappointment and
came out stunned by the power and fidelity with which director Peter
Jackson (himself a lifelong fan) brought Middle-Earth to life. It was
a revelation that a fantasy film this good and this true to its
materials could get made inside the Hollywood system at all. Most of
the credit seems to go to Jackson, who insisted on doing it
right; but kudos to everyone in the cast (except the
inexplicably unconvincing Cate Blanchett) who clearly gave these movies
everything they had and then some.

The Incredibles (2004)

If there’s anyone out there who still thinks animated film has to
be trivial entertainment or just for children, this is the movie to
nuke that misconception into vapor. What an amazing and wonderful
work of art this was — entertaining, intelligent, emotionally
rich, morally serious without being preachy, deeply humane. And with
a tasty libertarian-verging-on-Objectivist subtext, too!

Serenity (2005)

And speaking of libertarian subtexts — this movie’s punchline
is the hardest slam against coercive social engineering I’ve ever
seen on film. Along the way to it we get plenty of action, the
superb ensemble acting we’d come to expect from the TV series, humor,
horrror and a lot of plain old visual gorgeousness. Extra points for
the hot-chick-with-mad-kung-fu-skillz fight scene…

Open Range (2003)

I thought this was an underappreciated gem, a superb Western in the
traditional style that even managed to extract a fine performance from
within Kevin Costner’s excessive self-regard. Robert Duvall was even
better as the tough old trail-boss Costner’s ex-gunfighter rides with.
Annette Bening barely holds up her end as the female lead, but that’s
OK; this is a film about men, and manhood, in the best sense of both
terms. There’s one scene where she serves Costner’s and Duvall’s
characters tea; the wordless moment when the two are trying to fit
their work-gnarled fingers through delicate bone-china handles is one
of the most complex and poignant bits I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The Last Samurai (2003)

I’ve reviewed this movie in a previous blog entry; go there. Alas, the trend
towards better historicals I was so happy about in 2003 didn’t
continue; instead, we got disappointments like Troy and
the mega-craptacular Alexander.

Looney Toons: Back In Action (2003)

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the whole Warner Brothers posse rock
the house old-school style. But this was no mere gag-fest; the chase
scenes running through famous paintings in the Louvre were art and
satire and satire about art of a very high order (the chase through
Dali’s The Persistence of Memory was particularly
brilliant). Marvin the Martian gets more screen time than his entire
previous career put together, especially during the slam-bang finish
set in (animated) Earth orbit that wonderfully sends up the Star Wars
movies and finally (finally!) lets Daffy be the hero.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

This movie absolutely should not have worked. The plot was thin,
the maguffin was a ridiculous lift from a Disney amusement-park ride,
Orlando Bloom uttered a lifeless Errol Flynn imitation in lieu of a
performance, and Keira Knightley forgot anything she might have known
about acting (or possibly she was just stunned by the wooden quality of
the script). It was all redeemed by Johnny Depp’s incandescently
brilliant turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, proving that a good enough
actor can bring life to even the most formulaic crap. Depp didn’t
just carry this movie on his back, he spun it on one finger with an
insouciant grin.

30 thoughts on “When Hollywood Gets It Right

  1. Also, please formulate a theory about why the trend of historiocity hasn’t continued. If it involves the KGB, so mcuh the better.

  2. 1. Lord of The Rings: I was disappointed with the final movie in the LotR trilogy – I thought Jackson lost it completely. He ripped up the story line, diced the theme and introduced elements that were wildly out of sync with the book. Many might notch it up to artistic licensing, but I hated it.

    This is also why I hated Troy – Brad Pitt and especially Eric Bana were great, as was Orlando Bloom. But they director lost the plot when he twisted the story around to kill Menelaus and get Helen to stay with Paris. If I’m not mistaken, Menelaus lives, and Helen returns to him at the end of the war. This would have been, I think, a good underlining for the movie and keeping in line with the portrayal of Agamemnon’s character: was the war worth the dame?

    2. The Incredibles: This was pure entertainment to me – I missed the moral seriousness you saw.

    I don’t think any anime will ever hold a match to the flawless Rurouni Kenshin OVA. But that’s not Hollywood.

    3.Serenity: missed.

    4. Open Range: missed

    5. The Last Samurai : Awesome. I was very impressed with the Samurai ideals. Tom Cruise did his most decent job after the superb “A Few Good Men”.

    6. Loony Toons: Back In Action: missed

    7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Good movie – one of the few I could watch multiple times.

  3. I think the last Starwars movie was pretty good. The action, at least. Violence, violence and more violence.

    The Bad:
    OK the display of the plot blew chunks. If you read the book, the plot actually works. Annakin’s constant whining about becoming a Jedi master is because he is obsessed and consumed with saving his love. Only a Jedi Master has unmonitered access to the Jedi archives, and Annikin has to study Darkology to learn how to save his wife. For some reason, that majorly important bit of plot just didn’t make it onto the screen, and it hurts.

    Same thing for the unbelivably fast transition from turning in the Sith Lord to two hours later chopping up Jedi kids. Gone is Palpatane offering Annikin everything he wants, starting with an expensive speeder, moving through the most expensive apartments on the planet, his own battle cruiser, the planet Corellia and ending with the entire Corellian sector of the galaxy. And it’s obvious that slave born, vow of poverty raised Annikin will get it.

    The good:
    Dooku’s head bouncing. Finally, after all these years of seeing the good guys idiotically saying “I’ll spare your life, so you can escape and murder my family” the good guy is able act intelligently.

    Mace Windu flying out the window, wrapped in lightning. You can just hear Samuel L. Jackson scream “Motherfuckerrrrrr….” on the way down, if you turn off the sound.

    The fight at the end is a bit dumb. Obviously, neither ever heard the Klingon proverb “Only fools fight in a burning house.” The action is good, but Kenobi crying at the end is a bit off. The book is better: ‘Killing Annikin would be a kindness, but Kenobi wasn’t feeling particularly generous at the moment.’

    This is one case where reading the book after watching the movie is excellent.

  4. >Don’t forget Master and Commander.

    Yeah, that one was pretty good too. In retrospect, though, what I really wanted to see was the second movie, the one in which the actors have developed their characters better and we can enter O’Brien’s world more.

  5. The problem with Master and Commander: The farside of the world, is readily apparent in it’s title.

    Though the bits we see are excellent, they are disjointed and disconnected story elements from two widely seperated novels out of a twenty book series.

    Also I do love Paul Bettany, and Russell Crowe can really act when he’s not busy being a yob, but I thought neither were right for their parts. Jack aubrey should be a man larger than life, and Stephen Maturin a man small in stature, and ugly in form, but brilliant and gigantic in intellect and wit.

    The whole movie also never really made it clear the personal depth of either character or friendship involved.

    Was it good? Yes it was, but it missed the opportunity to be great.

    The best historical dramas recently produced have to be the Ioan Griffud Hornwblower series, and the Sean Bean Sharpe series.

  6. I see very few movies but caught “The Incredibles” on the box. I was very impressed, it was movie A. Rand could have made. It was fun, fast and the politics were “right”.

  7. One of the best historical films I have ever seen would have to be the Daniel Day Lewis “Last of the Mohicans”, that film works on so many levels.

    The best things about LOTR were Sean Bean as Boromir and the depiction of the hobbits.

    Loved Pirates of the Carribean, thought the fight scene in the smithy was one of the best I have ever seen.

  8. I watched The Incredibles with my neice, having no idea how good it’d be. After a while, the message struck me (whether they’d meant it or not) and I’m quite impressed.
    As for the recent Star-Wars prequels, I’ll leave ‘em on the shelf. I watched them at the theater with some hope, but was disappointed with the whole ‘baffle ‘em with FX’ approach.
    However, I must say, there is a message in there and it isn’t the one I’m sure Lucas was after. It can be taken so many ways, though, that vastly different political groups are using it as an illustration of their ‘point’.
    Whatever works, I guess.

  9. I thought Sin City was fantastic. I was thoroughly engrossed in the world they portrayed in that film while watching it, aware of the vileness of the scene portrayed, but not repelled by it. Plus, you just can’t go wrong with all the T&A.

  10. Forget Sin City. Let’s have a movie based on SIM City!!!!

  11. Serenity was excellent.

    I guess I’m not the only one in here hoping for a 2nd season of Firefly!

    Heck, even a Serenity II would make me happy!

  12. I was never a big comic or fantasy fan. However, I have to say that Batman Begins was fantastic.

    Also, on TV, Battlestar Galactica so outshines everything else out there (not that I watch all that much to begin with) that even the dog episodes (and there were but a few) compare favorably with other shows.

  13. > Heck, even a Serenity II would make me happy!

    From the actions in the movie, another movie or two would tell all the plot that is left. I hear Serenity did not do very well in the box office, so here’s to hoping that the DVD sells well enough. I need to go buy my copy.

  14. I really enjoyed Shrek and Shrek II. The digs at so many pieces of contemporary culture and the storylines of fairy tales was great.

    Like Kaisare, I was disappointed with “The Return of the King”. Until then I was reasonably happy with the job Jackson did, but felt like he lost the theme in that movie.

    Master and Commander was good, but, like Chris says, it was a disjointed combination of more than one story.

    I laughed my butt off reading your review of Pirates. Johnny Depp was truly fabulous as Capt. Jack Sparrow, not something to be forgotten anytime soon.

    The Incredibles and The Last Samurai are two movies that joined my DVD collection as soon as I could buy them, they’re both great. I haven’t seen Serenity yet.

    As far as Battlestar Galactica goes, I actually skipped the miniseries and the first couple of seasons, expecting a bad remake of the campy original. I just started watching them on DVD and have been very pleasantly surprised. These are definitely not PC. Characters with drinking problems, who smoke cigars and gamble because they enjoy it, unabashed religion (I’m not religious, but why is it necessary to pretend that people aren’t religious?), some very cool ideas to update the original. There’s been some great points made, too (When Apollo tells Zerick that freedom has to be earned, for example). The show is ending up being much better than I expected.

    I haven’t seen Serenity or Open Range yet, I guess I’m going to have to at some point.

  15. C’mon! Doesn’t anybody else think a Sim City movie would be great?

  16. A Sim City movie would at least be original.

    And yes, Captain Jack Sparrow WAS the pirate of the carribean. Looking forward to this summer’s sequel.

  17. Don’t forget that they finally got the comic book movie right; spiderman, spiderman2, batman begins, and to a lesser extent, X-men. Keen to see V for Vendetta…

  18. I thought ROTK was the best of the three LOTR movies. (My wife agrees with me.)

    Major lovin’ for “The Incredibles”. Since I grew up a gifted kid in a rural public school system, the broader social issues of the movie were crystal-clear very early on. That movie has a great blend of text and sub-text.

    Here’s a great article about the movie:
    http://tagparents.org/TheUn-Incredibles.htm

    The article has a great quote from writer/director Brad Bird: ”Wrong-headed liberalism seeks to give trophies to everyone just for existing, It seems to render achievement meaningless. That’s a weird goal.”

    I also liked “The Usual Suspects”. And “The Matrix” is so good that not even the sequels can spoil it.

  19. Ah, I loved watching “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day Lewis. Like most movies made from a book, it strayed far from home. BUT, it was visually and aurally stunning. I could watch this one, rewind it and watch it again.

  20. Eric, thanks for the list. I was on the verge of asking for your list when you put this up.

    Saw “The Incredibles” again last night. Agree that its was fantastic. I wonder how much of that ultimately comes from Pixar being around Silicon Valley, and not around Hollywood.

    [Minor Spoiler] I thought, however, they went a touch overboard when Syndrome repeated “when everybody is special, nobody is.” The first time it fit great. The second time was knocking you over the head.

  21. >I thought, however, they went a touch overboard when Syndrome repeated “when everybody is special, nobody is.” The first time it fit great. The second time was knocking you over the head.

    I think the second time was dramatic symmetry.

  22. “The Incredibles” knocking-over-the-head:

    Tom, I actually agreed with you when I saw it. Yeah, nice symmetry, but hmmm….

    Then I talked to a couple of (pretty intelligent) friends of mine who had COMPLETELY missed the sub-text. So I think the subtlety of the subtext depends a lot on your previous experience with how society treats gifted people.

  23. I can understand a negative reaction to ROTK if you haven’t seen the extended editions of the movies. The entire love story between Faramir and Eowyn, for example, renews an underlying theme (for me, anyway) of life renewing under the grimmest of circumstances. Yet it’s reduced to one side glance and smile in the theatrical release. The extended edition does a much better job of telling this part of the story.

    Others have complained about the ghost army counterattack being moved to Minas Tirith. My retort has been to say well, if you put in the battle where they actually were dismissed in any level of detail you are going to add another 30 minutes to the film. Would you really have wanted to sit through all that?

    And think about the very tough scenes that Jackson did get right (not necessarily a slavish duplication of the books, just right in the sense that he translated the scenes rather well):

    Denethor’s attempt to take his wounded son with him into the flames. I LOVED the fact that his dramatic death went essentially unnoticed on the battlefield. Great use of the camera pullback.

    Faramir and Eowyn on the battlements. Matches the description of the scene in the book nearly perfectly.

    Frodo and Sam in Mordor.

    Frodo and Sam’s rescue by the eagles.

    The battle at the gates of Mordor wasn’t exactly necessary, but worked for me. Aragorn’s stunned reaction to the ‘news’ that Frodo was dead was perfect.

  24. Jeremy: yeah, I think Sin City was the most abso-bloody-lutely amazing film experience of the last five (if not more years). I wonder why Eric left it out.

    I am sick of pseudo-Christian representations of good and bad. Anything that can show a different viewpoint on that, like Sin City, is a refreshing experience.

    I wish the Storytelling RPG games cycle of Mark Reinhagen (White Wolf), like Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Wraith: The Oblivion etc. could the into movies. All of them provide an interestingly un-traditional perspective on evil… and maybe on good.

  25. I am with you on everything but THE LAST SAMURAI, but then I hold that any movie can be destroyed in the first 30 seconds by the appearance of Tom Cruise — with the single exception of Magnolia.

  26. I will never in a million years understand why Kevin Costner, a commtted gun grabber, made such a brilliant and moving paen to the right to keep and bear as Open Range was.

    But I’m very glad he did.

    Although in general the message of be as incredible as you can was good, there’s one thing that left a sour taste in my mouth: The Incredibles were born with their talents. They had to practice to be tip-top, but in general, they did nothing to earn them.

    Syndrome, though, designed and built all of the tools he used to duplicate, and sometimes improve on, the natural superpowers. In a way, his intelligence and talent were, in and of themselves, superpowers.

    Mr. Incredible made a grave mistake when he rejected Syndrome’s desire for a mentor. Syndrome was not a ordinary, if clumsy, fan. He was just as much a super as any of them, and in many ways, more flexible and adaptable than most. (The robot warrior was an excellent metaphor for that. Almost all of the supers in the story had to team up to beat that one invention of Syndromes.)

    I, too, was willing to dismiss Last Samurai for starring Tom Cruise, and for the idealized history. In the end, I didn’t care. The movie wasn’t at all about the relative worth between American and Japanese cultures.

    Instead, it was about finding the best of both cultures.

  27. The Incredibles

    It’s not what Syndrome had, it’s what he did with it. Syndrome perverted his super-genius to *pretend* to be a superhero. He didn’t want to do good. He wanted the fame and acclaim. It’s not Mr. Incredible’s fault that Syndrome chose the dark side.

    Master & Commander

    I wanted the first book in the series filmed. Aubrey’s meeting with Maturin, his first command… It would have been GREAT! If Paul Bettany was too tall, then Russell Crowe wasn’t chubby enough to play Jack Aubrey.

    The LOTR Trillogy Got Two Major Plot Points Wrong

    1) Nobody in the book pretended that to destroy the ring would destroy evil forever. Sauron was merely the most recent and the most dangerous enemy. The fact that his victory would be all but permanent did not mean his defeat would end evil for all time.

    2) The elves made the three. They taught Sauron ring-making “while he was still fair to look upon.”

    LOTR was a meditation on the differences between good and evil. How to tell one from the other. The danger of becoming evil yourself. Jackson missed most of that.

  28. I really liked Batman begins. The genre of comic-book hero in cinema is not for everybody, like semi-standardized production-line films, but Mr Nolan does the hero justice in a well thought-out and meticulously crafted film. There is no need for hesitation at the cinema, Batman Begins delivers.

  29. Lord of the Rings trilogy was so powerful because it was produced without the usually requisite leftist Hollywood template. There was no moral equivalence between Orcs and Hobbits. Warriors were not duped into fighting for the wealth of a few elites. War was not demonized as never being the answer.
    In LotR, evil needed to be confronted at all costs and even in the face of certain defeat. Honor, duty, heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism were celebrated as noble motivations and not treated as naive sentiments. I wonder if the shock of 9-11 created a temporarily receptive atmosphere for such non leftist themes in Hollywood and how drastically different LotR would turn out if produced today.

    I think LotR would resemble something closer to a movie called “Land of the Dead”. This 2005 film was the fourth installment in director George A. Romero’s graphic zombie horror series. Very early at the beginning of the movie, I realized that the director’s intention was to make a symbolic political protest statement against George Bush and ignorant red state Americans. In attempting to do so, the film inadvertently tipped the progressive left’s hand as to how they perceive violent threats to America and how they would respond to them. The movie clearly underscores the Left’s utter lack of interest in defending America from any threat no matter how violent or evil it is.

    In the movie, cannibalistic zombies driven by hunger, seek out living humans to kill and partially consume (though not necessarily in that order). The freshly killed victims then transmogrified into zombies themselves and joined in on the noble quest to feed on the tasty entrails of the living. Apparently genocidal, wholesale murder was their forte because as the film portrayed, the fiends had succeeded in wiping out 95% of all humanity and forcibly converting them into the ranks of the walking dead.

    One would assume that the evil protagonists in the film would be the millions of blood thirsty cannibals, right? Wrong. In Land of the Dead, the “real” evil was the corporate boss who had built a protected area to keep the zombies out. This capitalist oppressor even had the audacity to provide food, electricity, security, and other essential services to the masses for a fee! Apparently the capitalist’s crime of unequal distribution of wealth was more egregious than the zombie’s egalitarian distribution of death.

    As the zombies launch an all out offensive against the last human inhabited city, an elite group of human “heroes” presses their attack against city’s leader. Let me reiterate that scenario again. Zombies are at the gates with a murderous intent to violently kill every living person in the city and an elite group of soldiers choose to attack the one man responsible for the city’s protection.

    If you are scratching your head and asking why would they take such a self destructive action, then welcome to the Left’s reaction to the current global war on terror. Today we face an evil enemy whose only goal is the violent death of all who disagree with their nihilistic vision. And rather than address this real and growing threat, the Left chooses to ignore it and focus their martial efforts upon President Bush instead. If this course of action makes no sense as a plot line in a grade B horror flick, then just how crazy does this make those who follow it now as America faces real monsters at her gates?

    In another eerie parallel with the global war on terror, the film tries to justify the cannibal’s final assault on the city as an understandable response to several raids conducted by humans on the un-dead’s recently acquired “homeland”. Trivial facts such as who had started the conflict and that hundreds of millions of humans had been previously murdered were conveniently never considered. The zombies did not kill in response to the humiliating treatment they had historically endured at the hands of the living. The zombies killed because that’s what zombies do.

    The climactic scene in Land of the Dead shows the corporate building sacked and the evil capitalist boss deservingly burned alive (yippee!). With the city’s defenses destroyed, the zombies are finally allowed to enjoy their justified revenge on the remaining humans. Apparently the un-dead had never read the famous quotation about “revenge being a dish best served and eaten cold”.

    As the elites bask in the bringing down of the city’s corporate boss, (along with food and water distribution, electricity, security, and other essential services) they spot a group of zombies crossing a bridge nearby. When one member of the team raises her weapon at them and prepares to fire she is stopped by the leader who stoically opines “They are just looking for a place to go”. Ah, moral relativism at its best! I think the line should have read “They are just looking for a place to go digest”. I wonder, where do you think the zombies are going to go when they get hungry again in a few hours?

    The film ends with the elite team driving off to Canada oblivious to the fact that they were abandoning the people they had just rendered defenseless and without basic services. In the classical liberal tradition, elites formulated a solution to a problem that affected others but not themselves. Invariably, the impact of the “cure” became worse than the underlying “disease”.

    It is obvious that there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn between how the left reacts to fictional film characters and how they react to real world threats. But consider that the movie Land of the Dead was a serious dramatic effort. To the screenwriter the storyline made sense. To the director the scenes made sense. To the Hollywood Left the film made sense because the themes portrayed mirror their own political and social views. The bottom line is that if it seems reasonable that powerful right leaning political leaders are viewed as greater threats than cannibalistic zombies, then it is reasonable to view those leaders as greater threats than mere human jihadists

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