Friday, May 19, 2017

Films of 2017: "The Lego Batman Movie"


In the opening minutes of The Lego Batman Movie, star and lead voice-actor Will Arnet's impression of Christian Bale provides hilarious commentary ("Black. All great movies begin in black") over what could be an alternate and humorous prologue to The Dark Knight (2008). Along with the moment where butler Alfred practically recaps the Caped Crusader's live-action cinematic history--including "that weird one in 1966"--the humor in this film is so self-aware and meta, it gives Deadpool a run for his money.

According to one resource, Batman is regarded as one of the most adaptable fictional characters in any media and art form. Whether as as campy 1960s cartoon, a dark and brooding vigilante, or a mysterious hero, he's made his mark on almost every medium in history. This time around, he's given a slight twist. Batman may be the biggest hero in Gotham City, but at home he's a loner. (Although he wouldn't be the first to admit that.) As Alfred tells him, "Your biggest fear is being part of a family again."

"I've seen you go through similar phases, Master Bruce."
And then, the Joker--out of humiliation that Batman doesn't consider him his "greatest enemy"--hatches a plan that unleashes chaos on Gotham (though not as we expect). And then, newly appointed police commissioner Barbara Gordon makes a deal with Batman to save the city on the sole condition that they (along with Alfred and newly-adoptive kid Dick Grayson/Robin) do it together.

While The Lego Movie (2014) really tapped into the mindset of childlike imagination and creativity when it comes to playing with toys (and it did so with art, style and substance), this sophomoric outing and spin-off seems to have been made by filmmakers and comedy writers having a ball by aiming more for pure satire, silliness, and commentary on the Dark Knight's legacy and mythology. Nevertheless, they still manage to tell a surprising, in-depth story, even though the film seems to abandon, at times, the charm of Lego figurines.

The voice cast is clever, with Zach Galifinakis as the Joker, Michael Cera as Robin, Rosario Dawson as Barbara/Batgirl, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and just about every member of Batman's rogue's gallery on display. I did also enjoy the clever homages to classic movie villains from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and even "Doctor Who." All of these elements give the film a colorful charm that would fit right at home at a Cosplay event. On the other hand, this film could arguably serve as an antidote for the retrospectively-depressing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), as well as a lead-in to this fall's highly-anticipated Justice League (which, according to the trailers, promises to be an entertaining and rocking thrill ride). With that in mind, Lego Batman, perhaps, is truly the first film that bridges the gap between the campy Batman and the dark and brooding version.


Adults will probably enjoy this one more than kids, which is both a plus and sort of a minus, in terms of subtle references that will easily fly over the latter's heads (like clips from the R-rated Jerry McGuire, as well as the aforementioned movie-villain homages in the Phantom Zone sequence). The same goes for an arguably subtle nod to Suicide Squad's original treatment ("What am I gonna do? Get a bunch of criminals to fight criminals?") Nevertheless, Lego Batman is still a fun ride for any and every Batman fan, with messages of family, self-doubt, and teamwork over individualism ("It takes a village, not a Batman"), as well as the theme of losing loved ones and yet honoring those still in our lives. Now, that's something you don't see every day in the form of colorful toy bricks.

Films of 2017: "Get Out"


The goal of comedy is to get people to laugh, whereas the goal of horror is to get people to be scared. As a filmgoer, those who know me well know that I generally try to avoid horror films, as a large majority of them arguably focus on nihilistic and mean-spirited gore and violence, which makes them very maddening and even palpable. (Read here for my review of the Scream series, despite its clever meta aspects). It's rare, though, that a "horror" film actually has something provocative to say, in spite of its excess in said gore and/or fright factors. With that in mind, I did find "Cabin in the Woods" (2012) interesting to an extent, due to its meta elements.

Get Out, the directorial debut from Jordan Peele (one half of the famous comedy duo Key & Peele), is another rare case of a horror-thriller with such social commentary--in this case, racial fears in America. Having read many reviews of this film (without spoilers), not to mention its 99 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was intrigued to view it--with discretion and discernment, of course.

Director Jordan Peele behind the scenes
The premise is simple. A young Caucasian woman named Rose (Girls star Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend Chris (Sicario's Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford as a neurosurgeon and Catherine Keener as a hypnotist-psychiatrist) for the weekend, and things take a shocking turn for the worse. The objective isn't so much a lesson in morals or values, but really (as most films of this genre go) a fight for survival.

One of Peele's influences was reportedly George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, which features a black protagonist, with perhaps a little Guess Who's Coming to Dinner-meets-Stepford Wives thrown in. (Isn't it just creepy the way the house servants talk?!?) Peele also balances elements of comedy (especially Chris's TSA friend Rod, played by LilRel Howery) with clich├ęd jump scares.

Daniel Kaluuya
The result, though a brilliantly-made film that would easily fit alongside the filmographies of Romero and John Carpenter, is creepy. The opening scene, for instance, shows a young black man walking down a quiet and lonely street at night, until he's quietly followed. (The song playing in the car following him is the 1930s classic "Run Rabbit Run".) Along with subtle themes of abduction, brainwashing (mental paralysis), and power, Peele reportedly provides an expression of the black experience via an effective, often comedic, and downright frightening horror-thriller. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)


Franchises and series have had a long history--particularly in books--prior to the motion picture industry in the 1900s onward, from Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan adventures to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes investigations to the Grimm Brothers' countless interpretations of classic fairy tales. The novels of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) carry an equal baggage of adventure, mystery, and fantasy. Despite the author's dislike for allegory (unlike friend C.S. Lewis's use of the form in his beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" series), his admiration for history, linguistics, and applicable themes and characters is evident throughout his most famous works that comprise his world of "Middle-earth"--"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". (The same goes for his posthumous work, "The Silmarrilion," which chronicles the history of elves in this universe.)

Only previously adapted into several audio versions and a 1978 animated feature directed by Ralph Bakshi, the thought of adapting what was long considered (even by Tolkien himself) an "unfilmable" work was risky, let alone daunting. Nevertheless, acclaimed filmmaker and New Zealand-native Peter Jackson (whose previous credits at the time included low-budget, gross-out horror movies, as well as the true-story crime-thriller Heavenly Creatures [1994] and the Michael J. Fox-led horror-comedy The Frighteners [1996]), wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh, co-writer Phillipa Boyens, creative director Richard Taylor and the folks at Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital and the Weta Workshop, embarked on a seven year odyssey to bring The Lord of the Rings (which celebrated fifteen years last year since it first premiered in theaters) to the big screen. The results were unprecedented at the time, considering a motion picture trilogy had never been released within the span of three years (predating the two-part finales of fantasy novels Harry Potter and Twilight, and, of course, almost all the films in the Marvel Studios canon), and they remain phenomenal.


The story, which begins with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), centers on the One Ring of power that the evil lord Sauron plans to use to destroy Middle-earth, and the quest made by hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who was entrusted with said Ring from his cousin Bilbo Baggins (the hero of "The Hobbit"), to the fires of Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan); loyal friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd); ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); soldier Boromir (Sean Bean); elf and archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), each representing distinct cultures. Those that stand in Frodo's way include, of course, Sauron (represented in the shape of a giant eye), the corrupted wizard Saruman (the legendary Christopher Lee), armies of orcs and trolls and other frightening creatures as wolf-like Wargs and a giant spider, and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), once a simple individual who had, long ago, tragically fallen captive to the Ring's power).

The main reason the films hold up is that Tolkien's themes remain in tact. Multiculturalism. Power. Deception. Fellowship. Courage. Heroism. Heritage. Legacy. Myth. Environmentalism. History. It's all there. Having served in both World Wars, Tolkien, like many of his comrades, had traumatic experiences and would express them through literature. In "The Two Towers" (part two of this series), for instance, the scenes involving the Dead Marshes represent fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, Aragorn (who is revealed to be the lost heir of a fallen kingdom) fears that he will fall into the same weaknesses as his ancestors, whereas Boromir (the son of a misguided and maddening steward of said kingdom) feels equally misguided and conflicted in his quest to do what he believes is right for his people, considering the loss of hope in the process.


At the same time, Tolkien believed that there were things worth fighting for--friendship, family, and above all good triumphing over evil. The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring provides an understanding of the history and mythology of Middle-earth, as if it were a real world with real and fantastical places. Therefore, the "War of the Ring" in his fantasy epic represents a war that had to be fought. The epilogue of The Two Towers (2002), as spoken by Sam, assures this point. With that in mind, the central heart of the story is the journey of Frodo and Sam (representing the role of English officers and their loyal and accountable batmen).

Other themes include the role of technology, specifically in Saruman's role of greed and power (a la the Industrial Revolution) against the forces of nature, and vice versa. Then there's the role of fear, not only in the form of a giant fiery eye (Sauron, representing monoism and true evil), but also that of a giant diseased and decaying spider. And there is the theme of leadership and heritage, illustrated in the White Tree of Gondor (as seen in The Return of the King [2003]), which reportedly represents a line of kings.


From Page To Screen
The script process started out as a 90-page treatment in the mid-Nineties, followed by a two-film promotion, at almost every major studio. Finally, it was the Time Warner-owned New Line Cinema that insisted there be three films--since there were three books. (Decades before George Lucas had initially intended with Star Wars, Tolkien had intended "The Lord of the Rings" as one whole book, and it reportedly took him eleven-to-twelve years, between 1937 and 1948, to write and complete it before it was first published in 1954-1955.)


As with most films adapted from novels or plays or books, there are certainly many elements that purists would likely argue over. In this case, the absence of the popular character Tom Bombadil and the "Scourging of the Shire" climax, as well as the restructuring of different stories being intersected or told simultaneously rather than separately. (Tolkien's purpose in doing this, particularly with the second and third volumes, was to create "realism from not knowing what's going on," therefore providing tension and anticipation in the overall narrative.) Jackson and company also turned to the Appendix sources found at the end of the text for "The Return of the King" for certain ideas and materials.

The overall structure of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, compared with Fellowship, is different and complex, with the former being the middle chapter, of course. Various story lines alternate or are juxtaposed, from Frodo and Sam's unlikely guidance by Gollum to Mordor, to the journey to the kingdom of Rohan by Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf; to Merry & Pippin's encounter with the age-old Ent Treebeard; and to Saruman's dominion over the land of Isengard. Both this film and King use careful chronology of events in the book while maintaining the essence of the overall story. The Two Towers improves on the first film with an even more engaging and progressive story about holding on to hope, regardless of the world and its circumstances. (There's a great moment where Aragorn encourages a young boy readying for battle.) It even emphasizes the importance of tales and storytelling (as in the scene where Sam wonders if he and Frodo will be remembered by such means). But it's The Return of the King that culminates all of the technological and emotional sophistication that Jackson and company had carried through the seven-year odyssey in creating and completing this story for the screen. Here, they pull out all the stops, as never before seen in film, with the darkest, most grim, and most emotional of the films. Is it any wonder this final film won Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars?


The advancements in computer-generated effects at the turn of the 21st century bring Tolkien's work to visual life, including improvements and reshoots (and "pick-ups") made in each subsequent film. An interesting fact: principal photography finished in December 2000 (with a scene at Minas Tirith), and the last "pick-up" reshoot took place in July 2003, five months before Return of the King was released. The fact that these films were made in New Zealand, for one thing, has made the country not only synonymous with Middle-earth but also an acclaimed and popular tourist attraction in recent years.

In addition, the growth of Weta Digital over the years has been staggering. For instance, Fellowship has 540 VFX shots, The Two Towers has 799, and Return of the King has 1488. The development and revolution of motion-capture technology (or, "mo-cap"), especially with Andy Serkis's dedicated and unforgettable performance as Gollum, is equally impressive. Serkis has practically become a legend in the "mo-cap" community, with his subsequent work on Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and the reboots of Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014). Again, the detail is not just there for its own sake, but to represent and illustrate culture and history (putting aside that it's all fantasy). Howard Shore's score is epic, adventurous, emotional, and "culturally significant."

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) on the set of The Return of the King (2003)
The work of the entire cast and crew not only paid off commercially and critically, but also led to an unprecedented and deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a total of eleven Oscars (tying with 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic) in every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Not bad for a fantasy epic long considered "unfilmable," not to mention a once low-budget filmmaker soon on his way to returning another "King."