Monday, June 21, 2010

Top and Bottom of the Aughts - #1

Looking over my top and bottom 10 of the decade, I noticed an interesting trend. The films in my top ten create new, interesting, and believable worlds and successfully immerse the audience in them. As a result, science fiction and fantasy are heavily represented on the list, but even Master and Commander, a realistic historical drama, may be the most immersive film on the list. On the flip-side, the common thread for all the movies on my bottom 10 is they try to create new and immersive worlds, but fail horribly at it. The top and bottom movies on this list turn out to both be perfect examples of this phenomenon.

The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
There was really no contest for the top spot. These three films succeed on every level and were easily the most anticipated movies of the decade. I love the book and Peter Jackson did a superb job translating it to the screen. He brought Middle Earth to life so believably that it feels like a real place, seamlessly blending sets, models, matte paintings, CGI, and natural location so that it is impossible to tell where one leaves off and another begins. There are both huge battles and wonderful little character moments, all set against my favorite score of all time. It is a story of heroism and sacrifice with great deeds being done by even the most insignificant of people. As an added bonus, the Extended Edition DVDs are the best DVD set ever made. For starters, they look great on a DVD shelf, but inside they are crammed with hours and hours of documentaries that cover all aspects of making the films without endlessly repeating themselves, managing to be both informative and entertaining.

Battlefield Earth (2000)
I had read the book and enjoyed it, so I was eager to see the movie, as were several of my friends (who had also read and enjoyed the book). We all got together to see what was going to be the next science fiction epic on opening weekend. Boy were we disappointed. Instead of an epic, we were treated to a poorly constructed story that constantly forces the characters to do unbelievably stupid things for no apparent reason. The aliens come across looking like bad Star Trek alien-of-the-week rejects and while they are supposed to be evil and domineering, they come across as just silly. And to make matters worse, half the time the camera was tilted at such a drastic angle that I felt like I was going to fall off my chair at any second. And then there is John Travolta’s performance of Terl, the leader of the aliens. He is so over the top that he can never be taken seriously and becomes painful to watch by the story’s end. The human characters don’t come off any better. None of them are interesting in any way and the audience never has any reason to develop an emotional connection with any of them. And then they find centuries old 20th century technology that amazingly still works, and start flying around in jet fighters with no training. This is a movie that manages to fail on every level, making it well worthy of the “honor” of the worst movie of the decade.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Top and Bottom of the Aughts - #2

The Incredibles (2004)
Bob Parr was forced to give up his career in law enforcement. Now he is working at a dead end desk job, trying to support his wife and three children. Helen, his wife, has fully embraced the domestic lifestyle but Bob cannot help but feel restless in his mundane life. And then Bob loses his job. Will this event start Bob on a downward spiral that will end with his family falling apart, or will this be the jumping off point for a new and more exciting life? And did I mention, this is an animated movie and Bob and all his family have super powers? All the characters are wonderfully crafted and the screenplay sings as it creates an emotional roller coaster. There is a villain straight out of a James Bond movie, a wonderfully eccentric costume designer, and a surprising moment of pure joy smack dab in the middle of a deadly pursuit. Sure the action is thrilling, the animation is superb (what else could be expected from Pixar?) but the real strength of the film is the very human family trying to make their way in a mediocre world.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
This film is completely unbelievable on so many levels. Why does dad getting to his son make everything alright, even though they will still be trapped in ice-bound New York City? Why are the merry band of survivors trapped inside a library insisting on only burning books when there are plenty of wooden desks and other pieces of furniture just lying around that will burn longer and better than books? What is added to the film by adding a pointless sub-plot with a pack of bad CG wolves? Why is it that while it is so cold that people turn into instant popsicles when they open the door, they are not visibly cold before opening said door? Why does global WARMING result in an ICE age? Why should we even care about any of these characters when they’re all going to die horribly anyway? And of course there is my favorite exchange: [people on Earth talking to astronauts in space] “We have reports that the storm in North America is breaking up. Can you confirm this?” “Yes. We’re over Europe right now.” So not only does director Roland Emmerich fail story construction, character development, fire 101, and simple scientific principles, he also manages to fail geography as well.

Coming up next: the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Any predictions as to which ones?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Top and Bottom of the Aughts - #3

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
The year is 1805. The HMS Surprise under Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is ordered to track down the French ship Acheron and capture or sink her. What follows is a thrilling cat and mouse game bookended by two electrifying sea battles. But it is more than just a story of high adventure as we are immersed in the day-to-day life aboard a British war ship, from the captain all the way down to the lowliest cabin boy. We see how deadly the ocean can be, both during a terrible storm as well as a dead calm. It is also very much a character drama as Aubrey gets both support and blunt criticism from his old friend the ship’s doctor (Paul Bettany). The film even spends a few moments as a nature documentary. When I first watched the film, I spent most of my time concentrating on the interactions between Captain Aubrey and the doctor, with most of the other characters fading into the exquisite background. But on subsequent viewings I started picking up on more characters and the story arcs they have throughout the film, resulting in almost a dozen characters, each with his own little story inside the big one, waiting to be discovered by the attentive viewer.

Happy Feet (2006)
How on earth could a film this lame and implausible win the Oscar for best animated feature? I felt like I was watching a 100 minute Coke commercial, without the morbid potential of the polar bears actually eating the penguins. The comedy fell flat, the musical numbers were dull, and watching an animated creature with no legs tap dancing just does not have the same appeal (nor is as impressive) as a real person doing all the moves. Robin Williams was way over the top in his dual roles, doing broad racial voice stereotypes. There was very little to distinguish the penguins from each other and of course the villains in the film were the religious conservatives, doing their part to keep our hero from being his unique self. And then there is the completely implausible joke of an ending, where humanity decides to stop fishing because they saw a bunch of penguins tap dancing. Do they actually think humanity would be that benevolently minded towards this subspecies? (Or that stupid?) I think what would really happen is Ringling Bros. would snap up as many of the penguins as possible and put their tap dancing in the center ring. Of course, what should you expect from a film with a moronic title like Happy Feet?

Coming up next: an incredible movie and an uncredible one.