Director: Ridley Scott
So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…
In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.
Director: Gareth (“G.H.”) Evans
Well, clearly I haven’t watched anywhere near as many films for this “smaller Asian countries” challenge at ICM, but at least I’m signing off on a fairly good note… since we have a while yet for the third Raid film to appear, this seemed like a good opportunity to finally pull this one off the watchlist. Having invoked the Raid films, of course, I should probably add that I might have enjoyed this a bit more had I not seen those films first, cos I now know what he’s capable of, and, well, he doesn’t quite pull it off here in the same way. That said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it or anything (well, except for some of the post-synced sound, and I don’t think that was just my copy at fault), it’s just that it was Evans’ first film of this sort and it’s a bit more derivative and not as tightly controlled. The plot revolves around an old Sumatran tradition called merantau, where the young men go on a sort of walkabout (yes, way to mangle not exactly identical cultural references together, Russell) from their rural communities to the big city to prove themselves as adults; this is the situation our hero, Yuda, is in. Things kind of immediately turn to shit when he finds the place he’s supposed to stay in Jakarta doesn’t actually exist, but then a series of encounters leads him to brush up against a human trafficking ring. Like I said, not the most original narrative, but with the sort of action on show, who cares about that? I know bugger all about silat—the Indonesian martial art on display—but it looks amazing on screen, and the action choreography (really, Hollywood needs to make Iko Uwais a big star and I don’t know why they haven’t yet) is incredible at times… there’s a few particularly berserk bits of stunt action where I can’t believe the performers didn’t sustain serious injury, including some falls from heights onto… well, solid ground with nothing to stop them. There are some right “fucking hell” moments throughout. Like I said, not as good as what Evans and Uwais would pull off in The Raid, but a worthy enough bit of action entertainment in its own right nonetheless…
Director: George Lucas
And at last the backstory comes to an end, in what is frankly superior fashion to the first two parts; even the Golden Raspberry people acknowledged this fact by only nominating it for one Razzie rather than the several the previous films were put up for. Indeed, I think I’d almost go so far as to say the opening sequence alone, i.e. the whole battle to rescue Palpatine, is better than the first two films together. It’s fun in a way those films weren’t, and, to be sure, the rest of this film isn’t. But then again, Revenge was probably doomed to otherwise be the least fun film in the whole sage; this, after all, had to culminate in a very particular way and everything had to build thereto accordingly. And so Lucas hits the “dark and serious” switch, and finally seems to take more interest in the actual story; it’s like he realised “shit, I’d better actually give Anakin a reason for becoming Darth Vader”… the end result is as full of Stuff Happening as the previous two films, but it seems a lot more controlled and less messy. And I do like how it ultimately subverts the usual “chosen one” narrative, the boy meant to reconcile the Force ends up doing bugger all of the sort. And it also gives fuller vent than the previous films to Lucas’ apparent fascination with people getting their hands cut off, which was kind of disturbing before but now attains unpleasant new heights (I spotted a couple more on this viewing that I don’t think I’d previously noticed). Still, that aside, I was a lot happier to see this again than I was Phantom Menace or Clones; indeed, I think this is the only one of the three I’d actually previously seen more than once, and it’s the only one I’d particularly wish to see again. 7mate are rerunning the original trilogy after this, so I’ll be reporting on those in due course too…
Director: George Lucas
Well, it didn’t seem as bad tonight as I remembered it being. Which is, of course, not to say that it’s particularly good as such, cos it’s not really. I recall star Ewan McGregor, indeed, being particularly scathing of it around that time, which is kind of amusing given that he’s one of the weakest links in the whole damn thing. How much of it is his fault, though? This is what I now find myself wondering… cos at the time, Hayden Christensen also copped a lot of flak for his performance as Anakin, and I knew he actually had more ability than he displays here cos I’d seen him in Shattered Glass, in which I recall him being really good, before I first saw this. So is it just down to the writing being, you know, shit? I think Christensen actually does nail the scene where he describes the Tusken slaughter, which makes me think that the crapness of so many of his other scenes being down to him not being given much to work with. Maybe that was Ewan’s problem too.
Otherwise, most of what I had to say about Phantom Menace basically applies to this too—fantastically flashy and shiny to look at (this was one of the first Hollywood films shot all-digitally) but… yeah. On the plus side, almost no Jar Jar (though as the trivia section in the film’s IMDB entry amusingly observes, he effectively brings about the end of the old Republic, making him one of the most important figures in the entire saga) and the comic relief gets passed onto C3PO, who’s better suited to it (though some of his lines are godawful). Again, though, really too much stuff going on, and Lucas seemed comparatively uninterested in keeping the lines of who’s-doing-what-when-and-why as clear as he could’ve done… possibly, admittedly, I may not have paid as much attention as I could’ve done myself, but when it came to the big climactic battle I was confused by the appearance of the clones, cos I don’t think I’d realised they were actually on the Republic’s side. Took me a while to work that out. Anyway, so much for that. Episode III will be up in due course…
Director: Mark Hartley
Reaching for the comfort food again. This is such a joy, it was when I first saw it at the preview theatrette under the State Theatre in 2008, it was again tonight after I’d rummaged through a pile of DVDs to find it, the opportunity to hate-watch those unspeakable bores Phillip Adams (who still won’t admit The Naked Bunyip was, in its own way, just as exploitative as any of the later genre films he hates) and Bob Ellis (hey Bob! Any more guesses as to when the Abbott government will collapse?) is always good, and the sheer enthusiasm of the film for its subject—the wacky world of Australian genre filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s—is completely winning. Particularly Quentin Tarantino; I know some people were a bit grumpy at having this American tell us how great our popular cinema back then was (though I gather his participation was kind of a necessary condition for getting the film funded and made at all), but his pleasure at these films is so explosive and genuine that it feels churlish to complain about his presence. And to be sure not everyone in the doco is equally enthusiastic about their participation in the sometimes shabbier end of the Australian film industry revival (I’ve been kind of hard about some of the fruits of same myself in the past); the somewhat cavalier attitudes evinced in the making of a number of the films under discussion—particularly when it came to the safety of stuntmen and actors—can’t always be regarded as admirable as such, so some of the mixed feelings are perfectly understandable. Yet sometimes all you can do is admire the sheer nerve and gall on display; it stuns me that Grant Page in particular is not only still alive but actually having something of a late-career renaissance in the 21st century. Not Quite Hollywood is pretty damn good as an actual piece of filmmaking in its own right, sharply edited and stylish, and a terrific primer on a side of the industry I daresay most of our guardians of film-cultural taste still wish had never happened…
Director: Peter Jackson
Now, I have no memories of seeing this in the cinema, probably because I never saw it on the big screen… the end of 2003/start of 2004 when it was in cinemas was, shall we say, a bad time for me personally and healthwise, so, in spite of everything, LotR:RotK was suddenly no longer the priority it had been two years earlier… and not only did I not see it until the DVD came out, it wasn’t until three or four years after the DVD came out that I finally watched the damn thing at last. Let’s face it, that’s not too much of a surprise, cos finding the time and inclination to sit down with a four-hour film doesn’t come easily; even the shorter theatrical version was the longest of the three films, and the extended DVD version was even more of a time investment.
Entirely worth it, of course; indeed, the thing that impressed me most about watching it again tonight—my second viewing, this time from Blu-ray (and I actually watched slightly more of the battle with Shelob this time, I feel oddly proud of myself for that)—is how consistent the whole trilogy is. Each of the films is actually as good as the two others. I did notice, though, that this feels much more like a continuation of the second film than the latter did of the first film, but then again I think I always felt that way about the books as well; Fellowship has always felt like it stood slightly apart from the other two books somehow, and the same is kind of true of the films, hard to explain quite why. What a continuation, though; the Helm’s Deep setpiece in Two Towers really is just a foreshadowing of the havoc here… and I think it bears out my opinion that Jackson’s restructuring of the material paid off well; displacing Shelob from the end of book two to the middle of film three was, I think, a sound choice, and even more so was the complete casting aside of the whole “scouring of the Shire” business… I mean, I remember people complaining at the time that the film had “too many endings”, as if the original book didn’t or something… Yeah, on the whole I think it’s held up pretty well and will continue to do so in years to come.
Director: Peter Jackson
So I mentioned my memories of seeing Fellowship on the big screen in my review of that film, which means I may as well do the same here… Circumstances were markedly different; the first film I saw as a media preview on a very big screen at Hoyts, but the second I saw just after its release on a markedly smaller screen (if I remember rightly, and I possibly don’t, it was at the late lamented Academy Twin in Paddington). And I didn’t like it as much as the first film. Possibly because it was a “lesser” experience, possibly because the CGi and other trickery seemed more noticeable in this film for some reason, and possibly because I went in assuming that, you know, “second part of a trilogy” syndrome would hold true because, you know, it just does. I actually kind of rediscovered the film on DVD, and realised it was better than I’d initially credited it with being. It’s still unavoidably the “middle film”, but it’s also the part of the story where it expands to encompass the wider world, and the war for Middle Earth begins in earnest. Rewatching tonight made me realise Gimli is rather more “light relief” in Two Towers (apart from the “…toss me” bit at Helm’s Deep) than I remembered him being, but it also reminded me that, other than the amazing Helm’s Deep set-piece battle, the film did two genuinely remarkable things; one, the realisation of the Ents (who always struck me as a bit preposterous in the book; Jackson makes them about as convincing as I suppose was possible), and two, the revelatory digital manifestation of Gollum. I remember talk at the time about Gollum being up for a best actor Oscar, cos there is, of course, much more to Andy Serkis’ performance than just him wearing the motion capture suit; obviously his own physicality translated into the CGI rendering, but he got the voice so right too, it was a fine match of physical and virtual… And yeah, I’m sure some still piss and moan about Jackson intercutting the two halves of the book, but I still reckon it works better for the film narrative, even if on tonight’s reviewing I found the attempt at telling the story chronologically didn’t feel like it quite stood up to scrutiny (and as I’ve said before, if I notice something wrong, etc.)… but on the whole, very pleasing to revisit this, a worthy successor to Fellowship.
Director: Peter Jackson
So the third Hobbit film is out now, and the arguments will no doubt long continue as to the merits of Jackson taking one book and making three films of it; having seen exactly none of the Hobbit trilogy, and also not having read the book in nearly 30 years, I can’t contribute to said arguments. However, I do feel sure that no one will deny that he was right to insist that, in the case of Lord of the Rings, three books not be made into one film. (Remember the Ralph Bakshi version? I wish I couldn’t.) The ICheckMovies forum are doing a SF/fantasy challenge in January, so time to dust these beauties off again, although I’m sadly not game to marathon the whole lot at once; reason suggests I should spread them out a bit more than that. Maybe one a week? One a week.
Anyway—I may be a bit heretical in thinking Jackson’s telling of the story, across all three films, improves upon Tolkien’s, but I’ll stand by that. I have reread the three books since I last watched the entire trilogy, and the revisit only confirmed the impression. I did kind of sympathise with those who were heard to piss and moan at length back in 2001 about Tom Bombadil getting the arse in the film, but on rewatching tonight I found myself rather less so; Tom’s fine on the page, but I don’t think that episode would’ve served much purpose in the film. And rewatching tonight also kind of took me back to my very first viewing, a media preview at Hoyts on George St shown on a very big screen. It was AWE-INSPIRING. And I think it’s maintained its stature well, even if the CGI/green-screen business seems much more screamingly obvious to me now than it did back in 2001. The aforementioned digital tomfoolery may be more obvious now, but it’s still well done, with the whole film (natural and unnatural scenery) looking amazing even on the small screen. And it’s so well-cast (mostly; I was a bit less happy with Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett this time round), with New Zealand itself obviously being the real star of the thing. There just seems to be something… definitive about it. And I knew when I left the preview in 2001 that the second and third films were both going to have a hard time living up to that opening. Did they? Well, we’ll have to wait to find out this time next week…
Director: James Wan
This was on SBS tonight as part of their Wednesday night horror series for October; I’ve been recording some of the others but decided to just watch this as it aired. I remember thinking it was a pretty grotty piece of shit when I first saw it (on DVD, not long after the original release), and I can’t really say I feel any better disposed towards it now… Wan & Whannell were kind of quick to distance their film from the “torture porn” trend that followed in its wake, arguing that it was the rest of the series that really fit that description (which was only applied retrospectively anyway), but this is bullshit, of course; the film is full of it. Maybe not all as physical as later films in the series seems to have turned, but let’s not kid ourselves, torture is what it’s all about… albeit torture dressed up as self-improvement, cos that’s the rationale behind the film’s somewhat singular psycho, Jigsaw; dying as he is, he takes various people he considers don’t appreciate their existence well enough and runs them through various ghastly mechanical traps to see how far they’re willing to go to not get killed by them. This would be all fine and well if Saw gave us any reason to care about Jigsaw’s victims, but our two “heroes” in the body of the film, as played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell’s put-on American accent, are frankly a pair of irritating shits; Elwes the doctor having an affair with one of his medical students and Whannell the photographer hired to pursue him by a cop who suspects Elwes of being Jigsaw. Which, of course, he proves not to be, as we find in one of the most idiotic, logic-defying, you-have-got-to-be-fucking-joking climactic twists in film history… if the film had just been irritating up to that point, it suddenly turns actively insulting. I don’t think I’ll be missing much if I don’t give this a third go some time in the future, nor if I never see any of the other films in the series even once.
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller & Quentin Tarantino
With the impending local release of the much-delayed Sin City follow-up, SBS decided to do tonight what commercial TV usually does and show the original to tie in with the new film. Personally I have no interest in the sequel (the ads make it look like just more of the very same except in 3D) and never had any great desire to see the first film a second time after my first viewing of it, but I thought eh, may as well take the opportunity to see if I still hate it as much as I did then. And yeah, I did, pretty much. In its favour, of course, is its overall aesthetic, that astounding look taken pretty much directly from Frank Miller’s graphic novels; Sin City was one of the first films to be shot primarily on a digital backlot and I suppose it made full use of that technology’s potential for grand artifice. Pretty much everything is stylised, the overall look (that glorious high-contrast black and white with patches of colour), the action, even the narrative and certain of the characters (whoever did the casting did a terrific job of getting people who looked just right for their roles, particularly Mickey Rourke and Benicio del Toro). It’s beautiful to look at, and pretty repugnant to actually watch. I’d almost forgotten just how extreme Frank Miller’s apparent fetish for dismemberment is here, particularly beheading and chopping off hands; this is particularly interesting given some of his pronouncements about Islam, of which he is not a fan, and given that certain Islamic countries still do both of those things as punishment for crimes. I didn’t know much about Miller at that time apart from The Dark Knight Returns, which I’d read when I was 14 and had little real understanding of things political, so never really appreciated at the time just how right-wing it was; by 2005 I could tell there was something fundamentally unpleasant about Frank Miller and his work (which has arguably only been amplified over the years), and it was right there at the grotty heart of Sin City, going beyond just hard-boiled neo-noir to something kind of pointlessly unpleasant. Somehow the cartoonish style is unable to overcome that nastiness, and since the film otherwise has nothing much to offer beyond style, I found it tonight, much as I did back in 2005 or ’06 (whenever it was I saw it on DVD), pretty hard to stomach. I do still think Tarantino’s “guest appearance” is one of the good things about the film (terrific black humour in that scene), and I do partly regret not seeing it at a cinema (I can only imagine how handsome it’d look on the big screen), but yeah, still an ugly bit of work I’ve no real use for.