Sunday, February 20, 2011

Journeys among the fantastic

Some thoughts on some recently seen movies at Casa Jaquandor!

:: When we were moving from Hillsboro, OR to Allegany, NY in the summer of 1981, there was one day on the trip when my mother handed me a book and ordered me to read it. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I read it in its entirety that day. We started out that day somewhere in Nebraska and ended up somewhere in Indiana. I was riding the Ryder truck with my father; my mother and sister were in the pickup truck which was towing the camper. When we finally stopped at a Holiday Inn in Indiana, my father complained to my mother that he hadn't been able to talk to me all day, so absorbed was I in the book.

Unfortunately, I never found the subsequent books in the series remotely as captivating, and to this day, Lion, Witch and Wardrobe is the only one of the Narnia books that I've actually read. So except for the first movie (previously written about), I bring no assumptions or impressions with me into the films. I actually enjoyed Prince Caspian more than I did Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe; and I actually enjoyed The Voyage of the Dawn Treader more than Prince Caspian.

Mainly, I liked it because, aside from a few moments at the very end, Dawn Treader didn't seem to take itself as seriously as the previous two films did. This one just felt like more of a fairy tale adventure than Big Important Fantasy Battle Between Good and Evil.

I don't really have much more to say about it than that, maybe because I don't count the Narnia books among my favorite things, so I'm not terribly beholden to its message or the faithfulness with which it delivers that message. I'm not invested in whether or not the movie gets its CS Lewis right, or if by extension it gets the Jesus right. I'm trying to think up more to say about the movie, but I just don't have anything. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a genial, nice-looking, mostly entertaining fantasy adventure movie. That's fine with me.

(I could tell that the film was shot with 3D in mind, which made some of the cinematography a bit unpleasant at times. We saw it in 2D, because I think 3D is stupid.)

:: How to Train Your Dragon is a really, really fun movie. It's just a lot of fun, and it's got a lot of heart, and best of all, it does things, story-wise, that are actually surprising. I don't want to say too much about this animated tale about a young boy in a Viking village who befriends an injured dragon, but it's just a fine, fine movie. It's a pleasant piece of mainstream computer animation, but it's also a movie that doesn't fill its cast with cardboard stereotypes, opting instead for conflicts that are actually fairly complex. The story is your basic "War based on a misunderstanding" tale, but it finds some new things to saw within that framework, and the dragons themselves are a lot of fun to watch. (The main one seems to be more cat than lizard, if that makes sense.)

:: I've never been one to believe in the concept of "guilty pleasures", but damned if I don't think I have an honest-to-goodness guilty pleasure: the movie Armageddon. It's utterly ridiculous; it screens like a 150-minute rock video, with its endlessly moving camera; its story makes very little sense. All the movie really has going for it is some entertaining banter amongst the characters, and Bruce Willis in his full-on Bruce Willis mode. Oh God, Armageddon is a bad, bad, bad movie.

And yet...I watched the damn thing, yet again. Voluntarily. And I didn't feel that guilty at all. Except, maybe, in that feeling I get after I have my second slice of cake on my birthday. Of the two "giant rock hitting Earth" movies that came out roughly the same time, Deep Impact is the better movie. But Armageddon is the one I prefer to watch. Even with its horrible script, its cardboard characters, its abysmal scientific accuracy, and its relentless score that pounds away at you with all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a plate-glass window.

:: Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf is a movie I wanted to like a lot more than I did. The film actually has a very good script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, and it has an excellent cast. But the film is very nearly undone by its visuals.

The Beowulf story is a familiar one, and the film depicts its world with all of the bawdiness, raunchy behavior, and brutality that one might expect from a PG-13 film. Hrothgar's hall is being attacked by a horrible beast called Grendel whom no one can kill; enter the great warrior Beowulf, who kills Grendel but then discovers that Grendel isn't actually the real beast. The story is pretty straightforward.

Zemeckis's visuals, though, are too often distracting to the point that they ejected me right out of the story. The film is made in the "motion capture" animation style that The Polar Express had formerly exhibited. A lot of people hated the look of Polar Express, particularly the eyes of the characters; I wasn't one of them, but the visuals of Beowulf really gave me a hard time. Part of it was that there really wasn't that much of a reason for the stylized look of the film; Polar Express had a "Is it a dream?" quality to it, and the visuals there were influenced by the design of the famous childrens book that inspired it.

There really doesn't seem to be any reason for Beowulf to be shot in this way, however, and the visual design of the film does a disservice to the earthy tone of the script. Hrothgar's hall should be a dirty, filthy place, and yet, the film makes it look almost shiny and spotless. Bright fires fill the movie with brilliant yellow light that seems out of place most of the time.

And that's just the general appearance of the film; Zemeckis also goes for specific shots or effects that draw so much attention to themselves that it detracts from the story. Here's a perfect example:

Of what use was the spear, sticking that far forward? Or the camera pivot to show that the spear tip is an inch from Beowulf's eye? The shot is just goofy. And then there's the supremely silly bit where we see, in flashback, Beowulf's swimming contest against another warrior. Now, this bit is unbelievably over the top, which may be because the film implies that Beowulf is embellishing this story (he's telling the tale to someone else as we watch the flashback). He's swimming at sea, neck-and-neck with the other guy, when he is attacked by a series of sea monsters, each one of whom he vanquishes by stabbing in the eye. Except for the last one, which rears its head from the sea, shudders a bit, and then dies as Beowulf literally explodes from inside the creature's eye. The whole sequence is just so gonzo, so fake, that even the story's implication that Beowulf is spinning a web of bullshit doesn't help. At this point I was actually laughing at the movie.

And there are many other scenes in the film that just look wrong, or that look as though Robert Zemeckis fell in love with things he could do with his camera without ever stopping to consider if those things were a good idea in the first place. It's a shame, really. Beowulf has a good script. If only Zemeckis had directed it.


Kal said...

When I was in Grade three and old man would come in everyday for a week and read us the first three Narnia books. I was totally captivated. We would PLAY Narnia at recess in the woods around our school. It was my first introduction to fantasy literature.

Armageddon is goofy as hell but I can watch that movie over and over again. It's one of the coolest movies that Bruce Willis have ever done. It's the way you made a fast movie action movie right. Funny and full of great interesting characters like Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Busheme. Never have I been more overjoyed to see Owen Wilson die early. Billy Bob Thorton is terrific as is Ben Whoflack who can do some great stuff when he wants too.

Plus the Russian guy is a classic. "I AM RUSSIAN HERO"

I am like you. I will watch this one and 'Hunt For Red October' everytime they are on.

Call me Paul said...

Since when does a movie have to be good, to be, well, good? I liked Armageddon. And Highlander - now there was a bad movie, but I've watched it a good dozen or more times. In fact, I might just have to drag that one out of the cupboard tonight.

Mimi said...

I've always thought the same thing about the Chronicles of Narnia. As a kid, the "Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" was the only one I enjoyed and finished (multiple times, no less) - as a grownup, I have read them all, but still never loved the others as much as the first.