Monday, October 18, 2010

Oscar Review: You Can't Take it With You (1938)

"As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends. "
The more I am acquainted with the work of Frank Capra, the more I appreciate how his movies can so sharply throw morals in the face of the audience without it being the least bit sugared down, and yet still be so thoroughly enjoyable. In the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1938, Frank Capra delivers yet another delightful and heartfelt story of love, family, and the cost of success.

At first glance, You Can’t Take it With You appears to be an unlikely choice for Best Picture when weighed against the other contenders of 1938. The romantic adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood was also nominated in the Best Picture category, boasting not only stunning color, but grand swordfights, medieval costumes, and splendid sequences of swashbuckling entertainment in every setting from the forest to the castle. Robin Hood won in the categories of Best Art Direction and Best Music, both of which were well-earned. Also in the category of Best Picture was the French masterpiece The Grand Illusiondetailing the lives of a few prisoners of war from the moment of their capture through their liberation by escape. The Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and is hailed by director Woody Allen as the finest picture ever made.

The social and political commentary of The Grand Illusion is possibly the most profound ever to be depicted onscreen. The Adventures of Robin Hood became a founding film of the epic adventure genre. Why then did You Can't Take it With You take home the Oscar that year? The reasons are far deeper than the fact that Robin Hood lacked depth and The Grand Illusion lacked English. You Can't Take it With You resonates on a level that is deeply close to home and emotionally accessible to the average viewer.

The social class divide is not a culture often associated with the United States, but You Can’t Take it With You plainly points out the social divide between the wealthy and successful versus the working middle class. When Alice and Tony find love in each other, Alice is harshly spurned by Tony's rich and uppity family when they tell her "If you had any sense young woman, you'd stay where you belong and stop being ambitious." In many examples of European and British literature, instances can be found in which love was hindered by the social divide and individuals being confined to the class into which they were born. A knighted shopkeeper is still a peasant, and a bankrupt lord is still a noble.

The United States celebrated that all people had the opportunity to advance, regardless of their ancestry. You Can't Take it With You highlights the American social classes, which were purely based on money rather than heritage. But in any social divide, there are always the pioneers and the traditionalists. Alice Sycamore is the pioneer who is not a gold-digger, but she feels she has every right to be in love with Tony, regardless of the difference in their financial circumstances. Tony's family the Kirbys are the traditionalists that thrive upon progress, but only to the degree that it increases their fortune and keeps the lower classes where they belong.

In the course of the story, Alice and Tony are both forced to recognize the great chasm between their two families, and even uproarious circumstances cannot bond the two sides together. Alice recognizes this obstacle earlier than her fiancé Tony, who refuses to see the disastrous collision course that they have set their families on. The title You Can't Take it With You is taken from a speech from the elder Grandpa Vanderhof to the rich and stuffy Mr. Kirby. Mr. Kirby is a symbol of the tireless pursuit of the American Dream. Alice's grandfather embodies a man who may never have gotten everything he wanted, but certainly attained what he needed. Kirby sees success as an acquirement of money and power. Grandpa Vanderhof believes success to be related to family and friends. 
"What makes you think you're such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you're a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You're poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call 'em, you'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you're a failure - failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, 'Good riddance.' That's a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you'll enjoy it. I hope you'll get some comfort out of all this coin you've been sweating over then!"

Thankfully, as is the case with most Frank Capra films, after significant trouble and heartbreak, things eventually turn out. As is also the case with many popular Frank Capra films (It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life), there is just enough tribulation to make one wonder if things really will end happily, and then just when all seems lost, someone bends, and the entire situation changes. By the film's end, a tender moment between old Grandpa Vanderhof and a very humbled Mr. Kirby bridges the great divide, leaving the cast and the invested viewer jubilantly singing together with a feeling of hope for the future. 

What starts as a comedy transforms into a heavy drama and ends with a warm absolution. Delightful, thought-provoking, and heart-warming, You Can't Take it With You resounds just as clearly now as it did in 1938, boldly stating that the American Dream is more than making money and gaining power. In the words of Grandpa Vanderhof, "As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends." 

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Review and Analysis of Inception

     Inception is the movie that I have been waiting for. It has been years since a movie managed to create a storyline truly original and so completely unique that it cannot be legitimately compared to anything else previously made. It is the sleeper hit that everyone will be talking about, debating, and nerds of a specific variety will dissect, honing in on the smallest details. Inception is the movie that every filmmaker on the planet is wishing they had thought of, because it can never be imitated, sequeled, or duplicated. While I fully expectInception to be snubbed by the Academy Awards, this is what true Best Pictures are made of.

     From the very first minute of this unsurpassed cinematic experience,Inception declares that it is not a typical summer movie thrown together for the enjoyment of the temporarily unschooled mob. Rather, it is a deeply contemplative movie that walks a steady line between action and drama, and is not for the simple-minded or concrete thinker. In fact, do society a favor and do not see this movie if you needed The Matrix explained to you. Although The Matrix and Inception are not comparable, they both deal in the metaphysical realm of dreaming. If the somewhat elementary complexities ofThe Matrix confused you at all, then there is no hope whatsoever that you will emerge from Inception without your brain dripping out of your nose. Without giving away too much, Inception presents a final product that is open to interpretation and debate, which is bound to frustrate the more concrete thinkers, and infuriate the abstract thinkers who have to listen to them.

     Inception succeeds as a visually sumptuous indulgence combining physical impossibilities with paradoxical imagery evocative of certain M.C. Escher pieces, poetically wielded in an ingenious and fully engaging construction. In an age where CGI effects are standard, a claim such as “never before seen special effects” is a promise rarely fulfilled. And yet, I felt my mouth fall open during Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gravity-shifting hall fight. Personally, this particular sequence and the subsequent series of zero gravity scenes were alone worth the theater admission price. Gravity shifting and zero gravity have been done before, but Inception masters the technique so seamlessly that it was only after I exited the movie that I remembered that I know how the effect is achieved. Such is the magic of this illustrious film that I could be dazzled by tricks to which I already knew the secret method.

     The special effects and computer-generated imagery tastefully enhance the surreal dreamscape, while still keeping the ambiance of the dream feeling every bit as warm or threatening as the waking world. For example, there is a moment that is given away in the trailer where Ellen Paige’s character Ariadne is walking through Paris, bridges and walkways materializing in front of her as she walks. As she admires the dream world, the far side of the city rises up and folds over on itself, leaving cars and pedestrians to move around upside down over the character’s head. This extraordinary sequence pays a beautiful homage to the surreal, bizarre composition of dreams, while still portraying this place in the subconscious as dangerous and unpredictable-- such as when amidst Ariadne’s physics-bending trials, she is viciously attacked by an unprovoked mob of subconscious projections.

     Furthermore, Inception walks a fine line of honoring the common composition of dreams without becoming Wonderland-esque. The film points out that a person can never remember the beginning of a dream, therefore each time the characters enter this abstruse realm the audience is never shown how the characters enter or where they appear. Unlike The Matrixwhere characters entered and exited the induced state via a telephone,Inception simply cuts from one scene to the next and the characters are in the midst of a functioning world without the use of a secret door or rendezvous point. This lack of defined transition will become a crucial point in the last few minutes before the credits roll. Elsewhere, a character morphs faces multiple times, topography is altered, and time has almost no meaning. And similar to real-life, outer forces affect the environment of the dream.


     Flawless special effects may enhance the dream ambiance, but they never upstage the delicate and intricately woven story. Inception develops characters while on the move, taking only carefully chosen moments to focus solely on characters and ensuring that each character contribution is relevant to the greater story. Exposition is given almost entirely via flashback, and while these moments are seemingly significant to the character but not the greater story, ultimately everything has a purpose.

     At the heart of the film is Dom Cobb, played solidly and emotionally by Leonardo diCaprio. Marion Cottilard portrays the idealized ghost wife with effortless sensuality and mystery, simultaneously conveying warmth and vulnerability with a general air of instability and danger. Inception’s emotional center is embodied in Cobb, who leads the group of dream raiders in their dubious business of stealing ideas from the recesses of one’s mind. The film’s emotional conflict is incarnated in Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife and the physical representation of his remorse. He is tortured by the guilt surrounding the loss of his wife and frequently enters an induced dream stage so that he can be with her through his memories. His psychological turmoil gradually evolves into a battle that threatens not only himself but also everyone that Cobb works with.

     On a psychological level, Cobb’s personal struggle could be interpreted as a cautionary tale on the destructive power of suppressed guilt and unresolved conflict. While his colleagues are aware of his inner chaos, Cobb deliberately avoids disclosing the details, therefore severing any chance of help from the real world, preferring to continue “visiting” his creation of Mal in his mind. Cobb’s inability to control his own guilt and anguish translates in the dream stages as an inability to control Mal, who turns up several times to sabotage the group’s mission, wounding several of Cobb’s group members along the way.

     Arguably, Cobb is a master escapist. Although he claims that due to the overuse of dream invasion he is unable to dream on his own anymore, Cobb’s true reasons for revisiting the same memories again and again through his dreams are (thankfully) more legitimate than simply a desire to dream. In the real world Cobb feels trapped by his circumstances and unable to change what is: his wife is dead and his children have been legally removed from his care. Unable to deal with the guilt of having mentally manipulated his own wife, Cobb revisits her memory in his dreams repeatedly in an attempt to rewrite the moments in which he made mistakes. He goes back to the night she died and he revisits the day that he last saw his children, hoping each time that he can change the moment. Although Cobb learns that the outcome of his dreams cannot be altered any more than reality can, it does not stop his futile efforts. Despite the plea of his father-in-law to “come back to reality,” Cobb is addicted to the unreal world that he believes is the means to the end of being reunited with his children.

     On a minor side note, it is significant that one of the main supporting characters is named Ariadne. Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, is the young university student pulled into the schemes of Dom Cobb and his crew. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and a ball of red yarn that he might find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. While the labyrinthine themes of Inception are undeniable, the character of Ariadne in the film is especially important because she is not only the architect of the dreams that the rest of the team must navigate through, but she is the only one that learns the complete truth about Cobb’s past and the demise of his beloved Mal. Towards the end of their quest at a pivotal moment, Ariadne leaves Cobb with parting words that encourage him to finish his quest and then leave the labyrinth. Whether or not he ever does is a different matter.

     The final image of Inception somehow bursts a puzzle into a thousand pieces while simultaneously tying together seemingly insignificant details from earlier in the film. In the final stirring moment, I found myself backtracking through multiple sequences to make sense of the end. Earlier in this piece I mentioned the lack of transition between scenes and realms of consciousness. Because of this cunning device, it is impossible to track how far back the illusion began and where or if it ends. The speculation regarding Cobb’s state at the end of the movie is endless. In a way, Christopher Nolan performs an inception of his own on the minds of the audience. In the course of the film, it is revealed that Mal committed suicide, convinced that she was still in a dream and that her death would bring her out of it. This tragic act was rooted in Cobb planting the idea in her mind by making a very slight, very subtle, but hugely significant change in the world that they were trapped in. Mal had to believe that her realization that they were in fact trapped in a dream within a dream etcetera was her own recognition. Therefore, Cobb makes a slight alteration that causes her to question the reality of their circumstance. Similarly, Nolan in the final moments of the film gives the audience just enough of a nudge to question whether or not we believe what we have seen, but not enough to explicitly suggest a distinct answer (if indeed there is an answer). Because of the ambiguity of the final image, individuals will draw their own conclusions. It wobbled therefore it fell. It was still spinning therefore the illusion has not broken.

     To break it down, I will here make a reference that is bound to murder my credibility. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a hologram of Professor Moriarty from a series of Sherlock Holmes simulations becomes self-aware and demands that crew members assist him in finding a way to leave the holodeck (a place where simulations and holograms can be created to suit the user’s purposes). At some point in the episode Data and Commander LaForge realize that they themselves are still in the holodeck, not in Engineering as they thought. Eventually they create a simulation within the simulation to trick Professor Moriarty into believing that he has successfully left the Enterprise. By the end of Inception, Cobb is either reunited with his children, or blindly living in a dream within a dream within a dream and so on up to five levels deep, as unaware as Professor Moriarty because his subconscious expands the world as he moves in it. As previously stated, the speculation is endless regarding the baffling ending, so here I will let it rest and leave it to some face to face discussion, lest this note become a novel. I will simply say that there is sufficient support for both main views on the interpretation of the ending.

     Arthur remarks that Cobb consistently breaks his own rules—a fact that further erodes the degrees of certainty. One example is that Arthur instructs Ariadne not to let anyone touch her totem, as allowing anyone else to know the secret of the object would compromise the integrity of its purpose. Cobb’s totem, a small top, changes hands several times throughout the film—in fact we are never told what Cobb’s totem was because originally the top belonged to Mal. Furthermore, he clearly explains its secret and function to Ariadne. Earlier on when Cobb is walking Ariadne through a dream workshop, he strongly emphasizes that drawing on memory to create these artificial worlds is an express route to losing the ability to discern between what is real and what is imagined. Cobb defies this rule on a normal basis. Combined with Cobb’s careless treatment of his totem, Cobb essentially sets himself up to lose the ability to distinguish between the waking world and the dream worlds.


     On a more technical level, Inception is a triumph in not only the exhaustively discussed special effects and excellent writing, but also in fluid cinematography, precision sound editing, glorious music, and inspired casting. Hans Zimmer emerges victorious once again with a perfect score that captures the attention of the listener, but charmingly blends into the moment. Zimmer knows the difference between music that magnifies emotion and music that creates it, and Zimmer is a master of the latter. As regards sound editing, especially in the high-intensity moments, the meticulousness of each sound effect is employed with such perfect sharpness that by the sound effects alone the rattle of the train tracks, the pounding of the rain, and the shattering of glass are stunningly tangible.

     While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb is the center of the story, he is matched by the solid and convincing performances from the supporting cast. Michael Caine’s role for example lasts no more than five minutes total, but his character is a refreshing anchor of reason and peacefulness in the world of confusion that he lives in. Ken Wattanabe as Saito the ambitious billionaire demands respect as a man of power with an appropriately commanding presence. As the originator of the proposal to plant an idea in the mind of his greatest rival that will dissolve the other’s empire, Saito is a fiercely motivated leader driven by progress, but inexplicably likable somehow. Saito’s motives are understandable enough—his rival Robert Fischer is one step short of total energy dominance and Saito seeks to destroy this monopoly. However, the ethics of invading the mind and stealing or planting a thought are highly questionable. Cobb points out that an idea in its simplest form begins minute and grows into something that could redefine a person in every way. It stands to reason then that the nonconsensual infiltration of the mind for these purposes is a cruel violation of the deepest kind—yet another point of touchy debate that could evolve into several pages.

     Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur seemed an unlikely choice at first glance, but he carries off his role with style and charm, never overshadowed by the other supporting cast members. Arthur has the most memorable action scenes of the movie, and despite his supporting character status, he avoids sidekick character clichés and skillfully holds his own as an individual character, frequently complimented by the wisecracking Eames. Cillian Murphy’s classy but sensitive turn as heir to an empire Robert Fischer is not necessarily a stirring performance, but it successfully captures in very few moments the complicated nature of his life as the son of an unfeeling and tyrannical father. Because Fischer is the subject (victim?) of the inception, it is vital to understand the nature of his relationship with his father to comprehend how the generated notion can successfully take root. Inception skillfully delivers this explanation in simple but meaningful snippets without slowing down the momentum of the story. The most memorable supporting character is undoubtedly Tom Hardy, whose lively wit and sarcasm is absolutely scene-stealing. Tom Hardy is less recognizable as a celebrity than some of Inception's famous names, and yet he manages to upstage his Academy Award nominated/winning co-stars with his timely comic relief and casual treatment of the grand heist.

     The genius of Inception is that the story is unraveled so elegantly and given such intricate detail that only in the last five minutes of the movie did I realize that I had been carefully led and then abandoned in the heart of a perplexing riddle. Up until that point, although there were times when I had to consciously stop and recount the preceding steps, I was confident that I had navigated the labyrinthine turns tolerably well. But just before the credits rolled and I was left with a puzzling final image, I realized that the multidimensional maze in which I had been so thoroughly engaged for the last two hours had changed shape behind me, and I no longer knew my way out.


Angelina Jolie is more likely to play James Bond than to be a Bond girl. The part of Evelyn Salt was originally written for a male lead, with Tom Cruise attached. When he dropped out, Angelina took the reigns. Although Salt is unlikely to be hailed as a memorable release of the summer season in the shadow of Iron Man 2 and Inception, this movie still deserves credit on a few levels.

One of the most irritating aspects of modern advertising is a trailer that gives away too much. An example of this would be Terminator: Salvation in which the movie’s only twist (being that Marcus Wright is in fact non-human) is shown in the trailer. Admittedly it doesn’t take a brain to figure it out early on, but it still might have been interesting to not know that going in. Thanks to gaffes like this, I thought I had a fairly good idea about what to expect going into Salt; a faithful CIA agent is named as a Russian sleeper spy and spends the rest of the movie proving her loyalty to the Star-Spangled Banner. Thankfully, someone was clever enough not to reveal everything in the trailer, and as a result, there were a few unexpected twists that kept the story rolling. Not that the story isn’t full of plot holes and very unclear character developments, but Salt clearly operates under the assumption that the major plot points and frequent action scenes will sufficiently carry the story. For the most part they do, but only to the degree that one is willing to focus on them. Allover that isn't too hard, considering the fact that every other scene is action, and the non-action scenes make it a point of highlighting the major plot points to distract from the smaller faulty ones.

Salt plays with action clichés, but does them so well that it’s somehow less noticeable. By this point in time chase scenes have little charm left for me, but I appreciate that when Evelyn jumps off a bridge onto a moving vehicle, she doesn't ride the roof while firing a weapon at assailants firmly planted on solid ground—she hangs on like any sane individual would. Despite the fact that there is never any doubt that agent Salt will escape every time, the chases are at least entertaining, albeit predictable. And instead of slinking in and out of risky situations like Mrs. Smith, she gets very bloodied up in this film, and unlike some of her other action roles, she does make jumping from one moving vehicle to the next look a little hard and even slightly painful. Overall the movie turns in somewhat original stunt work and a few forgotten action gimmicks. Furthermore, the filmmakers get praise for finding a way to make the Russians the bad guys just like in the good old days.

The action movie genre doesn't necessarily require good acting, so when it is present that can be counted as a bonus. The bonuses here are Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber.
Angelina Jolie turns in a somewhat less-than-cliché performance that is convincing as a trained rogue spy, but never betrays her womanhood. Although she is an able fighter and a conveniently excellent marksman and Olympic athlete, she loves her husband and her dog. She is a fine looking woman but I appreciate that the camera never celebrates her notorious beauty or really even takes advantage of it. The only time we see much of her fit form is in the beginning of the film when she appears in her underwear. But since she is being tortured at the time, one is less concerned with her state of dress, and more concerned with the rubber hose jammed down her throat feeding gasoline into her lungs. The always-underrated Liev Schreiber gives Salt a character to anchor the other side of the story. Evelyn is the fugitive; Schreiber’s character is her former CIA coworker attempting to understand while also trying to catch her. And as Liev Schreiber characters usually do, he has a few surprises up his sleeve.

In spite of Salt’s flaws, it wins on the level that it is 100% entertainment. Of course the situation in which Evelyn finds herself is so preposterously huge that it could launch World War III. Naturally she has a thorough knowledge of everything she could possibly need including how to extract venom from a spider. Thankfully when she takes on Liev Schreiber’s character in hand-to-hand combat she does not last long. I saw that man in Wolverine and I wouldn't have accepted the idea that Miss Jolie could beat a man that Hugh Jackman could not, but I digress. Allover, Salt is a great popcorn flick that should only be taken as seriously as it takes itself—very moderately.

Oscar Review: It Happened One Night (1934)

     In the earlier years of Hollywood when genres were just taking shape, categories such as the romantic comedy and screwball comedy had not yet earned the stereotype of saccharine love stories, overdone plot lines, or ridiculous circumstances that throw unlikely pairs together. It Happened One Night possesses all these elements, but in 1934 it was original, and despite countless knock-offs, this founding screwball comedy still has something of the novelty and freshness that made it an Academy Award Winner.
     The years of romantic comedies over the years make It Happened One Night seem predictable, but it does carry a few gimmicks all its own. When in the last act of the film everything inevitably seems to fall apart, it is surprisingly engaging in how it ever so slightly taunts viewers into doubting a happy ending. The story starts out with a spoiled rich girl with no real knowledge of the actual world, and a hard-up reporter looking for a story. They are thrown together on a train and the usual banter-ridden relationship ensues. He’s a cad and she’s stuffy; basic formula for a romantic setup. Ellie is trying to get away from her controlling father and back to the man she impulsively married. Peter is just looking for a good story to run on the front page, and falls for Ellie in spite of himself because that is what men in romantic comedies do. One of the more surprising details was discovering that Ellie’s father was not as controlling as he was deeply caring and aware of his daughter’s stubborn nature. By the film’s end he has proven himself a sensitive and wise father who knows his daughter’s mind, and truly does know best. And unlike other protagonists of the genre, Peter might make a few suggestive comments or take a few verbal jabs at Ellie, but when faced with a moral dilemma, he elects to
marry her. 

     What is especially curious about watching this former Best Picture winner is how scandalous it pretends to be, despite the era-appropriate decorum with which all the subject matter is handled. Put simply, all the interactions between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s characters seem to be some very labored foreplay to the finale in which the two finally consummate the relationship (not shown onscreen). Although both characters
act with propriety, their dialogue is provocative, enhancing the tension that keeps the audience asking “will they or won't they?” Had It Happened One Night been made in the present day, the concern would be that every night the couple spends together would end in a tryst. The title seems to hint at some sort of affair, but ironically, nothing happened one night. In this plucky comedy, the couple spends a few nights together in the same
room with a sheet hanging over a suspended rope to separate them— a curtain that Clark Gable’s character Peter calls “the walls of Jericho.” Peter
teases that he has no trumpet in the manner of the Israelites that would fell the great wall. As the story goes on that barrier seems thinner and thinner until in the final scene the characters are implied standing on either side of it waiting for the word that Ellie’s marriage has been annulled, making Ellie and Peter’s elopement legal. The innkeeper brings Peter a trumpet, and Ellie’s father receives a telegram reading “What's holding up the annulment, you slowpoke? The walls of Jericho are a-toppling!” Her father’s classic response “'Let 'em topple” precedes the final scene in which we see nothing more than the curtain falling. Nothing more needs to be seen; it's as sexy as 1934 can get.

Sequels: The Movie Murderer

If we’ve seen it once, we’ve seen it a thousand times. There is a fantastic movie that may have lived in cinematic history for all time, and then the sequels come into play, effectively crushing the sparkle. In the interest of fairness, there have been numerous occasions where the sequel topped the greatness of the first installment- the classic example of course being The Empire Strikes Back, not to mention the illustrious Dark Knight. But more often than not, sequels end up like the late Transformers 2, over-utilizing special effects and Megan Fox to compensate for gaping plot holes.

Consider the incomparable Jaws. Jaws practically invented the blockbuster, and despite slightly outdated special effects, the movie is still considered a great classic due to the visionary directing of Steven Spielberg and the extraordinarily iconic score by John Williams. With such paramount success, one wonders why Jaws parts 2 onwards did not meet with equal success- it was certainly not the absence of Richard Dreyfuss that sealed the doom of the sequels, but the presence of dolphins probably didn’t help. The fact is, a dorsal fin can only breach the surface so many times before we yawn and say “there it is again—that guy is a goner.” Eventually, the same old gimmick just doesn’t work anymore, and there are no more surprises. By the time Jaws the Revenge came along, the last hope was to indicate that the shark (or sharks, do we ever really know if it was one or several?) was on a vendetta specifically against the Brody family. Even with a plot twist like that and giving the shark Olympic jumping ability, the only real twist would have been if the shark had not died an impossibly explosive death for a change.

The death sentence for a great movie-turned-franchise is in overdoing the old formula. This exact factor is probably why The Matrix is part of the revolutionary movie cannon, while its sequels are desperately trying to be forgotten. The first movie took special effects to new heights, but between the countless imitators and rip-offs, those jazzy moments lost their sparkle very quickly, and it didn't matter anymore when the original makers came back to serve up seconds. It was already cold and moldy. 

Jurassic Park was another movie masterpiece that capitalized on the success of the first movie, and ran the story into the ground with two more movies. In all fairness, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III could have been worse, and they both had their moments of effective suspense, but failed to deliver the magic that made the original movie popular. Every rabbit that the Jurassic Park sequels managed to pull out of the hat were promptly chomped by the weak storyline and unoriginal stock characters. Every movie had an unlikely hero, a lucky-to-survive-anything female, a gun-toting macho man who always dies, and a kid or two starring alongside the T-rexes and raptors that featured prominently in every movie.

The best example of killing a good thing by overdoing it is the tragic Spiderman. Spiderman was one of the best comic book movies up to its time, and its sequel was equal or possibly greater to the first movie. With Spiderman 2, there was still room to work in the unforgettable Doc Ock, let Peter struggle with being Spiderman while trying to uphold his personal life, as well as develop character in all major players. So what happened when Spiderman 3 came along? It had potential with Sandman and Venom at the helm of conflict, but instead, Spiderman 3 became the ultimate overdone sequel. Trying to make Sandman into a sympathetic villain might have worked had we been given time to think about him. But between Sandman, Venom, Dark Spiderman (Emo Peter), and the newly turned Harry succeeding his father as the Green Goblin, there was far too much story and action and somehow not enough time to cultivate a real plot. In the end, all we wound up with was a very long mess of a web that felt like it was leaving a few strands hanging just in case anyone should care to spin a part 4. And by the way, there are such rumors.

While I'm not knocking all sequels nor suggesting that sequels never be made, when it comes to great action movies, sequels have become the equivalent to medicinal leeching: it seems like a good idea at the time but doesn't actually accomplish anything other than sapping the life out of the situation. Although it's understandable to try and prolong success, there is a certain kind of integrity in enjoying the moment of fame, and silently allowing it to come to pass as all good things eventually do. Of course, this is assuming that the purpose of the entire industry was actually about entertainment rather than making money. Since this world does not exist, the only thing to do is prepare for more grand sequel fiascoes.

Transformers 3 anyone?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disney's Most Underrated Villains

Every year I come across a list somewhere about the great movie villains ranking Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, and Nurse Ratchet according to their heinousness. Personally villains fascinate me, but rather than writing a list that would just repeat was has already been said by other, more educated individuals, I am composing a list of a different kind-- underrated Disney villains. When you ask anyone well versed in Disney animated classics about their favorite villains, Ursulla, Captain Hook, and Scar are usually at the top of the list alongside Mallificent, Cruella deVille, and the Evil Queen from Snow White. While these are certainly fair choices, I find it shocking that the following worthy villains are so often overlooked or forgotten:

Rattigan of The Great Mouse Detective—The fact that Rattigan was voiced by Vincent Price should be enough to put him in anyone’s top five villains, but he also feeds incompetent subjects to a cat, employs the services of a crippled bat, sings of drowning widows and orphans, and kidnaps a toymaker to create a machine in the likeness of the Queen of England. 

Shere Khan of The Jungle Book- Granted, Shere Khan did not feature prominently in The Jungle Book, but he certainly made his brief appearances memorable. His smooth as silk voice, appropriately cat-like grace, and English gentleman’s charm make Shere Khan an excellent character. His hate of mankind, and devious sportsmanship make him a remarkable villain who commands respect. 

Hades of Hercules- Even if you could forget that he is the lord of the underworld, he tried to assassinate an infant Hercules, rounds up all the titans in a coup against Zeus and holds Meg’s soul ransom. And yet, Hades comes off as a pretty relaxed guy who has taken anger management, and only loses his temper for a few seconds before regaining his composure and continuing his quest for cosmos domination with a dry sense of humor and a touch of Yiddish. 

Shan-Yu of Mulan- Shan-Yu the Hunn is evil incarnate. He invades China, survives a massive avalanche, and violates the rules of not shooting the messengers. He is an absolute beast with no sense of mercy, even when dealing with innocent children. Although handled somewhat delicately, more mature audiences will not easily forget the line “A girl will be missing her doll,” and the implied massacre that follows. 

McLeach of The Rescuers Down Under- Brilliantly voiced by George C. Scott, McLeach is the evil poacher that kidnaps animals and slays endangered species. When the kid hero Cody foils McLeach’s plans to find and kill the great Golden Eagle, he hangs the kid over a crocodile pit and slowly lowers him down towards the snapping jaws of death. 

  The Queen of Hearts of Alice in Wonderland- “Off with their heads!” Enough said.

Judge Claude Frollo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame- Quite possibly the only animated character in Disney movie history to be portrayed indulging his obsessive lust. His unjustified hate of gypsies and consistent torture of Quasimodo are but a foretaste to his sentencing Esmerelda to death by burning at the stake as punishment for rejecting his lurid advances.