I'd like to spank the Academy

Archive for the ‘Epic’ Category

Star Wars (1977)

star warsDirected by George Lucas

Happy Star Wars Day! Because it’s May the Fourth, I decided I needed to review Star Wars today. Yes, it was nominated for best picture. Even though Star Wars is an awesome movie, it seems kind of odd today when Star Wars is just a fact of life. Also, the Academy doesn’t always recognize the amazing science fiction blockbusters; it tends to skew towards the brooding independent dramas nowadays. Anyway, Star Wars blew everyone away when it came out. I’m too young to remember that. Like most of my generation, I grew up watching Star Wars. I literally don’t remember not knowing that SPOILER ALERT Darth Vader is Luke’s father. My personal favorite of the original trilogy was Return of the Jedi, because I really liked watching the primitive Ewoks destroy the Stormtroopers. Also, the Ewoks are cute. But I grew up watching them all. Often. I was incredibly excited when the movies were rereleased on big screen in 1997, although I was incredibly disappointed at some of the changes George Lucas made. I was super excited for the new trilogy that started with The Phantom Menace, but now I pretend those movies just don’t exist. I cried last December when I sat in a theatre and watched those yellow letters move across the screen. I cried when Han and Leia saw each other again. So yeah. You could say I like Star Wars. That made it really hard to write an objective review. But I have tried my best, and for those who think I am being too hard on Star Wars, reach out with your feelings, and you’ll know the truth.

So what’s the story? For those of you who don’t know, farm boy Luke Skywalker accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for the freedom of the galaxy when two droids with the plans to destroy the evil Empire come into his life.

The Good: There really are many amazing things about Star Wars that I think even a non-fan would admit to. The soundtrack, for example. John William’s score may be one of the best movie scores ever written. I love that many of the characters have their own musical themes, or leitmotifs, if we want to be fancy about it. And the orchestrations are wonderful. It seems like the perfect instrument is always chosen to play at a particular time. It’s truly a magical soundtrack.

For the most part, the acting is good. Alec Guinness was apparently annoyed that he was remembered for Star Wars instead of his other movies (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend Kind Hearts and Coronets; it’s hilarious and Guinness is amazing), but he did a good job anyway. Harrison Ford was perfectly cast as Han Solo, the mercenary smuggler with a conscience. Carrie Fisher is fabulously fierce as Princess Leia, a princess with attitude who withstands torture to protect what she believes in. Leia may be a diplomat, but she’s not a prim and proper princess. She’s fantastic. All of the other roles, from the droids to the aliens to denizens of the Empire, are also well cast. There are too many people to mention in one post, but everyone does wonderful work (with one exception that I discuss later).

Once again, special effects win over CGI. Most of the special effects still look good almost forty years later. That’s just amazing to me. When so many movies nowadays looking dated after two or three years because they used CGI, it makes me happy that older movies still look realistic because of old-fashioned effects. The sound effects were also ridiculously good. Every alien race, every droid sounds different. That must have taken some serious creativity to be able to come up with sounds for all of those different creatures.

The story might not be original (more on that later), but the screenplay is. Lucas managed to balance humor and seriousness perfectly. I also think that it’s very clever how George Lucas let us know what Chewbacca and R2-D2 are saying by the reactions of Han Solo and C-3PO, respectively, instead of using subtitles. It draws the viewer more into the movie, I think. And honestly, who doesn’t know at least one quote from Star Wars? It’s a very memorable screenplay.

All of these elements – the music, the acting, the special effects, the screenplay – are great, but what really makes Star Wars so special is the world building. George Lucas created an entire galaxy and filled it with all sorts of different aliens and droids and humans. He imagined different sorts of planets, from planets that are nothing but deserts to swamp planets inhabited by seven-foot-tall furry aliens to planets that are completely peaceful and have no weapons. He imagined a princess who rescues her rescuers when their plan goes wrong. There are good guys and bad guys, yes, but there are also people who couldn’t care less about the Empire and are just trying to live their lives the best way they know how. The many books that have been written that take place in the Star Wars galaxy is a testament to what a fertile field it is for all kinds of stories. To me, that is the most amazing thing about Star Wars.

The Bad: The story is completely unoriginal. George Lucas himself has admitted that he closely followed elements of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he wrote the story of Star Wars. Of course, having Luke follow the same familiar pattern that we’ve seen heroes go through throughout literature for thousands of years may be what makes the story so endearing. One could argue that even though much of the “far, far away” galaxy is unfamiliar, placing Luke in the story pattern as many of our myths connects the story back to us. Still, if you’re looking for story originality, you will not find it in Star Wars.

Like I said before, most of the actors are great. However, Mark Hamill has some cringe-worthy moments as Luke Skywalker. He doesn’t do quiet sadness very well. He’s not terrible throughout the entire movie, but sometimes it’s so bad.

The Ugly: Even though Star Wars takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, the men all have Earth-style 1970s haircuts. The style isn’t really flattering on anyone, even the swoon-worthy rogue Han Solo. That was a bad call by the hair and makeup people.

Another thing that I find terrible is how hard it is to find the original 1977 theatrical version instead of the updated one released in the late 1990s. People should be able to have access to the movie that they fell in love with. My theory is that once an artist releases his work to the public, it belongs to the public as much as it belongs to the artist. Thanks to my awesome brother who was far-sighted enough to snap up the originals on DVD during the short time they were available, I was able to see the movie I grew up with (Thanks, Jon!). But even on those DVDs, the original movies are only on the bonus disc. They aren’t the main event. I would really like to see a beautifully restored edition of the original versions on DVD. (Are you listening, Disney? Or Fox? Or whoever owns the original movies? It would be a big money-maker. Lots of people would love you. Please?)

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best sound; best film editing; best effects, visual effects; best music, original score; special achievement award for Ben Burtt for sound effects for the creation of the alien, creature, and robot voices.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Alec Guinness); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Les Misèrables (2012)

Les-miserables-movie-poster1Directed by Tom Hooper

This was one of the posts that I lost when I lost my flash drive. As much as I hate rewriting things that I’ve already written, I won’t have a hard time rewriting this one. I have a lot to say about Les Misèrables in general, the musical and this movie version of it in particular.

When I went to study in London about ten years ago, I wasn’t planning on seeing the stage version of Les Misèrables. The touring coming comes to my town often enough, and I wanted to see things I wouldn’t have the chance to see at home. But then I saw a poster of the cast, and the man playing Enjolras was really attractive (I might use the term “super hot” if I weren’t trying to be taken seriously), so I let my friends persuade me to go with them. I knew many people who had seen the musical and thought it was the best thing ever, and I had read an abridged version of the book before I saw the play and seen the movie version from the 1930s and knew that there was fantastic material to work with, so I was expecting really good things. I was really disappointed. I kind of wish I could find the scathing essay I wrote about it. I told my friends that I didn’t really like it, and that got spread around the entire group I had come with, kind of like in the claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when they find out that Herbie doesn’t like to make toys.  (“Melanie didn’t like Les Misèrables!”) I got a lot of weird looks after that from people in my study abroad group, but I didn’t care. I got that same kind of look when I told people I had no desire to see this movie because I didn’t much care for the musical, kind of a mix of shock and disgust. I was never planning on seeing this movie. Stupid best picture nomination. I wasted three hours of my life to see a subpar version of a subpar play.

So what’s the story? Convict Jean Valjean is released from prison. He steals some silver from a priest, who tells the police that he gave Jean Valjean the silver. The priest then tells Valjean that he has to turn his life around. Valjean does so, changing his name so that the stigma of having been a convict won’t follow him throughout his life. However, Javert, a policeman who worked at the prison, recognizes Jean Valjean for who he was, and Valjean must go on the run, taking the daughter of a factory worker with him.

The Good: Les Misèrables has some truly beautiful music. They may not be all completely memorable, and some are hard to tell from others (when I’m not actively listening to them, I always get “Bring Him Home” and “On My Own” mixed up), but they are beautiful nonetheless. I have never forgotten “Castle on a Cloud,” which I learned over twenty years ago in school, and “Stars,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” always give me goosebumps.

There was some decent acting. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both did fine jobs as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Crowe does especially well as Javert, who is perfectly convinced that the law is always right and simply cannot reconcile justice and mercy. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks both gave excellent performances as women torn apart by the way French society works. Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne were very good as young revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius, and although I think they took up too much time in the movie, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the comic relief-bringing Thènardiers.

The costuming, production design, and makeup were all admirable. Early 19th century France was brought to life thanks to those elements. I always like seeing a historical movie that doesn’t only involve wealthy people. It always makes me happy to have people acknowledge that a)poor people existed, and b)that poor people had different hairstyles, homes, and clothes than wealthy people.

The Bad: I don’t whose idea it was to have the actors sing live instead of lip-synching and putting in the songs later, but it was a bad idea. This movie would have been so much easier to watch if there hadn’t been so many cringe-worthy notes. I think the only person who pulled off all her singing with no problems was Samantha Barks, who played Èponine.

I have never understood the ending. It makes no sense to me to have all the people who have died throughout the movie/Jean Valjean’s life would be together in one place singing about the same thing. All those various people weren’t fighting for the same future, exactly. Also, if Heaven is a barricade as the finale hints, I don’t really want to go to Heaven.

The Ugly: Amanda Seyfried should never have been cast in this movie. Her singing is terrible to the point of distraction. She does have the right look, but I’m sure there are other innocent-looking blondes who could have sung the part much, much better.

Most of the other reasons I didn’t like the movie have to do with the weaknesses of the musical itself. Way too much time is spent on the Thènardiers at the expense of other things from the novel that would have made things make more sense. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the bishop, for example; that felt kind of glossed over. I hated that Javert didn’t recognize Valjean because of his face, but because he was strong. I can understand that people change after twenty years, but I’m sure that Javert had met other strong men in prison before. There was nothing really special for Javert to recognize him. (In the novel, in case you’re wondering, Valjean acts like a human jack to get carts off of men. That’s not something you see often, and makes a lot more sense. Not sure why that was changed.) I was annoyed by Marius and Cosette’s literal love at first sight. They did nothing except see each other, and suddenly life wasn’t worth living without each other? There are other little bits and pieces like that throughout the movie that just add up to me being annoyed with the whole thing.

Okay, now I get to talk about how the book compares to the movie. Since seeing the musical ten years ago, I have read the unabridged version. It’s not perfect. Victor Hugo needed a friend to tell him that when your characters are racing through the sewers in a life-and-death situation, you don’t need to cut from the action to give an entire history of the sewers of Paris. But one amazing, amazing thing that Hugo did do was give everyone a history. The first fifty to one hundred pages are not about Jean Valjean at all, but about the bishop, who, we learn, has given up all of his privileges and only keeps enough of his salary to keep himself fed. The rest he gives to the poor. The only thing he kept was his silver, so when he not only allows Jean Valjean to keep the plate, but also gives him the candlesticks, it’s a huge deal. The students all have back stories, so we care a lot more when they die so uselessly. The Thènardiers are not funny at all. They show the corruption and evil that can happen in poorer classes. They are menacing and horrible. Also, they are the parents of Gavroche, which gets skipped over in the movie completely. There are more connections which make everything that happens much more meaningful. I realize that not everything from a 1500 page book can make it into a three-hour movie, but that’s why making  Les Misèrables into a musical was just a bad idea to begin with. My final advice? If you haven’t seen the movie already, skip it and read the unabridged book. If you have seen the movie already, read the unabridged book. You will be amazed at the depth of feeling.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Anne Hathaway); best achievement in makeup and hairstyling; best achievement in sound mixing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Hugh Jackman); best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Suddenly”); best achievement in production design.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life_of_Pi_2012_PosterDirected by Ang Lee

Just as there are movies that I’m watching for this blog that I have been wanting to see for a long time, there are movies for that I’m watching for this blog that I have never had any intention of seeing. These are not the movies that I haven’t heard of before or ones that I think are violent, but movies that for some reason or other I really, really don’t want to see. Life of Pi was one of those movies. I read the book about ten years ago, and I loved it – until the part where Pi comes to the mysterious island. After that happened, I lost my ability to suspend my disbelief. Because of this, I developed an antipathy towards the book, and I really didn’t care to see the movie. But since I make sacrifices to fulfill my goals, I watched Life of Pi.

So what’s the story? Teenager Pi’s family, along with their literal zoo full of animals, is moving from India to Canada. Before they make it to their new home, there is a shipwreck, and Pi ends up as the only human survivor on a lifeboat with four of the animals, including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The Good: Life of Pi is based on a rather complex book. It’s not just the story of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. His unusual name is explained, as is his conversion to three different religions. I was impressed at how well the book was adapted as a screenplay. The writer, David Magee, managed to fit in the frame story as well as the flashbacks to great effect.

I didn’t see the 3D version of Life of Pi, so I can’t judge that aspect of the cinematography, but what I would call the “regular” cinematography was fabulous. The shots were so beautiful and so carefully set up; it was almost like watching a living painting.

The acting was very good. Pi was played by several different people, young and old, and all were good. Pi’s mother Gita and father Santosh were played by Tabu and Adil Hussain respectively. They made a good couple did a wonderful job playing off each other, the mother trying to protect her son by keeping him safe from the world, the father trying to protect his son by showing him harsh realities of life.

The Bad: I don’t know if it was because I had already knew the book and therefore knew what was going to happen, but I found Life of Pi to be rather tedious. I loved the first hour or so; in fact, it made me wish that I had been born in a zoo in India. But not long after the shipwreck happened, I realized that I was no longer mentally involved in the movie. I’m not sure exactly why I stopped caring about Pi, but I just wanted it all to be over.

I also felt that Pi’s conversion to Islam was glossed over. His first introduction to Hinduism was fully covered, as were the beginnings of his interest in Christianity, but we don’t really know how he became interested in Islam. Since all his religions were important to him, I feel like they all should have been given equal weight.

I was a little annoyed at how small Gerard Depardieu’s role was. He’s an amazing actor, and his part was little more than a cameo. I seem to remember the cook having a larger role in the book, and I wish they had taken advantage of the great actor they had hired and let him do more.

The Ugly: Three years ago, this movie won the Academy Award for best visual effects. Today, it looks fake. This is why I am so against CGI; it just doesn’t hold up well. ET, made over thirty years ago with puppets and green screens, looks more real today than Life of Pi. During many of the ocean scenes, I couldn’t help but think of The Truman Show (1998), where Truman believes himself to be sailing on the ocean but is in reality in an artificial pool of water that is nowhere near as deep as the ocean. The animals were sometimes obviously, disappointingly fake, too. It niggled at my mind and kept me from enjoying the movie as fully as I wanted to.

Oscars Won: Best achievement in directing; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original score; best achievement in visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in film editing; best achievement in sound mixing; best achievement in sound editing; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Pi’s Lullaby”); best achievement in production design.

Django Unchained (2012)

django unchainedDirected by Quentin Tarantino

 When I first decided to watch all of the best picture-nominated movies, I wasn’t planning on blogging about them. I wasn’t watching them in any order at all; I would just watch what I felt like or had access to. Since Django Unchained streams on Netflix, it was easy to get, so I watched it probably about a year ago. I hated it. I’m not a big fan of violence, but Quentin Tarantino obviously is. (Yes, this is the first Tarantino film I’ve seen.) I can understand why some people would find the movie funny, but it’s not my kind of humor. I was so glad that I had watched it and could check it off my list. But then I realized that if I were going to write a fair review of a movie, I would have had to have seen it recently. So I reluctantly watched it again this week. I still don’t like it, but I can admit that there elements of the film that are excellent.

So what’s the story? German bounty hunter King Schultz needs the help of the slave Django to find three men he’s hunting. Django turns out to be remarkably good at killing white men for money, so Schultz teaches Django all the skills he will need to be a bounty hunter himself. When he has learned enough, Django and Schultz go to the plantation Candyland to rescue Django’s wife from the clutches of the evil Calvin Candie.

The Good: I have never said this of any movie, and I will probably never say it again, but the cinematography was fun. I didn’t realize fun cinematography was even a possibility until I saw Django Unchained. I can’t exactly put my finger on what makes it fun, but the camera angles are jaunty and the cinematographer uses stereotypical camera work in unconventional ways. Even if I didn’t particularly care for what was being filmed, it was filmed creatively.

Christoph Waltz gave an excellent performance as King Schultz, who was a deeply ethical con artist and bounty hunter who only used his skills to rid the world of evil people. He’s an interesting character, and Waltz portrayed him wonderfully. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not always my favorite, does do a very good job at playing King Shultz’s opposite: a completely villainous wealthy man who cares only about himself and his property. There’s no subtlety here; he’s just completely bad. DiCaprio does it well. I didn’t even recognize Samuel L. Jackson in his role as Stephen, an obsequious slave who is as proud of Candyland as Calvin Candie himself. He did a good job.

Django Unchained kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride (1987), not in the plot or the acting or the subject matter, but  the way that it makes fun of a genre while being a movie of that genre itself. I attribute that to the screenplay. Even though it’s not my style of humor, I did laugh at the scene with the men in hoods. There was witty banter and good dialogue throughout. It was a good screenplay, even if it wasn’t my style.

The Bad: I initially liked Jamie Foxx in the role of Django, but as the movie goes on, the role gets cockier, but Jamie Foxx doesn’t. He’s a little bit too quiet for the role, I think.

At the very beginning of the movie, words appear on the screen: “1858: Two years before the Civil War”. This bothered me soooo much. The American Civil War started in 1861, not 1860. There must be a reason that Tarantino decided to put that wrong information up, but I don’t know what it is. I also don’t know why Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, when the actual name is Brunhilda (or Brunhilde, if you want to be even more German about it). I can’t handle when people get little details wrong. Again, I’m sure Tarantino did that on purpose, but I was just annoyed.

The Ugly: I hate violence, especially when it’s violence for violence’s sake. Django Unchained has tons of over-the-top graphically bloody violence. Sometimes it’s even played for laughs. It never made me laugh, and the sprays of blood and guts everywhere were overdone. I know, I know, that’s a Quentin Tarantino thing, but it’s not my thing, and I don’t think it’s necessary.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Christoph Waltz); best writing, original screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in sound editing.

Gandhi (1982)

gandhi-movie-poster-1982-1020195902Directed by Richard Attenborough

I always worry when I’m watching a movie about a culture that isn’t my own, especially when it’s made by someone also outside that culture. I worry that I will “learn” something inaccurate or get the wrong idea about that culture. I had seen Gandhi before, but I was probably fourteen or fifteen and impressionable, so I was worried about how Indians view the movie and whether I could watch it comfortably as an American. But the day I picked it up from the library, an Indian coworker of mine said, “Oh, you are going to watch that movie? It is such an excellent movie. So well done.” Later that night, a British friend of mine whose parents are from India and Pakistan asked me what I was doing. I told him I was watching Gandhi. His response? “I love that movie.” So while there might be historical inaccuracies or only part of the story told, I at least know that Indians do not find this movie offensive, which does make me glad.

So what’s the story? Mohandas Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer educated in London, experiences racial prejudice in South Africa and decides that it is unacceptable for anyone to be treated that way. He begins a protest of the way Indians in South Africa are treated. His activism doesn’t stop there, however. He goes back to India and becomes the leader of the long struggle against British rule.

The Good: Ben Kingsley makes an excellent Gandhi, both young and old. He takes us on the same journey that Gandhi made, from rash young man to wise old leader, full of patience and kindness. It is an excellent performance.

I’m not going to name all of the people who did a good job of acting, because in a three-hour movie with lots of small roles filled by famous or soon-to-be-famous people (including Daniel Day-Lewis!), there is lots of good acting. I will mention Rohini Hattangadi, though. She played Ba, Gandhi’s wife, going from a young woman unsure if her husband is doing the right thing or if he has gone crazy to a woman who believes fully in what he does and supports him completely. She was impressive.

I loved the cinematography. There are times when it shows the grandeur of India, the huge scale of that country, and other times when it is intimate, showing how one man was able to make such a difference in such a large, diverse country. If I hadn’t already wanted to visit India someday, the cinematography of this movie would have made me want to go.

The makeup people did an excellent job of making Gandhi and Ba look older as time passed. I might have thought that the old and young were played by different people, especially as Ben Kingsley looks less like himself and more like Gandhi as he “aged”.

The Bad: Those same makeup people who did such a good job on Gandhi did a less-than-stellar job on Gandhi’s associates Nehru, Jinnah, and Patel. They didn’t age at all until the very end, even though they had been working for independence for thirty years. If this was done on purpose to show how much more quickly people age when they are living a lifestyle of poverty, than I suppose it was okay. But even if you are wealthy, you age over time, not all at once.

What happened to Gandhi’s sons? They are shown at the beginning of the movie in South Africa, but then we never see them again. There was nothing about the sons to make them a huge plot point, but I really did have to wonder if they all died, since they don’t seem to be anywhere around Gandhi and his wife for the rest of his life. Leaving them out altogether would have been one thing, but to show them once and then never again is bad storytelling.

The Ugly: I’m not disputing that Gandhi was a great man. He truly was. It takes an amazing kind of person to struggle for independence without fighting and to inspire an entire nation to do the same. His story is an incredible one. But except for one scene where he is angry at his wife, he is shown as having no weaknesses. He is made out to be a saint. I’m not trying to insult anyone or tear Gandhi down, but no one is that perfect, which made me feel like the movie was only semi-factual. I may be wrong; I know very little about the Mahatma. He may have been perfect. But because I was feeling that throughout the movie, I couldn’t immerse myself completely in the experience, so I’m going to stand firm in my belief that it was a weakness for this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Ben Kingsley); best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best sound; best music, original score; best makeup.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

the_greatest_show_on_earth_posterDirected by Cecil B. DeMille

I have only been to the circus once. I was two, I think. The only thing I remember about the circus is the elephants coming in to the ring; that’s all. Because I have so little circus-watching experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie. I was glad I didn’t have high expectations, because I was able to enjoy it, even though it has its ups and downs.

So what’s the story? The Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus is not doing well. People just don’t want to come to the circus anymore. The backers don’t want to do a full season. Brad, the circus manager, gets them to promise that the circus will stay out as long as they stay in the black. To do this, he hires Sebastian, a famous trapeze artist. This makes unknown, but excellent, trapeze artist Holly angry, because she wanted to be in the center ring. She decides to prove to Brad and Sebastian that she is the best.

The Good: The circus is amazing. I kind of wish Cecil B. DeMille had just made a documentary about the circus and the real circus performers, because the story wasn’t all that interesting. I would have loved to know how people got involved in the circus, how they learned to do some of the incredible things they do, if they would ever consider leaving the circus. The circus was truly the best part of the movie.

The cinematography was well done. It had to be in order to capture the feeling of the circus, the size and the noise and the color and the bustle and the amount of work it is to put a circus on.

Gloria Grahame is fantastic as Angel, a “sadder but wiser” circus performer who loves Brad, but isn’t sure that he will love her back because of her past. Charlton Heston (whom I did not recognize in normal clothes and a hat) is very good as Brad, the manager who will do anything to keep the circus going. Cornel Wilde is charming as the playboy performer Sebastian. It’s always nice to see Jimmy Stewart, even though his role as the clown with a mysterious past isn’t very large. His little dog is adorable, too. Lyle Bettger was good as the Angel-obsessed Klaus. And it is fun to see famous circus people like John Ringling North and Emmett Kelly doing their thing.

The Bad: I did not like Betty Hutton, who played Holly. She was more annoying than anything. Apparently, she was a famous singer at the time, but her acting skills could have used some work.

Since I grew up watching The Ten Commandments, I’m used to Cecil B. DeMille narrating with great weight about serious subjects. It was really odd to hear him narrating about the circus. It wasn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it was really weird for me. It probably wouldn’t bother someone who isn’t familiar with DeMille’s voice.

The Ugly: The story is really weak and not particularly interesting. How the writers managed to win an Oscar for best story is beyond me. It must have been a weak year for that award.

The train wreck at the end was probably good for its day, but it doesn’t hold up well. Klaus is obviously sitting in front of screen when he’s supposedly on the tracks. I try not to let that kind of stuff get to me, but sometimes it does. This is one of those times.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best writing, motion picture story.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best director; best costume design, color; best film editing.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The_Fellowship_Of_The_RingDirected by Peter Jackson

Although I usually plan out which movies I’m going to watch a couple of weeks in advance, I don’t always. I found myself this week with a couple different years’ worth of movies out from the library; I had choices. I was kind of leaning toward 1997, but I realized on Saturday night that I really wanted to watch Gosford Park. I hesitated, though, because I also knew that that meant I would have to watch another Lord of the Rings movie. I had seen this one before (twice, even), but I had disliked Peter Jackson’s interpretation enough that I didn’t want to see the rest of the movies. My desire to watch Gosford Park overcame my negativity about Fellowship, so here I am trying to write unbiasedly about another movie that is apparently universally beloved, but I don’t quite get why.

So what’s the story? Frodo Baggins, an Hobbit living in the idyllic Shire, discovers that a family heirloom is actually a dangerous artifact belonging to an ancient evil sorcerer. Frodo sets out on a journey with his friends to destroy the ring and save the world.

The Good: The production design is fantastic. There are many different races in Middle Earth, and the design gives each race their own look for everything, from clothing to dwellings. It’s all done very well, very beautifully. I don’t necessarily agree with all their decisions, but I still admire the look of the film.

Howard Shore’s music is beautiful. It captures everything from the naiveté and joy of the Shire to the heroism of Aragorn to the eerie beauty of the Mines of Moria. I may not care much for the movie in general, but I do love the music.

Ian McKellen does some seriously good acting as Gandalf, the wizard who sets the events in motion. The moment where Frodo volunteers to take the ring and Gandalf’s face falls…just beautiful. Gandalf is many things – jolly firework-maker, stern counselor, frightened man betrayed by his master. Ian McKellen shows all of those facets very convincingly. Sean Astin is the other acting standout. He plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and faithful friend. He isn’t glad to leave the Shire, but he refuses to abandon Frodo, no matter how dark the journey gets or how scared he is. It’s fabulous work.

The Bad: The Elves all talk like Jareth the Goblin King (aka David Bowie) from Labyrinth. I think they’re supposed to be showing how wise and calm they are, but because they also kind of look like Jareth, especially Elrond, it’s kind of distracting.

I wasn’t a big fan of how much time was spent on Aragorn and Arwen’s love story. I felt like there were other things that must have been cut to explore that at length. Boromir, for example, didn’t get much backstory, only a line or two about how his people are already fighting for survival. This lack of development made it hard to see him as anything but a bad guy, when he was really a proud, desperate Man who wanted to save his city and his people.

Some of the acting in Fellowship of the Ring is good; some is indifferent. But some is downright bad. Elijah Wood never showed much emotion as Frodo; he was just kind of….there. Orlando Bloom was just as wooden as Legolas. He looked nice, but luckily he didn’t have much to do beyond yelling out dangers (“Wargs!” “Orcs!”) in a noble voice.

The Ugly: There were a couple of glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. (Possible spoilers here, although I feel like everyone in the world has seen this movie, so…) For example, if the chain Frodo was wearing the ring on fell off his neck when he stumbled and fell on the mountain, how in the world did it stay on when the lake hydra-creature had him by the ankle and was waving him back and forth in the air? The ring should have been lost in the lake. And why did Pippin and Merry go to Bree and beyond with Frodo and Sam? They had no reason to. And why did Elrond let them go as part of the Fellowship? They had no training in any kind of weapons, no survival skills, nothing. They would really be more of a hindrance than an asset. And why did the Hobbits trust Strider in the first place? He gave them no sign, no reason for them to trust him. It really bugged me. How did Strider know to have four Hobbit-sized swords ready? Pippin and Merry were impulsive last-minute additions. Grrrr.

Oscars Won: Best cinematography; best makeup; best music, original score; best effects, visual effects.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Ian McKellen); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material previously produced or published; best art direction-set decoration; best costume design; best film editing; best music, original song (“May It Be”); best sound.

The part where I get to whine about how different the movie is from the book: Actually, The Fellowship of the Ring follows the book much more closely than The Two Towers does. Things are left out, and Glorfindel is sacrificed to give Arwen more screen time, but at least there is no Aragorn-goes-over-a-cliff-but-is-saved-by-his-horse moment. I wasn’t a big fan of changing Arwen so much, but the lack of female characters in the trilogy could be a concern for this day and age, so it’s kind of understandable. I also don’t like that Tom Bombadil was left out. He himself is perhaps not important to the story, but the Hobbits did need to stumble into the Barrow-Wights to find the swords that can break the spell on the Ringwraiths, and Tom saves them from the Wights. I haven’t seen The Return of the King, so I can’t say how Peter Jackson overcomes that important plot point, but it should have been set up in this movie.