Monday, February 02, 2009

Rings and Monsters

I was home sick this week, so I took the opportunity to revisit an old friend: Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001, directed by Peter Docter and Lee Unkrich). This remains my favorite of the Pixar films, in part because it makes me laugh the hardest, but also because the door chase at the end is the most jaw-droppingly imaginative setpiece I've ever seen. It's Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd all rolled into one. Plus, my emotional investment in it grows every time I see it. Just as I'm coming down from the adrenalin rush of the door chase, the movie sucker-punches me in the gut as Boo and Sully are parted. And when the movie reveals its last shot, and we hear "Kitty!" on the soundtrack, I'm bawling. Oh, plus it's got fun monsters, and a sushi restaurant called "Harryhausen's." How cool is that?

In contrast, I maintain a cool emotional distance from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. I watched the extended editions of all three of them this week, and for the most part, I viewed them as formal exercises. In retrospect, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is probably the most uniformly excellent of them. It really only strikes a false note with the council of Elrond, and even that's not bad. It loads the screen with terrifying menaces--it's very much the most monsterific of the trio--with my favorite of the monsters being the Watcher at the the gates of Moria. The Balrog was realized better than I could have imagined, but turns out to be something of a straw man (in the first film, at least). And the Ringwraiths seem like something that galloped out of The Tombs of the Blind Dead. I think a fair amount of the success of these films stems from having a director steeped in horror movies at the helm. Many of the film's set-pieces are palpably terrifying. Sean Bean arguably gives the most nuanced performance of the series as the doomed Boromir.

While The Two Towers (2002) is probably the most inconsistent of the three, it's probably my favorite. It's got the most Christopher Lee in it, and it throws in Brad Dourif for good measure, both terrific villains, both more comprehensible villains than the Great Eye of Mordor. A great villain makes for great fantasy. Jackson again gets to show off his horror chops as Frodo, Sam, and Gollum navigate the Dead Marshes, and shows a melancholy romanticism in Elrond's vision of Arwen's future, a vision worthy of the German romantics, Friedrich and Runge. This film begins an interesting escalation of scale in one half of the film (the battle of Helm's Deep) and an interesting narrowing of scale in the other half, in spite of the fabulous attack on the rangers of Gondor by the Nazgul.

The narrowing of scale continues in the third film, The Return of the King, even as the rest of the movie becomes so overstuffed that it's fit to burst. This one is all over the map, but when it comes down to it, the story devolves into a three sided psychodrama that, if one so desired, could probably be staged on a bare stage without any scenery. More than the other two films, this is a film that resonates with deep mythic images, from the reforging of The Sword that Was Broken, to Faramir's last ride, to Eowyn's battle with the Witch King and Theoden's heroic death, to Shelob, the cinema's all-time scariest giant spider. All of this, and the multiple maudlin endings, are emblematic of a director whose style is excess. Jackson doesn't know the meaning of restraint. Tell him that less is sometimes more, and he'll scoff at you because, by his lights, MORE is always more. Still, by the time Frodo sails into the West, the viewer is exhausted. This viewer, anyway.

I normally stay until the end of the credits when I see a movie in the theater, so when Taken (2009, directed by Pierre Morel) unreeled it's last few feet before me and the film's rating came up, I was shocked. PG-13? THAT was a PG-13 movie? Really? In retrospect, there's not really any bad language, and what sex there is isn't more revealing than your average episode of CSI, but, jesus, it's a brutal movie. This just goes to show that the MPAA, and Americans in general, are still ridiculously prudish when it comes to sex and language, and ridiculously permissive with violence. Disgusting. The movie itself isn't bad, though I daresay that the movie WOULD be bad if Liam Neeson wasn't playing the lead. He makes a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Like most Luc Besson movies (he wrote this one), the particulars are ridicuolous, but not moreso than your average Seagal or Van Damme movie. Neeson's conviction sells it all, and gives his role an extra cold-blooded malice that would elude a more regular action star. He's the reason to see it. No other. Certainly not director Pierre Morel's handling of the action scenes, which are clumsy even for being filmed in the run and gun, shaky-cam style.


Deborah said...

I agree with you 100% about Monsters, Inc. It is both the deep heart and the wild imagination, as well as the sushi bar.

Compared to Shrek, which came out at the same time, this is the real deal. The wit is in its imagination, not its sarcasm, and there's real heart, not a perfunctory exercise in making sure we feel good at the end.

I am not as steeped in monsters as you, so I lack your perspective on LOTR. I think Jackson likes boy games far too much. He lets his battle scenes go on forever. Many of the best parts of the films are in the deleted "extras," whereas every minute of every battle was seen on the big screen.

But I love the first movie best. The characters are rich, the sense of place is exquisite, the movement is just right, and the awesome moments create actual awe.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Deborah. Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you about the difference between Monsters, Inc. and Shrek (I loved John Lithgow in that movie, and nothing else). Fortunately, I think the rest of the world is coming around.

I think Jackson likes monsters more than anything. I would place the LotR emphasis on men (to the point of homoeroticism) on Tolkien himself. Jackson tries gamely with his female cast members within the material and largely gets Eowyn's story arc right. I think Jackson likes women and would like to make movies about them (it's also worth noting that his screenplay collaborators on these films and on King Kong are both women). He did a terrific job with Heavenly Creatures and I'll be very interested to see what he does with The Lovely Bones.

Anyway, thanks for the comments.