Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There & Back Again: A Fantasy Fan's Tale.

 So, here we are. The End of All Things.

 It's hard to believe that the film adaptations of LORD OF THE RINGS are now over a decade old. It seems like only yesterday my brother Ryan and I were settling into our seats at the cinema in Red Deer, Alberta to watch the theatrical cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001. At the time, I had reasonable, if relatively low expectations for the film. Traditionally to that point Fantasy as a movie genre had experienced only middling success over the past few decades: there were the odd diamonds in the rough (your DRAGONHEART, your WILLOW, your BEASTMASTER), but none of them had really had any definitive staying power and after CONAN THE DESTROYER's rather disappointing follow up to CONAN (the film that had sparked the brief Fantasy revival in movies), the genre was treated much like the Western is now; they can be done, but usually as low-rent, direct to VHS or low-rent cable fare. At the time I had no idea who Jackson was beyond the fact that he'd directed THE FRIGHTENERS(I was blissfully unaware of MEET THE FEEBLES. I will never be that innocent again). I remembered liking the flick, so I thought we'd get something akin to that, with the usual low-rent effects and swiss-chesse narrative of the Bakshi attempt at the Lord of the Rings from years prior. And then the credits rolled, the New Line Cinemas logo appeared. . .and everything changed.

 A moment of painful honesty here: While Tolkien's work as a visionary and a fantasist is beyond dispute, his actual prose tends to leave me a little cold. As an idea man he is without equal. Much like Isaac Asimov, the man created concepts, whole culutres and worlds from the fabric of his imagination. He created the Elvish language in his idle time teaching at Oxford. . .and then created the whole of Middle-Earth to support the linguisitic equivalent of doodling. That is amazing beyond all the telling of it. But his prose has always been a bit problematic to me. I think it suffers from an unfortunate case of bad timing, really: by the time I got my hands on the 1992 Centenary Editions of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, I'd already been to Krynn, the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Lankhmar, Florin, and Camelot. The works of Tolkien were good, make no mistake, but in the wake of those more contemporary authors I was left wondering what the big deal was all about. I was seventeen, people. Grade on a curve is all I'm saying.

 What Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Phillipa Goyens, and Steve Sinclair managed with the adaptations of each of the three texts to film I liken to William Goldman's grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE: they provided "The Good Parts" version of the original work. Of course, it could also be argued that they took more than a few liberties with the series (THE HOBBIT becoming the basis of an entirely new trilogy of films stands testament to that) but I like to think where they erred, they did so on the side of telling an entertaining story, not out of malice or in any effort to upstage Tolkien himself. The novels will always stand as touchstones of epic fantasy, and the films themselves do their best to honor that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is by no means a perfect film: the romance sub-plot is eye-rolling at best and irritating at worst(seriously, Tauriel is seventeen shades of badass but the minute Kili comes into view she gets distracted and beat down? C'mon now), and it was getting to be a bit much to see Legolas constantly playing in God mode(though the impossible happened and he actually ran out of arrows, which was something at least), serving at the Ace Rimmer of Jackson's Tolkienverse. But Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield is easily one of my favorite characters in fantasy film, thanks to the actor's wonderful performance. Whereas Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn wanted no part of his lineage, Thorin is desperate to reclaim it, to see Erebor restored and his people brought back from the misery they endured at Smaug's talons. In the hands of a lesser actor he could have easily gone moustache-twirling, hammy evil when suffering from the Dragon Sickness of the treasure and his need for the Arkenstone, but Armitage makes it clear that there is a very real war going on in the soul of this noble dwarf, to the point I almost expected a Superman III-style fight between King Thorin and Thorin Oakenshield atop the lake of gold.

 Martin Freeman's Bilbo isn't given as much to do here as he did in the previous films, but he is the heart of the films and it shows. His concern for Thorin's sanity, his compassion at the plight of his friend going more and more obessessed with the Arkenstone contrasts neatly with Bilbo's own growing fascination with an object that is equally. . .precious. . .to him.The scene where he takes his leave of Erebor and the dwarves. . .when he says goodbye to Balin and when he returns home. . .if your eyes don't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.

And while yes, the scene with Gandalf's rescue is pure fanservice, I cannot in good conscience state I was at all put out by the arrival of the White Council in the nick of time, to say nothing of the epic smackdown given to the Nine and Sauron. Unnecesary? Maybe. Fun? Ohhhhh hells yes.

All the actors are doing solid, credible work here, but c'mon. We all know Billy Connolly walked off with the movie as Dain Ironfoot. Peter, Fran, Phillipa. . .when do I get my Dain Ironfoot movie? Whose palm do I place the money in? Tell me when to stop.

It's strange to think that the last of these films (THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) has been released, and with it the entire saga of Tolkien on film has come to its conclusion. As a society raised in part by syndicated television and movie sequels the concept of the third act and the conclusion has always been a problematic one. Stephen King argues in his magnificent ON WRITING that the reason we have so many Fantasy novels stems from that primal desire to continue walking that road that leads ever on, for we cannot fully accept in our minds that the story has come to a close. As a superhero fan, I'm keenly aware of this willful resistance: supehero stories consist entirely of first and second acts. There will never be a final Superman story or final Batman story (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW & THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are mere shadows, 'what-ifs' or 'imaginary stories' that take place outside of canon). Those characters will continue to be written and rewritten, due to a near primal desire to have the familiar reinterpreted for a new generation. But even the best stories end eventually. Arthur faces Mordred at the battle of Camlann, Robin Hood fires his last arrow to mark his gravestone, Beowulf slays the dragon and is in turn slain himself. The best stories end because the destination is as important as the journey itself. Like Bilbo, we come home from the best stories a little older, a little wiser, and with the understanding that it is who we are when standing among good company or playing riddles in the dark that ultimately matters. Be it on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, the journey itself is what's important, and while one story may end we can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be new roads to travel, with new people to meet and new lessons to learn. And that is an encouraging thought.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Dawn of a Dark Tomorrow: Why Caesar's victory was anything but.

 I turned 39 years old this week. That's a chunk of change, to be sure. So like most adults who reach this point in their life, I want to talk about monkeys. Specifically the ending of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and what it means for the franchise as a whole. It goes without saying that pretty much everything below this point is SPOILER country, so if you haven't seen the film (and seriously, why is that? I mean, you did see the trailer where a chimpanzee is dual-wielding machine guns whilst riding on horseback, right? RIGHT?), you may want to take the time to check it out. Seriously, both the Apes movies are way better than any of the fly-by-night remakes and revamps of recent years.

 All right? We good? Here we go. Fairly warned be ye:

 The ending of DAWN has Caesar (masterfully played by Andy 'Can This Man Get A Damn Oscar Already' Serkiss) send Malcom (Jason Clarke) on his way, reunited with his people and having defeated Koba(played to extremely disturbing effect by Toby Kebbell). Caesar holds his family close, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that this victory is practically the textbook definition of pyrhrric. We're allowed the moment of 'victory' because of the three-act structure of the film but you can see it in Caesar's eyes. He is absolutely screwed and he knows it.

 Caesar's development over the course of the two Apes films is easily one the franchise's greatest achievements. It would have been all too easy to set him up as a slavering lunatic, rabidly anti-human and plotting for  the complete and total overthrow of humanity from the get-go in the best supervillain tradition. Instead, they let the story build gradually, allowing us to bond with Caesar and the Rodmans as people rather than merely archetypes to get us to the scene of astronauts screaming at the sight of a ruined statue of Liberty. Like any of us Caesar is the product of his environment, he sees both the good and the bad in humanity but it's ultimately the bad that has him take his genetically modified tribe into the wilderness to raise at a safe remove. That humanity is decimated by the coincidental release of a supervirus that brings about the near-total collapse of civilization is something that I think Casear regrets, but not too much. He sees humans as deeply flawed but not an evil to be eradicated. The trouble is he feels that his people are better, that their burgeoning civilization is the superior one. Enter Koba.

 Koba is one seriously twisted individual. He hates humanity with an absolute passion, and here's the most damning thing: he is not entirely wrong. He sufferred brutally at the hands of the scientists at Gen-Sys, his experiences about as close to a 180 degree turn from Caesar's as you can get. I love that in this film, both sides get an equal say, and both have valid points to make. Especially when Koba catches wind that Dreyfuss(Gary Oldman in a solid role) is preparing for war, just in case the Apes decide that they don't want to cooperate. The humans need that electricity, and while Dreyfuss wants Malcom to succeed, he and his people have lost too much too soon to trust the altruism of a species that (for all they know) originated the plague that killed his wife and family. Koba sees this as vindication of all his beliefs about humans: lying, backstabbing, cheating, and murderous. His world view is simple: The Strong control the Weak. Humanity was Monstrous when they were strong. Now Apes are Strong, and the Humans are Weak. The Apes should seize this moment and kill the humans. All of them. And if Caesar can't see this. . .then Caesar has to go. Koba is so blinded by his hatred that he can't see how much he has in common with his enemy. And Caesar is so blinded by his idealism that he can't see how much his people have in common with Humans. It's an amazing character study, one that I remind you is in a film who only really had to deliver the sight of a chimpanzee dual-wielding machine guns on horseback to have my complete approval.

 But the absolute best thing about the film is that it ends on a triumphantly bleak note. Koba may have been defeated and the Apes may have escaped Dreyfuss' suicide gambit, but in that last moment before the credits roll we see in Caesar's eyes that he realizes how absolutely doomed he is. Koba may have died, but in death he achieved exactly what he wanted: a war between humanity and the apes. And we as the viewers know (from previous experience with the franchise) the outcome of that war: Caesar will lead his people to victory over the humans, with humanity becoming the slave caste of a dominant civilization of intelligent primates. Caesar's name will be revered, but it will be as the heroic liberator of apekind from human tyranny. He'll be a figure of religious awe, not a person. And in that moment at the end of the film you can almost see the mantle of that future history settle around his shoulders. It's a great moment of acting from Serkiss and the reason that it's one of my favorite movies to come out this year. A character goes from child to adult to leader to legend. . .in a movie about talking apes.

 Ps. (Seriously, that scene with the machine guns. . .so. Awesome.)