Friday, November 28, 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! A little last minute this week, but from now until The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released in theatres, I will be reviewing The Lord of the Rings each Friday. Please see my "Archives" section above if you'd like to see my reviews of the two Hobbit movies. I find tackling films to this magnitude incredibly daunting, so I apologize if I come off a little reverential at times. Like the one ring, this trilogy is precious to me. There's so much depth and meaning to every character that it's impossible for me to touch on all of it, but I hope to at least scratch the surface as I revisit what I consider to be the greatest film trilogy of all time.

Middle Earth is ruled by rings of power, given to dwarves, elves, and men to govern their respective races. However, the Dark Lord Sauron forged a master ring to rule them all and cover all the land in darkness. In a final battle for the freedom of Middle Earth, elves and men united at the foot of Mt. Doom, and Sauron is defeated as the one ring is cut from his hand. The ring contains Sauron's life force, however, and has a will of its own. It betrays its new owner and fades out of all knowledge until it's found by the creature Gollum, who is consumed by it. After 500 years of isolation in the Misty Mountains, it is picked up by a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who takes it back to the Shire (following the events of The Hobbit). There it remains until the Dark Lord regains enough strength to begin his hunt for it, and an unwitting hobbit is the only hope of preventing Sauron from finding the ring and reigning over Middle Earth once more.

That summary covers just the first six minutes or so of the film, but it contains a lot of necessary information for people who may not be completely up on the history of the ring, or don't know why it's so important to the story. This isn't a story to be watched passively, as it's jam-packed with crucial story details and subtle nuances that can only be appreciated by the attentive viewer. Take it from my wife (who wasn't necessarily looking forward to our foray into Tolkien), this movie rewards those who are willing to put forth the effort to get something from it.

When sitting down to watch The Fellowship of the Ring, the first thing that instantly sets you in Middle Earth is the tremendous score by Howard Shore. The music has an eerie, mystical quality to it that makes it seem otherworldly. Throughout this film the score immerses you in the story, elevating the material to amazing heights. It's perfect at eliciting emotion at the exact right moment, whether its the sorrowful events following the Bridge of Kazhad-Dum (which I'm not ashamed to admit brings me to tears every single time), or the incredibly intense horseback chase from pursuing ring wraiths, this music is flawless at every turn. I've never heard a better score in my life than in these three films, and Fellowship may be the best of the bunch.

Every technical aspect of this first film was not only a landmark for its time, but still holds up incredibly well to this day. It's hard to believe sometimes that this film was released thirteen years ago, but most of it looks as though it could have come out yesterday. The effects will continue to get better throughout the course of this trilogy, but from the beginning they had a tone and style that would forever be associated with this franchise. The amazing scenery of Middle Earth, the craftsmanship of the sets and wardrobe of the characters (watch any behind the scenes features about this movie if you want to see the amount of work that went into creating this world) all contribute to a one-of-a-kind experience that no other fantasy film has ever been able to capture - not even the Hobbit films, if I'm to be perfectly honest.

Beyond the visuals and the gorgeous music, I think I've always related to the story being told on a personal level as well. Part of that comes from my childhood, as I was practically raised in the Shire (aka Heber City, UT). Growing up and moving on from my comfortable surroundings felt very much like Frodo leaving his home and taking on a difficult and dangerous task - though not quite as dramatic. Particularly when travelling abroad and being thrust into unfamiliar territory, it's easy to stay in your comfort zone rather than face the unknown. Frodo's determination and selfless attitude are truly inspirational, as he's the smallest and weakest of the secret council that meets in Rivendell, but is the first to volunteer to destroy the ring rather than use it for his own selfish desires. Throughout this series he will endure immense trials, and he's often a symbol of something far greater that I always aspire towards.

Every one of the actors in this incredible cast is extraordinary, but it's Sir Ian McKellen that delivers a truly standout performance (and deservedly received an Oscar nomination as a result). His epic delivery of "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" has become the stuff of cinematic legend, and still gives me goosebumps to this day. Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn is probably the coolest of the fellowship, and his sword-fighting antics are even more impressive given the actor's abbreviated preparation time (he was cast only a few days before his first fight scene was filmed).

However the heroes wouldn't nearly be as memorable were it not for the formidable foes introduced in this film. Sir Christopher Lee gives a truly creepy performance as the good wizard turned evil, Saruman, and his battle with McKellen's Gandalf is both captivating and horrifying in equal measure. Even this pales in comparison to the ultimate embodiment of evil, the ring wraiths. Clad in black cloaks and shrieking the most terrifying noise you'll ever hear, these ominous spectres ruthlessly pursue Frodo and his friends despite Aragorn and Arwen's best efforts to combat them. They're seriously the stuff of nightmares, and even the dementor's from the Harry Potter franchise pale in comparison to the agents of Sauron.

Some people may complain about the length of these films, but I think they've perfectly streamlined this incredibly dense story so as to highlight all of the meaningful character arcs and dilute the world-building exposition to a more manageable level. Even the least important members of the fellowship (Merry and Pippin) end up finding a way to show their courage at the end of the film. Perhaps the unsung hero of this entire movie is Boromir, the oft-misunderstood warrior of Gondor who desires the ring to protect his people. He is frequently categorized as a villainous presence, but shows his true colors in a finale that truly tugs on the heartstrings.

There are so many things to praise here that I know I'm going to leave something out. Suffice it to say that this film legitimized the fantasy genre like The Godfather did for the crime genre, or Star Wars did for sci-fi (though it has some fantastical elements as well). It was the perfect way to start out this trilogy and paved the way for some truly spectacular sequels. Whether they will top this initial effort remains to be seen in future weeks, but I can say that this is a near perfect film that I cannot recommend highly enough. I give The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the strongest of four-star ratings.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images

**How much do you love The Fellowship of the Ring? Let me know in the comments below!**

Friday, November 7, 2014


Anybody who knows me could have told you that I have been dying to see Interstellar. Christopher Nolan's reputation is that of a visionary filmmaker of the highest order, and his stories expand beyond what typical blockbusters even attempt, let alone accomplish. I for one would start to choke up just watching the trailers for this film, and the early buzz about it being Nolan's best yet launched my expectations into the stratosphere. However, something happened about a week and a half ago that I never really expected - early reactions to the film were somewhat mixed. The awards analysts who had this film projected as a juggernaut for every Oscar for which it qualified were suddenly jumping ship. Even I, who couldn't wait for this film, was a little shaken by this unexpected reaction, and I can't deny that my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by it.

I eventually diluted those early reviews down to the subjective opinions that they were, and regained most of my excitement for the film... though with slightly lower expectations. With all that background, I have to apologize in advance for my lengthy and essay-like entry as I attempt to deconstruct my thoughts. As most people haven't seen the movie yet, I am going to take a cue from Nolan himself and stay as far away from spoilers as possible.

A few decades from now, humanity is pulled back into a time of economic and technological famine (not to mention the actual famine). Dust storms ravage the landscape, and the only remaining crop is corn, though its days of sustainability are numbered as well. This kind of agricultural lifestyle is particularly difficult for a man like Cooper, a trained pilot and engineer who worked with NASA before the environmental disasters that led to these conditions. He bemoans the limited possibilities available for his children, and longs for an opportunity to inspire future generations not to give up hope. Such an opportunity comes when unexplainable circumstances lead him to reunite with his longtime mentor, a physics professor who is planning a heroic quest across galaxies to save our species from extinction. Given that Cooper has the skills and experience they need, he is recruited to lead the interstellar expedition... though he must leave behind his children in order to do so.

Hopefully that doesn't give anything away, but most of my plot summary does appear in the trailers as well. I want to say up front that you need to go into this movie with a bit of preparation: first, this movie is nearly three hours in length (a little more on that later); and second, there are ideas and plot points here that will challenge your mind. More so than even Inception, this movie demands a lot of its viewers. The overall experience is going to be a whole lot more rewarding if you understand those things before sitting down to consume this incredibly dense film. Even some Christopher Nolan fans might be surprised by this, as it's completely unlike anything he's ever directed before.

Now, about those negative reviews... don't listen to them. People have such mixed reactions to this film that there's hardly a single complaint (or nitpick) that even seems valid, particularly since the criticisms about it almost contradict themselves. There are probably flaws in this film, but there are flaws in every film, and those in Interstellar aren't greater than those in any other film that the naysayers profess to enjoy. People always seem more willing to forgive the mistakes in films that are easier to digest, and I don't hold it against this film that it isn't "perfect". No doubt about it, this is a challenging experience with really complex concepts that stretch beyond our understanding. However, its ambitions are unparalleled, and I'm more than willing to meet a film with this much substance to its ultimate destination. Just as you'll see in the film, great things are rarely (if ever) just given to us. Even when a wormhole seems divinely placed in our solar system to rescue us from extinction, we still need to get there ourselves.

Like I said, this movie has really big ideas, and perhaps not everyone contemplates these things on a regular basis. Surely those who are perfectly satisfied with the earthbound rewards our society is driving us towards will see little value in a vision as vast and far-reaching as Interstellar. It stretches our understanding of the universe and imagines the endless possibilities of the cosmos in spectacular fashion - one of the major themes in this film is Murphy's Law (whatever can happen, will happen), after all. But even then, it still has its roots buried deep in the earthbound, but no less important relationships with our loved ones. Its depiction of the transcendent quality of love is truly beautiful (if not a little too obvious), and is quite as awe-inspiring as the humongous canvas on which this universe-spanning epic takes place.

Lest you think this movie is all about existential philosophy and theoretical physics, however, there is also a thrilling story that will pull the audience through moments when they may not fully comprehend the deeper meanings embedded within the narrative. There are plenty of extra-terrestrial dangers and suspenseful situations to keep your blood boiling throughout the three hour run time. I wish I could go into detail about all of the captivating scenes that not only necessitate the film's length, but also gives the story its power. However, at the risk of going into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that you will never be bored watching Interstellar.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this film takes quite a bit of inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I can definitely appreciate that landmark sci-fi titan for what it did for the genre, I think there are monumental problems with it that people are willing to overlook because it's considered a "classic". Perhaps I'll do a separate review of that film one day, but the incomprehensible nature of it and the laborious stretches of technological gimmickry for the sake of it can definitely test one's patience. Unlike Interstellar, that film has no concrete meaning and relies entirely on whatever the viewer can come up with to make sense of what they just saw. Perhaps in fifty or so years people will finally realize how hypocritical their readings of Nolan's latest masterwork are, especially when comparing it to a film that suffers from far more critical flaws in my (surely unpopular) opinion.

If I haven't alienated all of you yet, let me start in on what I believe makes Interstellar so special. This movie speaks to a generation in a far more inspiring way than I've possibly ever seen. The story is more or less designed to demonstrate the limitless potential of the universe, and to lament our conditioned satisfaction with introverted technological achievements. Some of the greatest struggles of humanity may have solutions somewhere in the endless arena of space, but we'll never know unless we embrace our pioneer heritage, as it were, and seek them out. We stand on the shoulders of innovators and visionaries, but our selfishness may be getting in the way of our own advancements. Like the film says, we can't think of ourselves as individuals, and though we may not think of ourselves as a species either, we should think of ourselves as families. That message carries through with a theme that everyone, everywhere can relate to. Throughout the movie we see people supposedly self-sacrifice for the good of mankind, but it eventually shows that those impulses can really only be motivated by the love you have for others.

Of course, not everyone is going to get that from the film, and that's okay. One of the things I love about artful movies is how they can be interpreted multiple ways (as long as it has some kind of structure... ahem, 2001...). Perhaps you do have to approach this material from an almost spiritual perspective in order to grasp its complexity. If not, you still have what may be the best thing about this incredible movie to suck you into the journey - Hans Zimmer's masterful score. Zimmer is easily my favorite composer working today, and I thought it was very interesting how none of the trailers (save for the teaser that premiered almost a year ago) featured any of his original music. Apparently he and Nolan are on the same page with their secrecy for this project, because reportedly Zimmer didn't want anyone to hear his music until the film was released. Man, am I glad I didn't know what to expect coming in, because the discovery of such powerful music paired with the dazzling visuals on the massive IMAX screen was unlike anything I've ever experienced in a movie theater. I will be appalled if his music doesn't at least garner an Oscar nomination, as it may be the best work he's ever done (which is truly saying a lot).

I grew up being completely fascinated by outer space (a fascination no doubt born from the early consumption of Star Wars movies), and I still get goose bumps considering the never-ending expanse above us when I look at a clear night sky. The visuals of this film are not only the best I've ever seen, but they truly transport us to another glorious vista. If last year's Gravity gave us the feeling of floating in space, Interstellar gives us the mind-boggling experience of transcending space and time. It's truly a remarkable technical achievement, made even more impressive thanks to Nolan's thoughtful approach to the storytelling. You may never see anything so awe-inspiring in a film as when the space vessel Endurance orbits the fiery rings of a black hole, or bends through time and space in a wormhole. Seriously, see this on as large a screen as possible.

Another aspect of this film that really brings the story to life is the acting. When it was first announced back in 2013 that Matthew McConaughey would be starring in this film, I thought it was a very interesting choice (see my review of Mud). Though not much of his previous work resembled what I expected Interstellar to be, I always enjoyed his presence on screen and could see his potential even from the dumbest rom-com roles. Amazingly, his performance in this film is nearly on par with his Oscar-winning part last year, and the emotion he brings to the screen as well as the unexpected humor throughout the movie instantly gets you on his side. It's perfect casting in that his skills as an actor as well as his overall charisma helps to sell even the most confusing aspects of the story. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are exactly as good as you'd expect such high caliber actresses to be, but perhaps the standout was young Mackenzie Foy, who plays Cooper's 10 year-old daughter. She has the unenviable task of having to match McConaughey's emotional range in this film, and she pulls it off completely. I don't think I was ever as heartbroken during this film as when her father has to leave her behind in order to save the world.

Bottom line: this film is a fantastic vision and a tremendous exploration of the human soul as well as the very depths of existence. Not everyone is going to love this film as much as I did; it's already proven to be quite divisive among the film-going public. What I can say is that everyone around me was singing the praises of the extraordinary experience we shared, and the applause we gave at the end is exactly what I hope to have encapsulated with my review here.

I've wondered whether this would be my favorite film of the year so far. There have been some great movies in 2014, but this outstrips them all by light-years, in my opinion. It's definitely up there with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films and Inception as one of his best. Though the ending will definitely baffle a lot of viewers, those who go in with an open mind to the expansive, thought-provoking ideas presented will not be disappointed. Interstellar deserves nothing less than four stars.

INTERSTELLAR is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language