The Red Shoes – 1948 – dir Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
In The Red Shoes (1948), director Michael Powell explores the apparent lack of balance in the life of a young dancer’s life. Drawing parallels between the story by Hans Christian Andersen of a girl consumed by the need to dance, Powell has Vicky (Moira Shearer) dance her way through a lush, intricate, dream-like twenty-minute ballet sequence where the dimensions of the stage stretch into infinity and the ocean itself, substituting for her audience, roars approval for her grace and beauty. It takes some effort to come back from this exhilarating dance sequence to the mundane world of show schedules and dance rehearsals, where most of the action in The Red Shoes takes place. And this is Michael Powell’s great achievement, the way in which he, working closely with choreographer Robert Helpmann, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art director Arthur Lawson and production designer Hein Heckroth, infuses a film which deals with the realities of a ballet company with a strong, visibly palpable dose of fantasy.
In Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009), Sam Rockwell plays the scruffy hipster-next-door on the moon, who turns out to be both more and less than what he seems. With impressive set design, constructed with tiny models instead of CGI, Moon inhabits not the 1960s techno-future of visible progress, but the 1970s paranoid present of hidden ulterior motives. In a way, Moon recalls not so much the actual space race, but the aftermath of plastic modules on the kitchen table, with an excess of glue and tiny pieces that don’t seem to fit anymore. Continue reading →
Before I went to see J. J. Abrams’ version of the classic franchise, I was treated to dark whispers and quiet warnings such as, “If you’re a big-time Trekkie, you’re not going to like it.”
Being a moderate-time Trekkie, as opposed to a big-time one, I hotly anticipated the release through two years of promotional posters, mysterious trailers, and vague, origin-story allusions. I have to confess that along with Pixar’s Up, Star Trek is likely one of the best movies of the year. It’s not just a good sci-fi movie. It’s a good movie. Continue reading →
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000 – dir. Ang Lee
“When in comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be consummate idiots.”
Ang Lee’s homage to Du Lu Wang’s kung-fu novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I must confess, did not make an instant impression upon me the first time that I saw it. The film soars with Lee’s breathtaking direction and cinematography by Academy award-winner Peter Pau, but I found the story meandering and simple.
Of course, I missed the point, discovered only after a re-watch. The story is indeed simple. It is the characters who are complex. This is an ironic movie about opposites: finding through loss. Gaining through sacrifice. Joy through despair. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a simple story about masculinity, femininity, and life. Continue reading →
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a rich pastiche of mythological references that is both familiar and completely, breathtakingly unexpected. By combining ages old storytelling techniques with a fearless use of cinematic magic, del Toro manages to once again breathe a completely new spirit into the ancient battle between good and evil. The film is, essentially, two stories in one: first, the story of a post-Civil War Spain in which Franco’s regime is doing its best to root out the last of the opposition forces. Second, the story of Ofelia, a young girl with an incredibly vivid imagination who discovers that she is actually the spirit of the long-lost princess of the underworld. The two stories converge with Ofelia’s mother, who has married Captain Vidal and is very pregnant with his unborn child.
If at times you feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave of ‘entertainment’ that comes at you from your all around, then you understand how Max Renn (James Woods) was feeling in Videodrome. In his quest for the ultimate cheap thrill he finds himself caught in the zone between the real and the manufactured fiction he peddles.
If you’re familiar with writer-director Joss Whedon’s much-beloved 2005 science fiction film Serenity, you’ve likely heard the tale of the picture’s convoluted path to the big screen. It begins with the 2002 premiere and subsequent, swift cancellation of Firefly, Whedon’s hour-long TV series that fell victim to an impatient network (not to mention a dreadful ad campaign that featured Smash Mouth’s then-ubiquitous tune “Walking on the Sun”). Serenity picks up where Firefly was forced to leave off, and Firefly’s vocal fans (some who watched the initial broadcasts, many who were converted by the hot-selling DVDs of the series) embraced the big screen version, only too happy to have their favorite characters back. Fans championed the film with a missionary zeal; at the time of Serenity’s release, a story circulated about a Vancouver man who bought 320 tickets to the film just to give them away to strangers. Alas, Serenity didn’t set the box office aflame during its initial run, but it has predictably had a strong DVD afterlife, and indeed more staying power than the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan (a massive hit, moneywise, in 2005) that held the number one box office spot when Serenity opened, or the Vin Diesel vehicle Doom (even that had a bigger opening weekend). Serenity’s charms are many whether you’re a newcomer or a diehard, and in the past few years it has settled comfortably into a position of rare prestige in the cinematic sci-fi canon.
John Boorman’s lush treatment of the Matter of Britain, Excalibur (1981), is awash in color, magic and eroticism. Viewers who were of a certain age when this film was first released may recall its popularity among a certain college-age element, namely, the weirdos and geeks (not me, of course, but I, um, knew some of these people) who played Dungeons and Dragons, attended Renaissance fairs, and belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism. This film may in fact have single-handily ignited a Celtophilic obsession in America, with medievalism becoming a romanticized, nostalgic window to Ye Good Olde Days. The Dark Ages, stinking and pox-ridden though they might have been, were suddenly revered and became a cultural phenomenon. The lead actors playing Arthur and Guinevere in this film (Nigel Terry and Cheri Lunghi) even starred briefly in a short-lived medieval-era television series…broadcast on an American network. Boorman’s film inspired a love of this period not merely because of the exciting scenes of swordplay and sex: rather, his expression of this period captivated audiences because his film imbued this far-away era with sensuality and mystery.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – 2003 – dir. Peter Jackson
The Return of the King is the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new era. The age of the fair folk passes, and the age of men dawns.
In Tolkien’s books, Aragorn the Ranger has a goal of claiming the kingship from the outset. However, in the films, he undergoes a transition from reluctant leader to king of men. Of course, such a transition is interesting to watch – we first see him as a shady character at the Prancing Pony Inn, contrasted with the crowned royalty he becomes at the end of the third film. Continue reading →
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – 2001 – dir. Peter Jackson
In a story about a wizard, four Hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a golden ring that refuses to stay lost, where do we fit in? More specifically, what do we like about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring? Continue reading →