The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Two Towers

“Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.”

I have to say, I’ve faced a weird phenomenon when watching these Lord of the Rings movies. With some time to clear my head, I think back more fondly on them. I think it’s easy to remember the great parts about these movies. With The Two Towers, it’s the Frodo scenes with Sam and Gollum that come to mind exclusively. Maybe I’m just getting cynical about movies that work on a blockbuster scale, but I’d much rather watch some softer character interaction than that Helm’s Deep battle. But when I sit down to write about The Two Towers, all that comes to my mind is the good and not the bad. I don’t know if that speaks well on the movie or not, but I felt this should be expressed. Anyway, this is part two of three in my Tolkien expedition.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers follows the continued ventures of Frodo (Elijah Wood), a young Hobbit meandering around to return the One Ring to the fires of Mordor from whence it came. He was previously joined by a bunch of other heroes, but they’ve split up by now, so this movie has a lot of them meandering around as well. Meanwhile, some bad guys are meandering around, and it seems like all hope is lost until the right people meander into the right people, turning the tides in this captivating conflict.

I kid, of course, because this movie is still nothing short of astounding. The scale of production and the detailed world-building are of the highest quality, but I spoke about all of that last time. What really got to me while watching this film was how much you have to excuse away if you’re not a Tolkien fan. I think The Two Towers brings the “they’re not actually dead count” up to four or five, and I think that’s pretty inexcusable for any movie. The story is epic, and it’s incredibly entertaining for the most part, but it’s these holes in the storytelling that keep these movies from being a masterpiece in my mind.

The Aragorn story is well depicted, but I’m not sure it could stand on its own, for example. Granted, this trilogy is very much about scale and how each player represents a piece of the grand scheme, but these pieces are definitely not equal in quality. I found myself waiting for Frodo to come back onscreen for long stretches of time. His dynamic with Sam and Gollum is so enticing that everything else seems like fluff at times. I haven’t read the books, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the movie’s target audience, so I feel fair in addressing some of these weaknesses.

That being said, The Two Towers is still a delightful movie, improving upon Fellowship in a lot of regards. Peter Jackson doesn’t have to waste any time with exposition, which is why fantasy stories always take a while to get off the ground in the first place. This feels like the meat of the sandwich: the piece of the story that Tolkien really wanted to dive into. I stayed away from the Director’s Cut this time around, and in doing so, I think the movie was very well paced, despite some slower moments. Helm’s Deep is still an exciting climax that keeps any “second act trouble” at bay, and all the characters feel even more realized than they did in Fellowship. It’s pure, unfiltered, Lord of the Rings, and it’s among the best of its kind.

I can’t shake the cynicism I had with this watch, but I suppose my Fellowship review was where I made the positive points, so I’d direct you there for more words of praise. These movies are a treasure of cinema and a valuable road map of epic storytelling. I’m really looking forward to the concluding film, as long as it provides a disclaimer that nobody else comes back to life.


Films Left to Watch: 877

(Again, the count doesn’t go down until I finish Return of the King.)

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Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan

“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.”

I’ve stated in the past my love for the obsessive, ambitious young protagonist. Whether it’s Whiplash, The Social Network, or even the much darker Black Swan, there’s a common thread of passion and desperation that gives these movies a daring sense of humanity. It’s no surprise that Darren Aronofsky takes a more cerebral, kinetic approach to this framework in one of the most visually engaging movies of the last decade.

Natalie Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a ballet performer in a prestigious New York dance company. When company director Thomas Lorey (Vincent Cassel) announces an upcoming production of Swan Lake, Nina aims to be cast as the White Swan. Her real challenge, however, is becoming the darker, more corrupt counterpartthe Black Swan. The company meanwhile welcomes another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who best embodies the traits of the Black Swan, creating tension between herself and Nina as a strange friendship develops between them.

There’s a lot at play in Black Swan, but I’m surprised how easily Aronofsky breaks apart the story and introduces its themes in a straight-forward manner. The movie has a reputation as a strange, psychological horror feature. There’s a case to be made for all of those labels, but I think a common misconception about Black Swan is that it’s confusing or simply abstract. It’s a film about a lot of things, but the majority of those things aren’t really up for debate. We see the breakdown of the obsessive artist, her corruption through sexuality, and the ruthless nature of a cutthroat culture where only the strongest rise to the top and nobody lasts long. It’s concise and highly effective.

The imagery is heavy-handed, but I think it works beautifully. Nina’s story undoubtedly parallels the Swan Lake opera, going so far that the end credits of the movie attribute each actor with their counterpart from the original opera. Portman is a perfect White Swan, pure and untainted at the start. Aronofsky does a great job in the ballet scenes of showing us Nina’s technical skill while also alluding to her greatest weakness as pointed out by Vincent Cassel’s character: a lack of passion. Kunis, on the other hand, delivers what I think is her strongest performance to date. She feels genuine, down-to-earth, and powerful in a sexual way. It’s a nuanced take on the “Black Swan” representation that isn’t necessarily malicious; it just feels more primal and compelling. The movie is also ripe with black/white imagery, (The color of Nina’s clothing holds meaning in every scene, if my interpretation is correct.) and there’s all kinds of visual details to look out for when you’re experiencing the movie.

I remember hearing some weird buzz about Black Swan when it came out years ago, but I can say with confidence that it’s a technical triumph. It sinks pretty far into its dark visuals and rarely hits the brakes on its tension which is probably why it isn’t the most accessible movie. Even so, I think Black Swan is remarkably rewatchable if you’re in the right mindset for it, and I it’s one of Aronofsky’s most exciting movies. It’s right up my alley, and I’d love to see more movies like it.


Films Left to Watch: 877

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Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo

” Did you ever see an elephant fly?”

Nobody talks about Dumbo much these days. I remember seeing this movie as a kid, but I probably haven’t thought about it for years until I spotted it on my list with a tantalizing 60 minute runtime. Strangely enough, the film was made with the sole purpose of recouping losses from the box office failure of Fantasia, which may explain its simple concept and short length. With only an hour to kill, I tried to immerse myself in yet another early landmark of Disney animation.

The film follows the story of Dumbo, a circus elephant born with comically sized ears. He is ridiculed by his fellow animals, save for his kind mother (Verna Felton) and his snappy mouse friend Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy). Towards the end of the film, Dumbo discovers that his eccentricities might be his greatest benefit – because, you know, he can fly. It’s a short, effective story that hits some familiar beats but stands out with its charm and visual flair.

I thought the most noteworthy part was the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment, a hallucination experienced by Dumbo where he accidentally becomes intoxicated on alcohol-fused water. The roughly five minute scene perhaps serves as a time-filler, a plot separator after which Dumbo realizes he can fly when he wakes up from the nightmare in a tree. The scene itself is strange, and the alcohol connotation makes it pretty dark for a kids movie. You wouldn’t see anything like it today, but it’s definitely a neat indication of the period that these segments could be hamfisted in a movie. It reminds me of the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, although “Pink Elephants” is rightfully more concerned about overstaying its welcome.

The film’s release was just a month after that of Citizen Kane, so it’s fun to note that both films were the high point of their respective genres in 1941. In terms of Disney animation, I’d still prefer Dumbo to Snow White which came out a few years earlier; it has less substance than Snow White but I find it more focused and entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis. Both of these films do contain a lot of meandering and lack of direction in their plots, which may be why I couldn’t get too invested in either of them. Undeniably though, the movie loses none of Disney’s quality.

Dumbo is an interesting relic of its time, and perhaps credit should be given for how well it holds up today. It would easily keep a child entertained, even one that might be accustomed to more modern styles of storytelling, and I think this is a testament to the care that went into Disney movies around this period. Even if you can’t get on board with the concept, there’s still a smart direction to the movie that keeps it artistically beautiful to watch. All in all, Disney has certainly done better since 1941, but this movie was a great sign of progress in getting there.


Films Left to Watch: 878

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Fargo (1996)

Fargo

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”

When you watch a lot of Coen brothers movies, it’s easy to spot the patterns. “A regular person gets wrapped up in the world of crime” seems to be the starting point for just about every film, along some other classic Joel and Ethan tropes. These guys haven’t made a lot of bad movies, but some are easily better than others, and that’s dependent on a lot of factors. I think I love Fargo for a lot of the same reasons I love No Country for Old Men: the world-building, the quirky details, and the thematic drive that gives each movie its soul, something you rarely find in similar movies.

In the cold but courteous town of Fargo, North Dakota, Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) seeks a large sum of money for a lucrative real estate deal. He gets involved with a pair of criminals whom he hires to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd), hoping to profit off the ransom that her father will pay. When complications arise on the other end and his wife doesn’t return home safely, Lundergaard is investigated by the savvy Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who aims to get to the bottom of these unfortunate circumstances.

Fargo is clearly the Coens’ best atmosphere piece. Not just the local scope of the story and the entrancing regional dialects, but the cinematography conveys heaps of information about this region and the people who inhabit it without a line of dialogue necessary. This then leads to what I believe is the film’s biggest strength: the contrasts. This is a movie about a wholesome town, nearly pure white, that is tainted by intruders. The geographical differences seem to depict a moral struggle at the center of the movie, one that isn’t too heavy-handed but comes through powerfully nonetheless. It’s easy to forget how much this movie has to say until the very end when Frances McDormand emerges as a shining figure of morality, fending off evil and protecting her home.

On a moment-to-moment level, Fargo also yields more positive reactions for me than a lot of Coen films. The humor arises beautifully from each situation and not just from scripted jokes, and the movie strikes a fun balance between weighty and casual from scene to scene. The movie was also perfectly cast, with Steven Buscemi bringing a slimy, engaging performance opposite Peter Stormare. We get to spend a lot of time with the two criminals, and it helps round out the film’s cautionary tale, exhibiting once more that ambition should never come before humanity, a lesson that many characters end up learning the hard way.

This is a movie ripe with other star-making performances, and it’s great that so many of these actors got to work together again on future Coen projects. I think Frances McDormand is the most engaging performer in the film. She builds such a quirky, unique charm in her character such that you can’t take your eyes off her in any scene. William H. Macy is also given free reign in what is probably his most well-suited role: a character that desperately doesn’t want to be a loser anymore. It’s a specific niche, but he pulls it off better than any actor could (with Boogie Nights being another example).

This is a soothing but captivating film, one that you could turn on for nearly any mood. The Coens demonstrate near technical perfection, but they allow the film to be guided by heart instead of mind, making it one of their most memorable works. Endlessly rewatchable and packed with stunning scenes, Fargo is a really impressive movie that I would recommend as anyone’s introduction into the work of the Coens.


Films Left to Watch: 879

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Seconds (1966)

Seconds

“The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want. Things! Not people, or meaning, just things.”

I’m a big fan of The Twilight Zone, and I’ve always been drawn to concepts that imitate its style. It’s as if American cinema was forever changed in the 60s following the success of the series, and we finally started to see these strange, high concept movies that place the individual in an alternate state of existence. Most importantly, though, these stories always have something to say about the normal world, the one in which we live. Seconds is a film I really enjoyed because it plays out exactly in this style, though I think it’s far from perfect.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a successful but unfulfilled man with a struggling marriage and a bleak daily life. His situation is forever changed when he receives a phone call from a friend whom he thought was dead. Hamilton is informed of a mysterious organization that will provide him with a “fresh start” in life. What follows is a psychologically fascinating sci-fi fantasy with a strong commentary on personal fulfillment, perspective, and the people most important to us. This is one of those movies where the unraveling of the plot is a big portion of the payoff, so I won’t delve much deeper into the story.

Seconds is a slow film but one in which a lot of things happen. It resides in a chilling middle ground where the scenes take their time to play out while still spewing ample plot information. From the outset, this builds a creepy mood. Seconds is both a mystery and a social experiment, and this contrast can be uncomfortable at times. It’s not a relaxing film, and I think you have to be in the right mood to take it in, but it’s well worth your time just to view it technically. The film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, and there’s an unwavering direction from John Frankenheimer that makes me optimistic to view his more famous works.

While I enjoyed the film, I can’t say it’s completely successful in what it sets out to do. It has a lot of flair which I think can detract from the story. At its core, I think Seconds works best when it’s about a man trying to figure out how he should live his life. There are times when this theme is thrown to the wayside for something creepy or strange, and while it builds this effective mood that I’ve mentioned above, I think the story could have been given more attention. The protagonist’s brief fling with the woman from the beach stands out as one example of this. It’s definitely a surreal sequence between the two characters, but it can feel hollow and too “cinematic” when it should be more personal.

On the whole, Seconds is a really fun movie which plays out a formula that I’ll never tire of watching. It’s dark, brooding, and unapologetic in its commitment to the absurdities of life. I hope to see more films like it in the future, just maybe written a bit more carefully.


Films Left to Watch: 880

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The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line

“Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

Wrongful conviction has always been a fascinating topic for me. If you’ve got injustice in the system, even if it’s just reasonable doubt, I’m there. There seems to be a lot of public interest behind the topic as well, with series like Making a Murderer, The People vs. OJ Simpson, or the Serial podcast, it’s nice to see a widespread interest in the flaws of the criminal justice system, and it hopefully shapes the judicial system into a fairer institution moving into the future. If you want to trace this phenomenon back somewhere, The Thin Blue Line might be a good place to start.

Typically classified a documentary (though director Errol Morris resisted the label), the movie tells the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for a Texas cop killing. The film is primarily composed of interviews with Adams and other key figures surrounding the murder, with the film strongly implying Adam’s innocence due to unreliability of witnesses and other circumstantial evidence that never found its way into trial. The success of the film actually resulted in an overturning of Adam’s case and his release by Dallas County in 1989.

Structurally, The Thin Blue Line plays a lot like the shows I mentioned above. Revisiting the past can be tricky, and all you have in retrospect is interviews and documents. Fortunately, Morris demonstrates strong technical skill and keeps his audience interested with what he has. He uses these interviews to stage and film recreations of the actual murder according to different witness accounts, a technique that true life crime shows have adopted over the last few decades as well. While there is a clear bias on the part of the filmmaker, it’s also noteworthy that Morris allows the clearly unreliable witnesses to speak for themselves, letting the audience witness their shady testimonies in a “show don’t tell” approach to conveying their personalities.

Being a younger person, it’s sometimes hard to parse out where the innovation actually comes in from some of these movies. I’m only familiar with standards that have been around during my lifetime, and I think The Thin Blue Line was one of those realizations that a style I took for granted had to be invented. Watching 48 Hour Mystery and similar shows throughout my life, I never knew how really interesting some of these techniques are, and these programs owe a ton to this movie. If you’re like me and this is your first viewing of the film, The Thin Blue Line may seem familiar and even corny at times, but I feel like it demands some perspective to fully appreciate. Making a bunch of interviews into great cinema isn’t easy, but Morris delivers through careful technique and the movie just zips through its runtime with one engaging scene after another.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to The Thin Blue Line, but I feel indebted to it. Its legacy lives on in lots of the media I enjoy today, and as a standalone work, it holds up to Serial and the rest as a compelling case of miscarried justice in America. It feels like one of the most timeless films I’ve ever seen, and I really admire what it accomplished.


Films Left to Watch: 881

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Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction

“You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you.”

In a sensational milestone of the 80s thriller genre, Adrian Lyne solidified his reputation by combining two of cinema’s most eye-popping topics: sex and crazy. Fatal Attraction is not only an entertaining film but a brilliant marketing ploy. It’s got the perfect title, the big-name leads, and you can sum it up in just a sentence. There’s not a lot under the surface here, and you’re not missing out if you never watch this movie, but I still had a really great time with it. It takes a fun premise and runs with it, building steadily to a cathartic conclusion.

Michael Douglas stars as Dan Gallagher, a successful New York lawyer with a wife and child. His life takes an interesting turn when he allows himself a one night stand with Alex (Glenn Close), an attractive woman who proves to be dangerously obsessive following their encounter. As Dan first attempts to keep things quiet and let her down easy, he soon finds that his very life may be in jeopardy if he can’t rid himself of the past. As mentioned above, there’s not a lot to the story, but it never claims to be more than it is: a two-hour thrill ride with terrific conflict and some unsettling scares.

Glenn Close’s character is clearly what makes this movie special. You know she’s the villain from the premise of the movie and that she’s “crazy,” but the real question is how crazy. It’s often hard to tell how much of this movie is a progression, a descent into madness for her as a character, or whether she just does this kind of thing all the time. The film is also written to give her a compelling (though still unconvincing) moral argument: She doesn’t want to be cast aside; she doesn’t view herself as “one of those girls,” and the movie does a good job of painting Michael Douglas as a morally gray character as well. Fatal Attraction is a simple cautionary tale: Treasure what you have and don’t turn your back on the people who care for you. And watch out for crazy.

The thrills are a bit mild by today’s standard, but if you can immerse yourself in the 80s movie atmosphere, it’s still an effective work of horror. I was reminded of The Gift from 2015, a similar cautionary tale in which the ghosts of the protagonist’s past won’t be easily forgotten. It’s almost the same story, though The Gift feels more modern, and the scares are more shocking and creative as a result of recent trends in horror. In any case, these sort of films owe a lot to Fatal Attraction. The crazy stalker is always a fun concept, but the execution is more nuanced than you’d expect, and this film is a fine example of that.

Here we have a box office sensation with a lot of cinematic merit, and it still holds up as a fun two-hour thriller with some big names attached. It won’t change your life, but I guarantee you’ll be entertained. I certainly was.


Films Left to Watch: 882

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