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Saturday, January 03, 2015

My Favourite (and least favourite) of the Films I Watched in 2014

A couple of days ago I listed the films I watched in 2014, but I didn't comment on my reaction to them. Here are a few thoughts on the highlights of my year in film:

The Disappointments
Shaolin Dolemite (1999): sloppy martial arts film redubbed after the fact to insert some stale commentary by Rudy Ray Moore. A late sequel to the much more enjoyable early Dolemite films.

Every Jack Ryan movie after The Hunt for Red October: You know, these just aren't very good, not even the Chris Pine/Kenneth Branagh reboot. By-the-numbers, jingoistic espionage tomfoolery.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): The visuals are splendid and the film has its heart in the right place, but the ending is too plainly telegraphed and hero Ben Stiller, who I usually enjoy, is a little offputting here.

The Underworld films: Nothing to recommend them save the presence of the lovely Kate Beckinsale.

Hugo (2013): Beautiful art direction and there's an interesting story here, but for whatever reason this Scorcese Best Picture nominee fell flat in my eyes.

Ghosts of Mars (2001), Body Bags (1993) and The Ward (2010): Proof that John Carpenter's best years are long behind him, sadly.

Doctor Dolittle (1967): One of those Best Picture nominees that turns out to be interminable fluff. Dreadful.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Marvel's worst film, and I'll never understand the critical acclaim levelled at it.

The Good Stuff
Deathtrap (1982): This movie doesn't have a great critical reputation, but I found it engaging enough, mostly thanks to the charisma of Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine.

The Creation of the Humanoids (1962): Obscure SF with primitive special effects but interesting social commentary - worth seeking out.

Her (2013): Fantastic movie about AI and transcendence and loneliness. Moving and smart.

Raging Bull (1980): I can't believe I waited so long to see this masterpiece. Absolutely phenomenal in every respect, and probably Scorcese's best film.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Marvel's best movie yet, with top-notch action sequences, interesting characters, and the courage to ask some important questions about an increasingly militaristic and surveillance-obsessed USA.

The Room (2003): This legendarily bad film is every bit as entertaining as I could have hoped.

Pacific Rim (2013): Big, dumb fun that makes you feel like a kid again. Giant robots versus giant monsters!

The Lego Movie (2014): An inventive, funny, and fun film with a great message about the importance of creativity and the dangers of conformity.

Enter the Ninja (1981): One of those great bad movies of the 80s that you can't help but love just because it doesn't take itself too seriously, but just seriously enough that the loopy nonsense makes you laugh at all the very best inappropriate moments.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): I know it won't get nominated, but I really feel this deserves a Best Picture nod from the Academy. A very moving fable about how hard it is for compassion and empathy to win over selfishness and fear, a very troubling and revealing look at our civilization's problems. 


Jeff Shyluk said...

I would like to debate the greatness of the message of the importance of creativity and the dangers of conformity in The LEGO Movie.

I can't disagree with you, but I do feel your answer is pat and safe, considering the composition of the film.

First of all, the obvious central message of TLM is obviously to go and play with LEGO. Preferably newer LEGO, since no doubt the sponsorship of the film was due to the prediction that people would then go out and buy container loads of the stuff, which they did: at Christmas the LEGO factories ran out of bricks when demand outstripped supply.
But creativity and conformity?

Let's take a quick look at the structure of The Lego FIlm through the eyes of a UCal Film Studies student.

This is from "The Hero With A Thousand Faces", written by Joseph Campbell in 1949, and it remains the texbook of the UCal film school:

"The mythological hero setting forth from his common-day hut or castle is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother battle, dragon battle, offering or charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him(tests), some of which give him aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and receives his reward. The triumph may be represented through sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again - if the powers have remained unfriendly to him - his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind: the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of the dead (return, resurrection). The boon he brings restores the world (elixir). - Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 1949, p 211

Jeff Shyluk said...

So, how many checkboxes can we tick off within TLM compared to these words written 66 years ago? The reason that TLM is so similar to the Campbell text is because Campbell is relating the "monomyth", the one story that every culture in human history has told, without exception. It is literally the most common story ever.

So, I kindly submit that TLM has very little to do with creativity. If anything, by hewing so close to the monomyth, as so very many Hollywood scripts do, it is a model for conformity.
Hollywood does have its creative aspects, but not when it comes to making profits. In that case, they try to stick with what works, and the monomyth works which is why they teach it in film school. The most conventional thing Hollywood will do when they have a product that is successful is that they will franchise it and make sequels, and guess what? There will be LEGO sequels, multiples of them.

A script that would show true creativity using LEGO would allow the hero to transform the pieces. LEGO is a very creative toy, but there are some rules that cannot be broken. You don't use files on the pieces to shave them to fit differently. You don't melt the pieces in an oven so as to reshape them. You don't paint them. The dots on a piece always face up with relation to the piece beneath it. And strangely enough, you don't glue pieces together. So you are always bounded by the ruleset of the toy, you end up conforming to what the LEGO designers want you do do.

In a million years, I would never have thought of gluing the pieces, but what a groundbreaking concept! Think of the stuff you could build if you glued bricks at perpendiculars or even back-to-back! It was very difficult to build a LEGO X-Wing with standard pieces, but with glue, it would be so much easier to build those tough wing angles!

I consider LEGO Dad to be much more non-comformist than his son. Of course, kids take apart things and put them together recombinatively, it's what every kid does. But Dad buying enough LEGO to fill an entire basement and then gluing it all together... isn't that pretty far outside the box? Is there any working class family man out in the world that could afford to do that?

That's the message of TLM as I see it: the price of non-comformity. Emmet pays the price for non-comformity by the loss of the world that he loved. Dad pays the price of non-comformity by alienating his family, and by spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort (and unsaid: money) on LEGO. After he's done gluing his model, then what? Will the value of that model go up or down as a result? He's almost at the Roy Neary level of obsession.

Once you decide to become a social outlier, you pay all sorts of costs that would have remained yours had you simply conformed. That the movie ends on a high note is absolutely conventional: look at the careers of Shakespeare (assuming Shakespeare existed), Dante Alighieri, van Gogh, Hemingway, Cobain - that's the fate of the person that becomes consumed with their own creative fires like a shooting star. The promise that being creative and nonconformist will lead to a heroic life path is pretty much false for everyone except the truly blessed. Thank you, Hollywood, for that one.

TLM was a lot of fun, and I look forward to the sequels, but I don't have any faith that the useful message of these films will extend any farther than "Let's Play With LEGO (and maybe buy some more)."

Earl J. Woods said...

Yeah, I'm being a bit lazy in my off-the-cuff analysis. It's just that the bar has been set so low in filmmaking these days that anything even a tiny bit brave looks good in my eyes; I'm thinking mainly of Emmet's couch invention, which turned out to save the day and was built without instructions (although yes, it's now available as an official set).