Movie Review: “Legend” (1985)

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara

Title: Legend (1985) IMDb
Director: Ridley Scott
Lead Actors: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry
Score Composer: one version has Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the one I saw has Tangerine Dream’s
Length: 89 minutes; U.S. theatrical version (there are at least two other versions with different lengths)
Rating (US): ? Couldn’t find an official rating, but it’s an intense PG or a light PG-13, I’d say; there’s lots of darkness and terror to scare kids, and it opens with a scene of unidentified people being tortured in the background of the Lord of Darkness’ lair.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young man of the forest must rescue his girlfriend Princess Lily and the last surviving unicorn from the Lord of Darkness, who wishes to marry Lily and rule the world by destroying daylight.
Reason for Watching: 80’s fantasy film.
Movie Re-watchability: The film’s main attractions are its art design, sets, and special effects, which all combine to create a dreamily dark, surreal atmosphere. You may want to rewatch it occasionally for this, and for Tim Curry’s magnificently campy turn as the Lord of Darkness, and perhaps for some of the oddball side characters. However, the doe-eyed main characters and their simplistic love story and quest may prove tiresome with multiple viewings.
Director Re-watchability: While he can struggle with really pulling a film together so that its themes make sense, Ridley Scott has undoubtedly directed some of the most interesting and entertaining movies of the past three decades (and more if you go back to 1977’s The Duellists, which I haven’t yet seen), including Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Kingdom of Heaven, to name but a few. Some of his movies are much better and more re-watchable than others, but as a director he consistently delivers something of value.
Recommendation: One of Scott’s weaker films, to be sure, but I found it to be nonetheless enjoyable, and rather fascinating in its own way. I’m a sucker for heavy atmosphere that effectively transports me to a different place, and that’s what Legend delivers in spades. If you like seeing classic fantasy tropes played straight, without a lick of irony, and don’t even mind an accompanying lack of complexity, then you will find this movie worth it. But as noted above, the actual story and its accompanying protagonists are too bland and boring for this to be a true classic.

Key Thoughts

If there were a glass ball that held within it an exquisitely cliché, exquisitely beautiful fairy tale world of radiant meadows with princesses and unicorns frozen in their frolicking, with glistening snows and cackling goblins, and with “hidden” treasures and pixies not quite out of sight, and I looked into it and shook it, so that snowflakes and flowers began to fall and the world rolled into action, this might be what I would see taking place.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara
*shake shake*

The main charge against Legend is that it is all style without substance, and this charge I cannot completely deflect. After all, snow globes and glass figurines are wonderful to look at, but do not typically provide much food for the mind. The movie’s characters are the definition of simple, filling only one role each, and its narrative is deliberately designed to be derivative. Ridley Scott—a director known primarily for his striking visuals and epic atmospheres—reportedly set out to film the most classic, archetypal fairy tale he could. He doesn’t attempt a unique twist on the material, or a subversion, or even a transcendence. He attempts what has been done before, but intending to do it better than anyone else—this is intended to be the movie that you think of first when the words “movie fairy tale (not Disney)” come to mind.

More frolicking!

This attitude, while noble to my fairy-story-loving mind, likely informed the movie’s failures as well as its successes. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Lily (Mia Sara) certainly look their parts, but even understood as the embodiments of the Pure Hero and Pure Princess, their lack of energy and distinct personality causes them to fade into the background even when the story centers around them. Jack should be a charming, slightly wild rogue of the forest, a role Tom Cruise should have been able to really make sparkle, but instead he smolders and gazes his way into near-mute lovesickness. Likewise Mia Sara, while delicately gorgeous and believably gentle of spirit, doesn’t quite bring out the warmth or passion that Lily is supposed to have for Jack. The two of them seem pleasant together, but not quite alive. And the main fault for this I lay at the feet of the writing, which gives them dialogue devoid of character and interest, and not much of that to boot. Not that I wanted our heroes to be gabbing the whole time, but their general silence wasn’t adequately replaced by other means of character development. We can root for Jack and Lily, but they are hardly more interesting than the flowers in the meadow or the grim, heavy trees. This didn’t have to be; other film fairy tales have managed to be both archetypal and deliver fascinating characters (i.e. The Princess Bride [1987], The NeverEnding Story [1984], The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003], Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], even Labyrinth [1986]).

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Honeythorn Gump
This music would also be appropriate.

Ah, but the side characters do sparkle! Some of them literally. My favorite is Honeythorn Gump, a fey of swift feet and solid loyalty. Initially the character didn’t work for me—the voice is oddly pitched, mixing tones both high and feminine, and more somberly masculine, and the fact that he’s played by a boy (or very boyish young man) wearing nothing but a fur loincloth made me a bit uncomfortable. I mean, he’s gotta be freezing in that snow, right? But after awhile, he grew on me. The character is the cleverest and most forceful of the heroes, and he feels like something other than human; a true member of the Fair Folk, who are immortal yet unchangeable, fierce yet delicate of frame, and petulant, yet very serious about oaths and honor. While I still wish he would cover up a bit, the voice becomes an asset to the character, and the actor’s performance sells a role that needs to be taken seriously, but too easily could have become a laughingstock. Watch him in this clip, where he threatens Jack with a murderous glint in his eye, and subsequently throws a fit when Jack correctly answers his riddle. Among the rest of the heroes’ allies, the comically noble Brown Tom wouldn’t be out of place in The Hobbit, while the ethereal pixie Oona is even more fey-like (in the traditional sense) than Honeythorn Gump.

Legend Ridley Scott Tim Curry Lord of Darkness
“Well of course the butler did it. Communism was just a red herring!”

Special mention goes, as even Legend’s detractors will admit, to Tim Curry as the entertaining Lord of Darkness. Even cached in prosthetics and red and black paint, and given dialogue no less simplistic than the heroes, Curry’s obvious delight in playing a fellow who relishes in being irredeemably bad shines through; and, as happens here, when a good actor has fun with a role, the audience often does too. Yet while undoubtedly campy, I wouldn’t say the character quite becomes ridiculous. You may laugh at the first sight of his massive black horns, each bigger than his head, and wonder how Curry doesn’t topple over with all that top-heavy weight, but the movie doesn’t let you doubt Darkness’ effectiveness as a doer of evil. His presence is imposing, and you know he will kill and torture to achieve his goal of domination, and that he is cunning as well as powerful. He has no respect for anything good, no honor, and his despicable laugh echoes throughout the whole land. He’ll give nightmares to any children who watch this movie.

In fact, the character of Darkness is so effective that his presence overpowers that of all the heroes combined. Roger Ebert criticized the movie by saying:

To some degree, this is a fairy tale, and it needs a certain lightness of tone, a plucky cheerfulness, to work. Like many recent sword and sorcery movies, it is so effective in rendering evil, so good at depicting the dire, bleak fates facing the heroes, that it’s too dreary and gloomy for its own good.

While I wouldn’t say that the word “plucky” need apply to every fairy tale, Ebert has a good point here; the movie fails to provide enough thematic strength and personality to the side of Good. Even when it’s trying to be carefree and joyful near the beginning by showing Lily frolicking and her romance with Jack, there’s such an air of foreboding that prevents these scenes from evoking blissful happiness, as they are intended to. A shadow hangs over the whole story—the lord of Darkness is too much in control of this movie, and has no effective antagonist on the side of good. Dorothy has Glinda the Good Witch, Bilbo and Frodo have Gandalf, and Bastian Balthazar Bux has the Childlike Empress, but our plucky heroes in Legend have no guiding force of Good who can match Darkness in power or cosmic significance. The introductory text declares that the movie’s universe is dualistic, meaning that the forces of Good and Evil are equal and must maintain a balance, but only the Evil side has an actual person embodying it. All this leads to the final scenes of celebration being tainted by an image of the just-defeated lord of Darkness laughing ominously before the credits roll. We’re not even permitted to enjoy the heroes’ hard-won victory without fearing that the whole battle was for nothing.

Legend Ridley Scott goblins
Also, they speak entirely (or almost so) in rhyme.

[N.B. There was actually a different cut of this movie released to European audiences that has some radical differences, including a different ending without Darkness’ final laugh.]

Some more could be said about the movie’s ideas of innocence and pureness of heart, ideas which are popular in fantasy movies but rarely receive the definition and development they need to be meaningful. Lily is initially held up as pure of heart, as she is allowed to approach the unicorn, but she subsequently falls from grace by breaking the sacred rule and touching one of them, thus leading indirectly to the unicorn’s death. She ignores Jack’s warnings and proceeds in naïve arrogance, and later, when captured by Darkness and dressed by him in a gown of corruption, engages in deceit and faked seduction as she tries to save herself by manipulating him. In the end, only Jack has the right to be called pure of heart and innocent. As pointed out by this reviewer, there’s kind of an Adam and Eve vibe going on: a young man and woman both innocent live in paradise with total freedom, until one sacred rule is broken, which brings death and corruption, and sin. If the movie had followed through with this metaphor and provided a figure for God and Jesus Christ who could redeem them from sin, then the story would feel more complete and purposeful than it currently does. Nonetheless, the foundation of it is there, and that does lend a bit of substance to the proceedings.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise
Forest Boy, a.k.a. Link.

But what draws me to this movie is really its style. Lush and colorful, it creates a world that is more akin to our dreams than any reality. It feels curiously empty, as if it just might not exist outside the camera frames. Lily is a princess or a noble lady—it’s never quite clear—and yet beyond Jack and a farmer’s wife, we see no other humans, nor even a castle or city in the distance. The characters are wholly in the magical forest, and the story is really from the point of view of the fairies and Jack, who let this human girl into their realm because of her gentleness and beauty only to have her ruin everything by her selfish disregard for one sacred rule. The landscapes reflect this point-of-view, being impossibly beautiful, yet also subtly threatening; artificial, yet bursting with natural life (almost no people, but many butterflies, flowers, rabbits, and birds); petulant and swiftly changing, yet consistent in power.

There are images of iconic power and majesty, such as when Darkness emerges from a mirror and bends ominously over Lily, and of tenderness and grace, such as when Jack shows Lily the pristine unicorns. The synthesized ethereal score by Tangerine Dream brings out both the darkness and the weirdness of the setting, emphasizing our gut reactions to the images onscreen and our sense that as beautiful as it all is, something is not right with this world.

Legend Ridley Scott Mia Sara unicorn
Now that right there is pure fairy tale.

One viewing of Legend did not quite convince me that this is a masterpiece, yet it ranks as one of the more deeply atmospheric fantasy movies I’ve seen, in a way that pleases me greatly. I want to see it again, especially the European version so I can compare the two supposedly very different movies. When I think back to the other great fairy tale movies of the 1980s—the ones mentioned a few paragraphs up—I admit that this one didn’t have as lasting an effect on me, mainly due to the flatness of its main characters, the unbalanced weakness of its dualistic theme of Dark and Light. Yet it still ranks as a fine fantasy movie, if only for its ability to create an entirely other world that is both archetypal and odd, and for how it so fully sucks the viewer into its own tempestuous moods through its visuals and eerie music.

Legend Ridley Scott
A pixie cautiously traverses a truly epic-sized underground hall.
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Movie Review: “The White Buffalo” (1977)

That right there is a clearer picture of the titular beast than you’ll ever get in the movie. But that’s kind of okay. Like in “Jaws,” less is more. But this poster oversells the spectacle of this slow, ominous quest story.

Title: The White Buffalo (1977) IMDb
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Lead Actors: Charles Bronson (Wild Bill Hickock), Jack Warden (Charlie Zane), Will Sampson (Crazy Horse), Kim Novak (Poker Jenny), Slim Pickens (in a cameo)
Score Composer: John Barry
Length: 97 minutes
Rating (US): PG (in 1977, this could include a fair bit of swearing, from S.O.B.’s to “bastards,” “damns,” and taking the Lord’s name in vain)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Wild Bill Hickock, old and plagued by nightmares of a murderous white buffalo, returns to the western frontier and, along with an old Indian-hating friend of his, joins up with the disgraced Sioux chief Crazy Horse, himself suffering from the death of his infant daughter, to hunt the evil, almost demonic, beast.
Reason for Watching: I like Westerns and Charles Bronson, and this film promised both, in addition to lots of action.
Movie Re-watchability: Not sure how re-watchable it is, but I was certainly absorbed the first time through. It’s slowness and general darkness probably means it’s not the most rewatchable of films, but I would like to see it again. Just not too soon.
Director Re-watchability: Thompson’s directing is rocky at times; that is, some of his cuts seem awkward, especially in action sequences, and for the first half hour you can’t quite tell where he’s going with the film. But in the end, he made a very effective, interesting film. I haven’t seen his other films, although some of them, like Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear are well-regarded.
Recommendation: It’s a strange film, to be sure, and not one high regarded in general. But I really found it fascinating. It’s most like a spaghetti Western, with its dreamlike moods, cold men, and harsh landscapes. But a spaghetti Western invaded by a dark monster straight from a myth or dark fairy tale. If you like spaghetti Westerns and don’t mind a touch of the supernatural or uncertain, you’ll probably find this movie as interesting as I did. Other than that, you just have to watch it yourself and take it for what it is. Don’t go in with many expectations, just receive it. It’s not transcendent, or astoundingly great, or any other superlative we like to use to denote the films we really want everyone to see. But that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. This is one of the more interesting genre exercises you’re likely to come across, whether or not you like it.

Key Thoughts

This is a surprisingly effective and unique film; ostensibly a Western, but proving to have more parts supernatural thriller and mythical quest. The premise seems so ridiculous that it’d have to be either a comedy or an over-the-top action flick: Wild Bill Hickock and Crazy Horse team up to hunt a evil white buffalo. Instead, this film takes itself completely seriously and, amazingly, succeeds. I’m not going to call this one of the greatest Westerns or any of that stuff, but it’s uncommonly absorbing and not quite like anything else I’ve seen.

The Western elements are thus: the setting, the tension between whites and Native Americans, the gunslinger of little words who is frequently attacked by snarling baddies wherever he goes but guns them down with hardly a blink (usually the Clint Eastwood role). Yet the main plot is part quest, part supernatural thriller: Hickock (Charles Bronson) is plagued by nightmares of the White Buffalo attacking him, and must confront the beast in order to keep from being driven insane; likewise, the Oglala chief Crazy Horse — who was stripped of his rank and name after weeping like a woman at the death of his infant child when the White Buffalo attacked his village — must kill the beast “in the old way” to regain his honor and provide peace for his child in the afterlife.

The White Buffalo itself appears nearly demonic — in addition to invading Hickock’s dreams even while he was living hundreds of miles away in the East, it stalks them from the shadows of snowy mountains, plays psychological games by making noises at night, kills their horses to deprive them of easy transport, and causes avalanches to intimidate them and cause mayhem. It reminded me of equal parts Moby Dick and the Red Bull from “The Last Unicorn”.

The movie is directed in a slow, slightly surreal, not completely steady manner. In the first ten minutes of the movie, I wasn’t sure if it was well made or not. The outside nighttime settings look limited, as if filmed on dark stages perhaps, the lighting was low and natural (often obscuring landscape or facial details due to darker-than-normal-for-movies shadows). The acting for the Native American characters is stiff and stereotypical of old Western portrayals — flat voices, no emotion, somber faces. And the White Buffalo itself is filmed mostly in lightning quick, almost shaky-cam shots, up close, so you can’t quite get a good look at it. Since it’s likely a big puppet they had, this kind of choppy shooting was probably to disguise the artificiality. And it works. Sure, we’re used to big CGI shots of creatures, and a bigger budgeted movie in 1977 could probably have done more, but this limited approach WORKS for this movie. It makes the White Buffalo more surreal, more monstrous, and more threatening. It’s not a real buffalo — it’s practically a demon! I think that’s the point, and it really helps build the suspense and eerie atmosphere for this movie. And this goes for the whole movie — as it progresses, the directing feels more assured and the narrative finds its focus.

The legendary OneyeBronson is one of the iciest action heroes of his time, all the moreso because of his leathered face and deep-set, stern eyes. He doesn’t emote much, but he doesn’t have to. His character is hard and driven, knows he’s done bad in the past and doesn’t apologize for it, but also seems to be looking for a way to atone for it. I think he ends up finding a way towards something resembling peace, by the end, although it’s not much, and you can decide for yourself.

A murderous ambush by some U.S. cavalrymen who hate Hickock doesn’t go so well (for them) after the bartender slides Hickock some guns, and the gunslinger (on the ground to the right) starts slinging.

The supporting cast are all pretty excellent, though may not notice until the end. Jack Warden starts as an entertaining cliche, but by the end becomes a more complex, and, in a moral view, tragic figure. Will Sampson plays Crazy Horse with solemn dignity; somewhat of a living caricature of the noble, steel-eyed savage, but with such presence as to match the ominous White Buffalo’s and lift this story further into the realm of legend. The character of dark-hearted Whistling Jack Kileen I swore was played by Gregory Peck, but in fact is played by towering, deep-voiced Clint Walker. A deadly, fearsome opponent even for the likes of Charles Bronson.

There’s very little humor in “The White Buffalo,” but it never gets as depressing as it threatens. I enjoyed it — it’s cool, if grim, and has a sense of honor about it. And it’s fascinating for how it mixes the genres of the Western, the personal quest, and the supernatural beastly thriller.

Movie Review: “The Secret of Kells” (2009)

Title: The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb
Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s)
Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
Score Composer: Bruno Coulais
Length: 75 minutes
Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind…
Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music…
Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings.
Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right.
Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.

Key Thoughts

[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]

Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.

The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.

The Abbott has filled his room with chalk plans for the fortifications. He thinks of little else. After all, the people of the village look to him for protection.

You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.

An epic goose chase...(I love the goose's expression here!)

The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.

Apparently, all those jars and doodads are the real ingredients needed to make inks. The artists researched well.

As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.

Forgive me, but this reminded me of the scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where Li Mu Bai and Jen pause on a tree branch in a forest canopy in the middle of one of their duels. Another beautiful movie, that.

The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.

Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.

Freaky!

Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.

The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.

In the DVD commentary, the artists actually said that their inspiration for the birch trees in the winter scenes was the art of Bill Waterson from Calvin & Hobbes! As if we needed more reasons to love this movie.

If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.

I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

– John 1:5

*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.

Credits: Screencaps from Screened.com

Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)

There is a boy, and he is quite proficient with steam.

Title: Steamboy (2004) IMDb
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Lead Voice Actors (English): Anna Paquin (Ray Steam), Alfred Molina (Dr. Eddie Steam), Patrick Stewart (Dr. Lloyd Steam)
Musical Score: Steve Jablonsky (sample here)
Length: 126 minutes
Rating (US): Rated PG-13 for action violence.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In [alternate] 1860s Britain, a boy inventor finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict over a revolutionary advance in steam power.” (courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Beginning: I love 2D animation and have long been interested in the steampunk genre – this movie promised both! Plus it’s available free on YouTube Movies!
Reason for Finishing: The animation is fantastic and the characters are interesting.
Movie Rewatchability: Mainly because of the beautiful animation; the story really isn’t as good as it should be.
Director Rewatchability: I’d definitely watch this director again, though in this film he relies too much on extended action scenes with minimal plot. Ôtomo directed the famously violent Akira (1988), which doesn’t interest me much, and an anime remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which sort of interests me because I’m a fan of the original silent classic.
Recommendation: Yes, it’s a good, interesting film, mainly visually. Good music, too. Plot was weaker than expected, though, and there’s little emotional content or character development. Continue reading “Movie Review: “Steamboy” (2004)”

Movie Review: “Peter Pan” (2003)

Title: Peter Pan (2003) IMDb
Director: P.J. Hogan (based on the play by J.M. Barrie)
Lead Actors: Jeremy Sumter (Peter Pan), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy), Jason Isaacs (Mr. Darling/Hook), Richard Briers (Smee), Ludivine Sagnier (Tinkerbell)
Score Composer: James Newton Howard
Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: “Rated PG for adventure action sequences and peril.”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Fun and emotional adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s famous play, wherein the three Darling children get whisked off to Neverland to have adventures with Peter Pan, the magical boy who never grows up.
Reason for Beginning: Peter Pan has been one of my favorite stories since childhood, on a level with Robin Hood and King Arthur.
Reason for Finishing: It engaged me exactly the way the story is supposed to. It’s also a surprisingly effective tearjerker.
Movie Rewatchability: Higher than I initially thought. A day after watching it for this review, I found myself bored and decided to watch the movie again. I enjoyed it every bit as much as before, and would eagerly watch it again.
Director Rewatchability: Hard to say, since no story is quite like Peter Pan, but I like his directing style. He doesn’t try to impose upon this very traditional British fairy tale an inappropriately modern sensibility, in theme or in style.
Recommendation: If you like the story of Peter Pan or have any interest in modern fairy tales, you will find this movie interesting and highly enjoyable. If you are a romantic at heart, this movie will satisfy. In fact, I think it may be the best screen adaptation of Barrie’s story yet, at the very least on par with Disney’s excellent version. I say this having seen the original stage play, though without having read Barrie’s book based on it.

Key Thoughts

The difficulty with any adaptation of this story is simply how well-known it is. There are no surprises in the plot or characters. The story was old when Disney animated it, and many generations have now grown up with that one as the definitive version. (Some people have expressed a strange fondness for the 1960 TV movie starring Mary Martin, a fondness which I do not share.) And then came Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), which tried to be both a sequel and a reimagining of the classic story. Despite the number of faults and miscalculations in Hook, we must credit Spielberg with really trying something new and original with the old story. It has its own charm, its own magic, and has claimed a special place in my heart. But to the point: did we really need another version of Peter Pan for the modern era, especially one that plays the story so straightforward and traditionally?

This beautiful picture needs no caption.

I think we did. For one thing, the wonderful boy is finally played by, of all things, a young boy! While Disney’s Pan was voiced by 16 year-old Bobby Driscoll, I think this is the first live-action movie to feature him played by an actor of the correct age and sex. Without this, the story’s themes of youth and not wanting to grow up wouldn’t work nearly as well. Also, while I certainly don’t think a fantasy movie needs great special effects to be successful, this one really benefits from art direction that takes good advantage of the technical wizardly available in 2003. And lastly, what really makes this version unique is how it addresses some of the more sophisticated and serious themes inherent in Barrie’s story. This movie is actually about something.

Smee: Captain, the ice is melting, the sun is out, and the flowers are all in bloom…
Captain Hook: He’s back.

What sort of boy is Peter Pan? The kind whose coming causes winter to flee and flowers to spring into bloom, whose sorrow causes the clouds to curl and the seas to wail, and whose sheer joy causes the sun to rise after a long night. I found it interesting that, in this very English story, Pan is played by an American, Jeremy Sumter. Some British viewers might not like this, perhaps, but I think it serves to subtly set him apart from the other children. Sumter’s more American acting style helps with this as well, being sharper, wilder, and maybe a little more tempestuous than the more gentler British style of his costars. Now, I’m using the terms “American” and “British” very loosely here, and very subjectively – I’m not a student of acting styles and can only go off my gut instinct here. But I like Sumter’s portrayal. He can crow in joy (so that verb really feels apt), wail in despair, and steel himself in heartbreak, and we believe it. He’s easily offended, but quickly forgives. Death holds no horrors for him, but loneliness is unbearable. He knows endless ways to fight and escape the pirates, but can’t acknowledge his own emotions, which are begging him to let them grow into maturity, to usher him into adulthood.

Peter: [forcefully] I want always to be a boy, and have fun.
Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.

When speaking of bright and pretty actresses the term “luminous” is probably far overused to the point of cliché, and yet I find it really does describe Rachel Hurd-Wood’s performance as Wendy. She simply lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. Another reviewer’s cliché, I know, I’m sorry. But how else to say it? Her smile makes you smile. Her disappointment makes you want to immediately stand up and fix whatever is wrong. Peter Pan is the blood racing through this story’s veins, and Wendy is the pounding heart. She is entranced by Pan, but we also see her realizing his immaturity and longing for him to be able to grow up, even a little bit, so they can be on the same level. While Wendy doesn’t initially want to grow up, she realizes that it’s the healthy thing to do, and that there are other, different joys to be had as an adult, even if she doesn’t fully understand what those are.

Their innocent romance is the center of this movie, as it hasn’t truly been in others. I like how the movie manages the theme of growing up through romance without letting the subject devolve into a discussion of sex. There’s a brief scene near the beginning which lightly acknowledges that some people might interpret the story with sex as a theme, but I think the point of that scene is to highlight how sex is actually irrelevant and inappropriate to the story at hand. It’s about the beginnings of romantic love, which is a completely different thing. The kiss is simply the most visible and intimate method by which that love is communicated innocently and chastely.

Kisses in this story possess great power, as Slightly says below, even when it is the thought of one more than the actuality that counts. Near the beginning, Mrs. Darling says that Mr. Darling will need her special kiss to have courage to face the bigwigs of the bank in light of his recent humiliation. Peter’s “kiss” (actually an acorn) on Wendy’s necklace saves her from Tootles’ arrow. Tigerlily’s long kiss of victory inspires John with superhuman strength to pull the lever and save the whole group. And finally, of course, Wendy’s kiss brings Peter back from despair and defeat, and makes him impervious to Hook’s threats and insults. Despite his denials, Peter really does have a “crush” on Wendy – it’s even revealed that of the stories she tells, the ones he likes best are the romances ending with a kiss. Because of the movie’s gentle treatment of all this, it ends up being quite romantic, while maintaining its innocence.

Hook: Come on, fly to the rescue! Then I’ll shoot you right through your noble intentions.

*sneer, smirk, gnash gnash*

But where would this story be without Captain Hook? One of the best villains in all children’s literature, he is played here by Jason Isaacs, who brings a similar teeth-gnashing menace and snobbery as he does in the Harry Potter movies, but with considerably more dark comedy. He’s really fantastic in the role, taking it seriously while playing it with gleefully psychotic villainy. He is truly fearsome, but also convinces as the essentially lonely and depressed character that Hook is. It’s a delicate balance, but one that Isaacs nails perfectly. When Hook finally douses himself in Tinkerbell’s fairy dust and begins to float into the air, he exults, “It’s Hook, he flies! And…he…likes it!” And later, thinking he has the victory, he gloats that Pan will die alone and unloved, and then pauses with a sad glint in his eye, whispering, “Just like me.” He’s younger and more physically aggressive than many other Hooks we’ve seen, which only serves to increase his menace. You know he can easily overpower Peter in a contest of simple brute force, and thus their duels are tense as Peter flies and flips impishly just out of reach of the pirate captain’s slashing blades.

Slightly: [examining the thimble Peter gave Wendy, thinking it was a “kiss.”] I remember kisses, let me see. Aye, that is a kiss. A powerful thing.

Mr. and Mrs. Darling face the bankers together.

Other side characters are well-represented here. Isaacs, as per tradition, plays Mr. Darling as well, and is awkwardly warm (rightly so) in the role of the timid banker who has sacrificed so much for his family. Olivia Williams glows as Mrs. Darling, who sympathizes with her children while trying to gently explain to them the depth and nature of their father’s love and courage. Smee is played by the twinkly-eyed Richard Briers, who in my mind will always be Tom Goode, and is appropriately cheerful and goofy, while viewing his evil captain with a simple-minded, but wry optimism. John and Michael are the little gentleman and cute kid respectively and effectively, and Tigerlily is a fun, wild creature with a charming crush on John. The Lost Boys are also well-cast. I admit, part of me has always wanted to be Peter Pan and live with the Lost Boys, flying over forests, living in a tree house, and fighting pirates. I like the innocence and open-heartedness of their brotherhood, and how in many ways they do display maturity that many adults lack. In an honorable and manly action, Tootles accepts responsibility for shooting Wendy out of the sky. Slightly is sort of Peter’s lieutenant, and has some of the best lines (as above). Importantly, they are believably innocent, rather than hip and cynical as in the movie Hook.

...and straight on 'til morning.

The art direction is quite beautiful, combining the effect of a lavish pop-up book with modern techniques. The children fly to Neverland through a space filled with planets that hang large and colorful like otherworldly balloons to the “second star to the right,” all setting a perfect fairy tale tone. London looks magnificent, as if taken from Dickens, cleaned up and polished to a warm glow, while Neverland itself blooms and boils with life. Action scenes have some cartoony physics in places that seem appropriate, and the camera maintains an appropriate distance from its subjects, without going too far for the epic look. Action is comprehensible and immediate both, as it should be!

All this is aided by James Newton Howard’s score, which practically leaps from the screen and throws you into flight with the characters. It is full of equal parts joy and magic, gentility and robustness. Dancing and fairy-like, if you will. You can listen to some of it here.

On a more academic level, I think the story of Peter Pan is a true fairy story, in the Tolkien and George MacDonald sense. For all the fun and jokes and whimsy, the magic itself is taken absolutely seriously. Physical laws are turned upside down, but moral laws are upheld. Neverland is an escape from the real world that, properly experienced, prepares one to return and face the real world with renewed vigor, wisdom, and clarity. As MacDonald advised, the story does not “give” me these things to think about, it does not hammer them into me, but rather it causes me to think them for myself.

I am sure I am not the only one who, as a boy, longed to be Peter Pan and live forever in Neverland. I still want to fly like him. There is always a tragic, melancholic tint to the end of his story. By refusing to leave Neverland and grow up, he denies himself true love and the true potential which he has. I do not think Neverland would be the last magical world Peter would find, if he had the courage to leave it. As an adult, there are plenty of wonders to discover and exult in, if one looks with the right eye and mindset. As the Professor himself said,

Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans. Not to lose innocence and wonder, but to proceed on the appointed journey: that journey upon which it is certainly not better to travel hopefully than to arrive, though we must travel hopefully if we are to arrive. But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom. (Tolkien 15)

Credits
Tolkien, J.R.R., “On Fairy Stories”
Most screencaps from MovieScreenshots

Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)

The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship.

Title: The Eagle (2011) IMDb
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Lead Actors: Channing Tatum (Marcus), Jamie Bell (Esca), Tahar Rahim (Seal Prince), Donald Sutherland (Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (Guern)
Score Composer: Atli Örvarsson
Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for battle sequences and some disturbing images.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca, Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth.” (by Focus Features)
Reason for Beginning: As it’s based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, one of my favorite authors, I desperately wanted to see this. Been waiting for it for years.
Reason for Finishing: Somewhat classic-style adventure story, and good entertainment.
Movie Re-watchability: Yes, though I would let a little time go by first. Because the story is so simple and focused, I predict it will become the kind of movie I can easily jump into at any point, and enjoy equally in individual chunks or as a whole. It’s nice to have some movies like that.
Director Re-watchability: Hard to say, really. It’s the source material and art direction that make me like The Eagle so much, although Macdonald’s overall directing is good. He’s clearly talented, but I’m wary about his camera work: shaky cam and I do not get along. Wouldn’t know what to expect from another movie of his.
Recommendation: Not a perfect movie, but very good and rather unique. For those who like movies about ancient Rome and period adventure stories, yes. Also, if you saw Gladiator (2000) and thought “Well that’s fun, but I wonder what it all really looked like,” then you should see this movie. The Eagle should appeal to movie-lovers who are frustrated with the way modern action movies prefer to ignore story and character in favor of rushing from bloody killing to bloody killing. It’s an exciting adventure that really does care about the characters and their relationship. Continue reading “Movie Review: “The Eagle” (2011)”

Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It really is.

Title: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
Actors: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Score Composer: Dmitri Tiomkin! (a generally awesome composer, being appropriately restrained here, I think)
Length: 130 minutes
Rating (US): Un-rated, since it was before the MPAA system. No objectionable content. Spoiler-free Synopsis: George Bailey, a man who has spent his whole life sacrificing his dreams for others, to seemingly little good effect, is driven to suicidal depression and wishes he had never been born. An angel grants him his wish with the intent of proving to him how valuable his life has been. (hence it qualifies as fantasy. Sorry Clarence.)
Reason for Beginning: Watch it every year, it’s a Christmas tradition!
Reason for Finishing: Great, great movie.
Movie Re-watchability: One of the highest I know. It never grows old, never ceases to move me emotionally. It’s a great movie for cheering you up, because it fully acknowledges the struggles and depression that real people go through in their day-to-day lives, and yet still finds the goodness and warmth in other people that we can be grateful for. Continue reading “Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)”