Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’m going to cheat a little with this review. I haven’t (re)watched this film as I write this, but I do feel I’m familiar enough with it to go from memory. I’ve never made a list of my favourite films ever, as I find it very difficult to assign the order after the first three places or so and I always think I’ll forget something that I like better than an entry on the list, but if I did Pulp Fiction would be in that top three. (Number one and two, if you’re curious, are My Neighbor Totoro and Terminator 2.) It’s one of the few films where I’ve still committed to memory long stretches of the dialogue, hearing songs on the soundtrack in another context just makes me think of the scene in the film they were used, and I could very easily watch the whole thing a second time after the credits come up, so I think I can be forgiven for not using up two and a half hours to go over familiar territory.

The loosely-interlocking stories of Los Angeles criminals are told in out-of-order segments: a typical morning for enforcers Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) cascades into a black comedy-of-errors, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) turns around a fixed match and must make a clean getaway, and Vincent is tasked with taking out his boss Marsellus’ (Ving Rhames) wife Mia (Uma Thurman) on a not-date. Giving the film and overview makes it seem relatively innocuous, and that’s ultimately the impression it leaves despite Tarantino’s requisite violence and harsh language; it has neither the brutality of Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill or the tension of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. People have attempted to ascribe a deeper meaning to the events in the film, but I choose to believe Marcellus’ briefcase is just a McGuffin and does not actually contain his stolen soul and that there is no spiritual level to the film despite the chills I get every time I hear Jules contemplate the passage of the Bible he has memorised. It’s just… cool, a dark and bizarre comedy from a lifelong film nerd who buried the references to old films deeper and made the end result more accessible to the less film-nerdy public. Does it maybe reflect on society, the way that such violent and morally-empty entertainment is regarded so highly? Maybe, but if laughing as Vincent deadpans “I just shot Marvin in the face” is wrong, then I do not want to be right.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The name J.R.R. Tolkien is synonymous with Western fantasy literature. When Tolkien combined Scandinavian mythology with his own experiences from the First World War to expand on his children’s story The Hobbit and create a mythical multi-millennial fantastical history for England, it became the template from which all other works of fantasy were drawn. Middle-Earth’s serene elves, hardy dwarves, noble men, wicked orcs, subtle wizards, and unassuming hobbits exist with such a deep history and rich backstory that filming the events of The Lord of the Rings seemed like an impossible task; the story is too large to ever be contained in a single film. Peter Jackson’s films are called a trilogy, but as they were all shot at the same time and flow seamlessly from one to the other, much like Tolkien’s books were originally intended to be they are one epic-length film, one with scope and breadth unequaled in all of cinema and the only vehicle large enough to house so much of Middle-Earth at once.

The films center around a treacherous quest. The One Ring, the object of power needed by the titular Lord of the Rings, Sauron, to be restored to his full power, is discovered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the hands of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit with a pure heart but no yearning for adventure. Though ferrying the Ring to the elvish city of Rivendell gives him all the experience with the world outside of his home in the Shire he needs, he volunteers to carry Sauron’s weapon to its final destination: Mount Doom, deep in the dark land of Mordor, to be unforged in the volcano. Meanwhile, Sauron gathers his armies of orcs and mercenaries to attack the lands of men; with his ally the fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) they wage war first against Rohan, land of the horse-lords, and then against Gondor at Minas Tirith, where the throne of men has remained empty since Sauron’s defeat an age ago. Aragorn, (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, travels with Frodo but soon finds his path diverging, leading to his destiny to unite the lands of men against the Dark Lord.

To call the films “epic” does them a disservice, as there are ordinary epics and then there is The Lord of the Rings. Incredibly detailed sets evoking the equally-detailed descriptions of topography and architecture Tolkien wrote of fill the screen, each new location a distinct entity with its own history drawn from the source material. Armies of extras outfitted in hand-crafted mail, each with personal details that show what rank its bearer has in their society or what part of the world they hail from, wage war on crowded battlefields. Every dramatic and scenic location in New Zealand seems to have been scouted to play the part of Middle-Earth, and having real locations rather than fanciful computer creations for the backgrounds pays off, lending yet another level of realism and credibility to the films. The variance in design for just one of the races is more than the majority of fantasy epics can manage, and with at least four major societies depicted the amount of detail on the screen at any given time is phenomenal. Every part of the world has its own personality and its own culture – even Saruman’s elite Uruk-Hai soldiers, clad in crude blank mail and armed with mass-produced blades, carry an alien look of being manufactured with them. The staggering amount of work to bring the films from page to screen is apparent in every frame; the trilogy almost deserves all the credit it gets just for that effort alone.

But alongside the fantasy setting that will be the defining fantasy setting for films for decades to come there is an amazing story being told, one of sacrifice and brotherhood and the will to do good in the face of impossible evil. The characters lament that war and dark times are descending on Middle-Earth, but not in a way that speaks of preventing the specific causes of these wars, rather just accepting that dark times occur as a matter of consequence, making it applicable to a wide range of real-life circumstances, not just those that resemble the Great War in some way. What seems like a simple good-versus-evil scenario is filled with complexities, showing the ways the coming war affects all peoples from the ancient and nearly immortal beings to the simple commoners who desire only a life of peace, and that in such darkness lies the capability for great heroism, not just from kings and warriors but also from the kinds of people about whom songs are not written and stories not told. The theme that the least of us may have a large role to play is a recurring one: not just in Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the One Ring, but also in his friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), instrumental in defeating Saruman, in Eowyn (Miranda Otto), forbidden from riding with the men of Rohan but who slays Sauron’s fearsome champion, the Witch-King of Angmar, in single combat, in Gollum (Andy Serkis), the twisted creature who possessed the Ring through much of its absence and who is the eventual (and accidental) cause of its destruction, and most of all in Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo’s faithful companion and protector who accompanies him every step of the way into Mordor.

These films are not flawless. I’m sure that every person who has read the books has their own little list of things they would have liked changed. But that does not take away the fact that the films as they are are an example of the impossible being made possible, and as a singular unedited entity they place Tolkien’s world on the screen in both look and tone, a monumental feat untouchable in terms of size and scope by any other multi-film tale, and I would willingly give up my minor dream edits to keep the harrowing journey from detailed written setting to fully-realised film world as intact as it is. I couldn’t give The Lord of the Rings anything but the highest grade; just as Tolkien’s name is synonymous with written fantasy, so too should Peter Jackson’s be with cinematic fantasy.

Fight Club (1999)

Let me tell you a story about Fight Club. I was in high school when the film came out, and I was deep into it and its message. We shouldn’t let ourselves be owned by our useless stuff that corporations sold us on, man! Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you could subvert all the advertising with a message to wake up and not pay attention to all this brainwashing? Wouldn’t it be amazing if all the giant capitalist structures came crashing down, and we could live in unfettered anarchy? I re-watched Fight Club a couple of years ago and found myself not connecting with it as much, and I couldn’t quite understand it – I still believe, perhaps even more strongly, in maybe we’d be better off with less things and more do-it-yourself and to never, ever take any advertising at face value, so what had changed? Was the film not quite as good as I remembered? Between then and watching it again now I heard an excellent interpretation of the film that made it all make sense, and… well, because Fight Club begins in media res and doesn’t quite care about sticking to a linear narrative, let’s pick this story up again towards the end.

An unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), after struggling with insomnia and a tedious white-collar job, is jolted awake by a maverick anarchistic philosopher, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); together, they found a “fight club”, an underground fist-fighting arena with the purpose of giving men something “real” in their artificial lives, which spreads across the country and metamorphoses into Tyler’s personal army. Where Tyler’s message of anarchy seemed previously inspiring, now it reads like hollow whining. You have to work a boring job? We all have to work boring jobs. Instead of trying to destroy society, why don’t you try something to fix it? Tyler’s posturing is the faux-masculine grandstanding of every anonymous thug on the Internet, scared children talking large because they aren’t secure enough in themselves to pursue the things they really want in life – in the film’s case, it’s a girl, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). But this is the real genius of Fight Club – like its divided narrator, it’s both messages at the same time. As a young man I saw Tyler Durden as the hero, the ideal of what a person could be if they lived a free life; as I’m older I see Tyler as the villain, the destructive little shoulder-devil you have to crush before you truly understand yourself.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

When constructing a trilogy, there’s an inherent problem when it comes to the middle act, as by the very nature of its structure it will automatically end up with no proper beginning – which was all in the first part, since you don’t want to be spending any more time than is needed resetting the characters and their situations – and no proper end – which you should be saving for the last part, wrapping up all the plotlines from all three segments and pulling out a climax that dwarfs the other two endings. The middle section of a planned trilogy is often just shuffling characters about, preparing them for the final chapter and leaving so many questions open – they’re often considered the weakest moments of three-part arcs.

The massive glaring exception is The Empire Strikes Back, which takes the campy universe of Star Wars to darker and more mystical places, replacing the big explosive finish with a stinging character-driven revelation and the greatest twist ending in all of cinematic history, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Star Wars fan who does not consider Empire the best film.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) journeys to find the mysterious Yoda (Frank Oz) to further his Jedi training; meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) struggle to keep out of the grasp of the Empire and Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The film allows for a lot more downtime than the first and all the character-growing moments that come with it, courtesy of director Irvin Kershner; the focus of Empire is not in goals (ie. find/rescue the princess, destroy the Death Star) but on Luke’s mastery of his emotions required in his training, Han and Leia’s growing relationship, and of course the big reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. By placing more emphasis on character it adds a greater emotional weight to the action setpieces that do exist, and the Flash Gordon-esque universe as a whole – these are no longer archetypes acting out their parts in the monomyth but characters with investments and motivations – and to add further heft the protagonists do not walk away victorious in any sense at all. Instead of defeating an enemy that opens the way for the final encounter, they are set back on all fronts, without a clear plan for how to proceed and how to win the day. It makes the middle section stand out, not just within the trilogy itself but in cinema in general, because how often is it that, in high-action settings with clearly-defined sides, the good guys lose?

Star Wars (1977)

Before there were jokes about Princess Leia becoming one of the Disney princesses, before there were prequels with flashy CGI and lackluster scripts, before there was a giant merchandising arm of advertising putting the characters on and in every conceivable thing from bedsheets to lunchboxes to video games to chess sets to Christmas specials, before there was a trilogy that was the high point to science-fiction special effects for decades to come, before there was a sequel with the biggest reveal in cinematic history, a long time ago there was a film that took the feeling of a campy sci-fi serial, laid it over a classic fantasy narrative, and polished it to look as good as it possibly could. And from Star Wars – not A New Hope and not Episode IV, but just Star Wars – grew a colossus, a franchise so deeply a part of our culture that people can have not just grown up in a world where it has always existed but can then have had children who have experienced that world the same way. Star Wars is in many ways a modern version of shared mythology, a touchstone so universally relatable that it transcends mere film and becomes a part of cultural history. And even with all of the decades of additional baggage, sequels and prequels and expanded universe canon and special editions, when actually watching the film itself it’s still possible to divorce all the outside noise from the fun adventure on the screen and have a great time with star-fighter pilots and laser-sword fights.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gets the chance to escape his boring farming life when a chance acquisition of two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) lead him to former Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness); with the help of cocky smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), they set out to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), prominent figure in the Rebel Alliance, held captive on the imposing Death Star by Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and his dark Jedi enforcer, Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The description alone should be enough to give the handful of people unaware of the Star Wars universe a sense of what it’s like – high fantasy clothed in a science-fiction setting, complete with wizards and princesses and dragons. It’s hokey and silly to write it down but seeing it in action makes it all make sense; the visual appeal of something like the towering form of Darth Vader, a dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and a TIE Fighter, or a lightsaber duel cannot be accurately described in words. It is for reasons like this that everyone should see Star Wars; there are parts of our culture that are closed off to you until you do.

The Matrix (1999)

I remember the early 2000s well, that era where computer technology was finally becoming present in the average household but not omnipresent in everyday life. If you were an early adopter of technology, no doubt you owned a DVD player, offering the highest-quality of picture with absolutely zero degradation on repeated viewings like the inferior VHS format – and if you owned a DVD player, you almost certainly owned a copy of The Matrix. And how cool it was, with all the extra features telling you how the filmmakers put together the wire-fu and bullet-time, and every time in this era more than two people were at home with nothing to do, somehow they would end up putting the film on, and it never stopped being awesome.

Well, it’s not the early 2000s any more, and my how The Matrix has aged.

Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is liberated from the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late-20th century, by cyberpunk-terrorist Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and thrust into a post-apocalyptic future where the remains of humanity wage war against their robotic overlords from within the simulation. No other film is a more finely-sharpened pinpoint marking when the landscape of film changed – almost overnight it seems that all action was dominated by stylistic slow-motion, Hong Kong-inspired wire-work, and flowing leather trenchcoats – but that really is the sum of The Matrix‘s legacy. The philosophical concepts raised about being able to trust our own reality are nothing more than a half-baked rehash of Descartes, the science fiction laughably-thin cyberpunk coming at around the time of cyberpunk’s dying breath, the action overwrought, the dialogue pretentious, and the acting (with the exception of Hugo Weaving‘s unnatural cadence as Agent Smith) painfully flat. The film borrows from many sources in both style and content but gives no depth to any of them, and if time and perspective wasn’t enough to prove the Wachowski siblings were just making things up on the fly then the two sequels certainly were. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the film was just a cobbled-together mix of interesting sci-fi and anime things with no greater aspirations other than to collect up all these cool things and show them to an audience under one big tent, but it takes itself so amazingly seriously; there is no humour, no joy, no sense of triumph or danger, just stone-faced exposition and stone-faced kung fu in the torrential green rain.

Forrest Gump (1994)

There was another review where I mentioned the meandering, blank slate quality a lot of films in the 90s had, a hazy confused “Now what?” statement of aimlessness in the face of failed cultural revolutions from decades past. With the Baby Boomers in love with the way things used to be and Generation X not motivated enough to care what would happen next, nothing much from the whole decade ever seems to stand for anything with any conviction. Forrest Gump is one of the huge examples of this: an epic retrospective of Americana over the latter half of a century with a blithely innocent and impartial narrator who allows us to touch on some great controversies without ever having our beliefs challenged.

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a man of sub-normal intelligence but extra-ordinary luck, recounts his uncanny life story to strangers at the bus stop while traveling to reunite with the love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright). Forrest’s charmed life places him at several key moments in American history – the University of Alabama desegregating, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal – and in contact with famous figures like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and multiple Presidents. The technical achievements of integrating Hanks into existing footage are one of the more interesting aspects of the film, and I’d really rather talk more about Robert Zemeckis and the kinds of projects he chooses to work on as they seem more driven by what can be pushed in terms of special effects rather than story or theme and if they end up being good films then it almost seems like an accident, because there’s not a lot to Forrest Gump beyond Forrest’s single-minded devotion to Jenny and his mother (Sally Field) and his naive obliviousness to the world around him. Whenever I see this film I always feel terrible for Jenny, who seems to be working off some kind of karmic debt in her life while Forrest stumbles into being a billionaire, or think that there is a more interesting film to be made about Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s commanding officer in Vietnam who believes it his destiny to die on the battlefield and so feels cheated when he escapes the war losing only his legs; perhaps I don’t find Forrest himself to be an especially compelling character, personable but not enough so to erase the constant feeling that I’m watching the life of a more benevolent Homer Simpson.