Art Vs Commerce: Trilogies! Of Terror? (2000s)

2002

2002 saw some heavy hitters at the Oscars. Martin Scorsese had a new 19th century crime epic, there was a grim Holocaust drama, Lord of the Rings was back as a highly anticipated established phenomenon, and… does anyone know what The Hours was about? I’m still not sure. If you know, leave a comment.

So what would a movie have to do to win Best Picture over all of those?

As the lyrics say, razzle-dazzle ’em.

And The Oscar Goes To…

The big, glitzy, toe-tapping musical about two murderous women (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rene Zellweger) trying to milk the infamy of their crimes while also not getting hanged for them. Based on the Broadway musical which is loosely based on a true story.

Wow, Chicago the city never really moved past Capone, huh. I feel Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) says “That’s Chicago” at least a couple of times and man it’s never complimentary. Didn’t feel very complimentary when Josh Charles from Sports Night would say it in The Good Wife either.

Moulin Rouge! had revived the Hollywood musical with unexpected box office stamina and a Best Picture nomination, but Chicago points more to where movie musicals would go from here. Rob Marshall, directing his first feature film after years on Broadway, found a new and different way to realize the musical elements in the movie: with the exception of the first and final numbers, which are sung on stage in the movie, the songs are all fantasy sequences, mostly Roxy (Zellweger) envisioning her circumstances as a big stage musical. The real world is all the gloom and grit of women in prison hoping to avoid a hanging, then we shift into the fantasy, and the songs are pure glitz, unbridled showmanship.

So why is it that studios locked onto the first part? Movie musicals from here got more and more into realism, that being popular with Oscar voters, to the point where someone was in a studio meeting and said “I think this weird, horny musical about cats singing their life stories in a competition to be allowed to die really needs to lean into realism” and they said “Sure, yes, makes sense, here’s a pile of money.” Moulin Rogue! did not mess around with realism, and Chicago worked because the realism was juxtaposed with the splashy, razzle-dazzle musical numbers, and this need for realism in stage musical adaptations killed some musical movies down the road.

Also it’s kinda weird that a stage director leans so hard into multiple cuts. You’d think he’d want to lean on the master more, really let us drink in the big dance sequences, but no… lots of cuts. Not bad cuts necessarily, but there are some big numbers here and were it me, I’d want a few long master shots to let them work? But maybe he wanted more attention on the details, worrying the frame might be too crowded in the master.

Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, and Gere are all pretty great in this, with special credits near the end underlining that they all did their own singing and dancing. In fact, Zeta-Jones insisted on cutting her hair into a bob so it wouldn’t fall in her face and let people think she had a double. (Well… there are a few isolated shots with a double, because she was doing this while pregnant and eventually there was a bump to obscure.) It’s fun, the songs slap… and yet there was controversy over it taking Best Picture. Wonder why that would be… sure Broadway musicals are the summer blockbusters of live theatre, and sure it was only the tenth (and still most recent) Best Picture to lose both Best Director and Best Screenplay*, but why would people be crying foul that it–

Son of a bitch.

Yeah, I see it now. The king of the award campaign of attrition was involved. But come on, it was hardly the only Best Picture nominee that year with a sex predator involved oh dang but that’s an ugly sentence, goddamn but #MeToo came too late

So maybe its victory owes more to a full-court press PR campaign and shock-and-awe razzle-dazzle than its merits. Well, as Billy Flynn would say… that’s Chicago.

(*YOU look up the other nine! Well…eight, after Grand Hotel.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Down at #63, under Ordinary People and over Grand Hotel, which feels low. To have it that far under An American in Paris feels downright criminal.

Which Fellowship Member Are You? Chicago is Peregrin “Pippin” Took. Has the best musical numbers, tries to be serious sometimes, but is at its best when it’s being all-out goofy. Also has all the best songs.

Chicago made the top ten at the domestic box office, but not international. And of course when it came to domestic box office nothing was going to beat the story of one hero’s journey, and the ally whose dark alternate self schemed to become his enemy.

The Box Office Champ (Domestic)

Oh come on

Fine, fine, Rings’ time will come…

It took at least a decade of legal battles to get Spider-Man to the screen, but clearly it was worth the effort, because it was an instant smash hit. It was the first movie to bring in more than $100 million in its opening weekend. It became the highest grossing superhero movie ever. Hell, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was out this year and Spider-Man beat it by over $100 million domestic, even more internationally.

And no wonder. Superman was a massive hit, but without Richard Donner at the helm, the Salkinds ran him into the ground (which given their track record elsewhere, felt inevitable). Batman was even bigger, but the sequels went from too dark to way too silly in just five years. The superhero market existed, but the less said about Steel the better, and the rest of the 90s attempts at superhero projects leaned on legacy characters that hadn’t been popular for decades like The Phantom, or more obscure characters like Blade and the Men in Black that people didn’t even need to know were comic books. But X-Men taught nerds that their favourite characters could be good movies again, and convinced non-comic readers that superhero movies were still worth watching, priming the pumps for an iconic character to storm cinemas. And that character was Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man.

I mean Spider-Man was never my favourite, but my tastes have always leaned a bit more obscure, which is why my DVD shelves are festooned with enough shows cancelled after one or two seasons to fill a complete series box set of The Big Bang Theory. At the time I was all about Flash and Green Lantern, and superhero cinema would not reward me for that second one. The point is, Spider-Man surely is many people’s favourite, so when Sam Raimi came along he made a massive hit by being the first superhero director since Donner to say “The key here is to tap into what people love about this character and make a movie based around that,” rather than “How do we turn this masked crimefighter into a standard action movie.” Even if Tim Burton’s gothic atmosphere did really suit Batman.

It did pick up a couple of flaws from its predecessors… like Superman, we spend a lot of time on the origin. Which, okay, this was the first Spider-Man movie, it doesn’t not make sense to walk us through why and how he Spider-Mans. But it also has to give us an origin for Norman Osborn, how he becomes Green Goblin and ends up both surrogate father and nemesis to Peter. I would often say that Osborne was a key example of why superheroes are better matched to TV shows, as superheroes were born in episodic narrative, and no two hour movie could ever capture the weird, twisted relationship of Peter Parker and Norman Osborn. Though this one surely tries its best.

And honestly, they get to the spider-bite as quickly as they can, and from there Peter’s origin isn’t much of a drag. Tobey Maguire really sells the wish-fulfilment joy of discovering his new abilities, finally having an edge on his tormentors, and plays the difference well between shy, awkward Peter and happy-go-lucky, quipping Spider-Man (even if one of his quips is definitely homophobic, it was 2002, history is always terrible). And it does well giving us the first stage of Peter’s love for Mary-Jane and his close but soon-to-be troubled friendship with Harry Osborn. The problem is, it takes up so much of the movie that the Spider-Man/Goblin rivalry seems rushed and forced. By the time the Goblin’s decided Spider-Man is his enemy, it seems like he’s already murdered everyone trying to ruin/steal his company? What does he even want? Most of the time there’s something the villain is trying to do that needs stopping, here the Goblin seems to mostly be fighting Spider-Man for the right to pumpkin-bomb anyone who might annoy him in the future. Which, okay, worth stopping, but kinda low-stakes next to “sink California into the sea.”

There are three trends introduced here that follow the franchise for a while, one good, one a little off, one… eh. First, every Spider-Man from Sam Raimi (like much of his filmography) includes a cameo from Bruce Campbell as someone mildly antagonistic, and they’re all delightful (also Ted Raimi gets a small part, as he typically does when his brother has a project). Second… we’re still following action movie rules, but they’re trying to keep Spidey pure, in that they do want the villains to die, but always try to ensure Spidey doesn’t actually kill anybody. The man who killed Uncle Ben trips and falls out of a window, Osborn impales himself on his own glider, Doc Ock sacrifices himself to stop his own doomsday device. And third… and this one follows the franchise into the Andrew Garfield period… there’s one “We Are all One New York After 9/11” moment where a crowd of civilians comes to Spidey’s aid against the villain. You know what I’m referring to…

Every time. The best one is in number two, even if they’re the least effective against the villain.

Anyway, DeFoe is good, Maguire does well even if Tom Holland outpaced him a little, JK Simmons is perfect as J. Jonah Jameson (no wonder no other actor has had that role since), James Franco is… also in the movie, Kirsten Dunst is given a very thankless role as Mary-Jane, she has less agency in the story than Amazing’s Gwen Stacy or the other MJ in Far From Home, only slightly more than Liz in Homecoming, but she tries her best, this paragraph was supposed to be more positive but it got away from me. The point is, Spider-Man walked so Iron Man could fly, and it’s still enjoyable.

The Box Office Champ (International)

Finally

The Fellowship of the Rings might not have been able to pass Harry Potter at the box office, but it still impressed a hell of a lot of people, so The Two Towers rode in on a much higher wave of anticipation. This was no longer a story we wondered if Peter Jackson could pull off, it was a story we were eager to see play out. Especially with the full arrival of Gollum.

But there’s time to get into what an accomplishment this trilogy was later, if still not enough (I could do 20,000 words on the first half of Fellowship alone, maybe just on Ian McKellan’s performance as Gandalf), so instead of digging into The Two Towers let’s answer one question that often gets applied to trilogies.

Is The Two Towers the Empire Strikes Back of Lord of the Rings?

One could argue that. A significant percentage of Two Towers is the desperate, seemingly doomed battle of Helm’s Deep, one of the grimmest battles of the trilogy. And like Empire, the party has split, and the movie bounces between Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas’ adventures in Rohan (thanks for the help Eomer and Eowyn); Frodo, Sam, and new arrival Gollum trying to reach Mordor (“thanks” for the “help,” Faramir); and a splash of Merry and Pippin’s attempts to talk the Ents into fighting Saruman.

But all of that ends with the Ents sacking Isengard, Gandalf and the Rohirrim riding into Helm’s Deep with the goddamn dawn at their backs, and Samwise delivering a classic speech on the importance of fighting for what’s right. Other than Frodo’s attempts to redeem Sméagol failing, and his Gollum self returning to control, it’s a triumphant, hopeful, uplifting ending. It’s the first real victory against Sauron and Saruman we’ve had. And also Gimli is doing comic relief schtick the whole movie. The grimmest of battles still have Gimli being wacky.

So no, Two Towers isn’t the EmpireFellowship is the Empire. Fellowship may start out happy-go-lucky and charming in the Shire, giving us an innocent, idyllic pastoral community to fall for and then fear for as Sauron’s darkness spreads, and it transforms the four hobbits of the Fellowship from carefree goofballs (well, except Sam, he has some cares) to unlikely heroes through nothing but innate goodness, love, and loyalty. But it ends with two of the Fellowship dead (one temporarily, to be fair, but they don’t know that), two hostages of orcs, and the rest split up. The Breaking of the Fellowship is every bit the low point for the heroes and cliffhanger for the audience as Han being frozen in carbonite and Luke getting his ass beat by Vader. Without, yes, without the punch of “I am your father,” but honestly trying to recreate that moment has done more harm than good in the years since.

So Two Towers isn’t the point where the bad guys hit back and the heroes just try to stay alive, like Empire or Matrix Reloaded or Back to the Future Part II or Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. It’s the point where we begin to see the true scope of the war: the devastation upon the kingdoms of man. But it also delivers, at great cost, our first big win. One of the two titular towers fall, and there’s just Gondor left to save.

Which… will take some doing.

And yes, they add stuff and cut stuff, but the stuff they add makes sense to me: the elves of Lothlorien showing up to Helm’s Deep makes it more probable the orcs are held at bay long enough for the canonical help to arrive; Faramir’s heel turn when we first meet him gives Frodo and Sam’s part some conflict and danger, since the climax of Frodo’s part of the book got pushed into the next movie; moving the murder-tree incident from early in Fellowship to here establishes that yes, forests can eat entire orc armies; and the extra Arwen scenes are important because Tolkien made her a significant character but forgot to have her say or do anything, ever, and if we don’t check in with Arwen once in a while people are gonna end up ‘shipping Aragorn with Eowyn super hard, and have no idea why they shouldn’t, I speak from experience.

I was so mad she ended up with Bronze Medal Faramir when I read the books.

As for stuff they cut? Name one thing, Tolkien purists, name one thing that Quickbeam the Hastiest Ent added to the story, to the story, not the world, the movie is long enough without frivolous worldbuilding or go-nowhere character additions like Glorfindel. Name one thing, one single thing that needed Quickbeam, that Treebeard didn’t cover. Come on. Leave a comment defending Quickbeam as vital. Do it.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 95% from both critics and audiences. Which means critics actually rated this one higher than Fellowship. Which tracks, there are those who think Two Towers is the best one.

They are wrong, Fellowship of the Rings is the best one.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: The 20th official Bond movie is Pierce Brosnan’s last, and it is an ignoble end. Die Another Day is hot garbage compared to Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies. There was a time when we actually thought Halle Berry’s character might get a spin-off. Instead, they shut the franchise down for a minute to do some thinking.
  • This Year in Superheroes: Of course it got overshadowed by Spider-Man, but Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II still deserves notice.
  • Oscar Season is very much in full effect: the earliest any Best Picture nominee is released is December 18th.
  • Men in Black 2 is a perfect case study of something I felt plagued sequels back then: giving a minor, often comedic, supporting character a larger role they do not warrant. I call it “Frank the Pug Syndrome,” as the talking pug was a one-joke bit from the the first movie that did not need more screen time, and accomplished nothing that Patrick Warburton’s character couldn’t have done.
  • Gangs of New York from Martin Scorsese spends two and a half hours building up the conflict between Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, and then when it finally happens, the navy starts bombarding them for completely unrelated reasons. A friend claimed it showed how petty and insignificant this feud was, to which I could only say “Well then thanks for devoting a three-hour movie to it, Martin.”
  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones couldn’t keep up with Rings or Spider-Man (or, internationally, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the Temple of Doom of Potter movies), but it made 2002 a great year for Christopher Lee villain roles. Sadly not even Lee could sell “It seems this contest cannot be decided by our knowledge of the Force, but rather our skills with a lightsaber.” Clones is bad, fam. It’s real bad. I refused to skip Fellowship just because audiences preferred Harry Potter, but I’m good giving Clones a miss.
  • The Star Trek film series ends not with a bang but a whimper as the Next Generation cast says goodbye in the critically and financially disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis.
  • The Pianist defeats Chicago for both Adapted Screenplay and Director, with the latter going to Roman Polanski. Who couldn’t attend to accept his trophy because he’s still a fugitive from justice. Which means convicted child rapists who fled the country to avoid their sentence have won more Best Director Oscars than black people. And exactly as many as women. That’s the ugliest factoid I’ve reported yet. At least Asians and Hispanics have pulled ahead of fugitive child rapists in the category.
  • The second worst-aged thing about The Pianist is Adrien Brody planting a kiss on Halle Berry on his way to accept Best Actor. It’s far from the worst #MeToo incident, but it’s on the list. Wouldn’t-a happened if they’d given it to Nicholas Cage for Adaptation instead.
  • Has anyone had quite the meteoric rise and sudden crash as Nia Vardalos? My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a massive hit and got her an Oscar nomination for writing, and then we just… forgot her.
  • Amélie becomes America’s highest-grossing French film.
  • After disappointing with the flawed AI: Artificial Intelligence (which Stanley Kubrick was planning to film when he died), Steven Spielberg bounces back with two bangers in one year: Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. One gets made into a musical, the other into a short-lived crime-of-the-week procedural by people who missed the point of the movie.
  • Spirited Away wins an Animated Feature Oscar for Studio Ghibli. Which in historical context feels more earned than Dreamworks, but it’s a bit odd that Pixar was the third studio to win that category.
  • Super Troopers becomes a cult hit, and if you don’t know it, it’s why people sometimes say “right meow” instead of “right now.”
  • Warner Bros. couldn’t get any of the cast or creative team of Interview With the Vampire back, but they release sort-of-sequel Queen of the Damned anyway in an attempt to keep the rights to the Lestat books. “We need to make a movie or we’ll lose the rights” doesn’t tend to lead to good things.
  • It might not be the best video game movie, but Resident Evil, which replaced the suspense and puzzles of the game with Milla Jovovich whooping zombie ass, is certainly the most successful. If only in terms of sequels.
  • Ryan Reynolds breaks out with the Animal House wannabe Van Wilder, a movie that never stopped shaping his screen persona. The New Guy does not manage to do the same thing for DJ Qualls. I admit The New Guy is no secret classic, but I’m not the person to explain why Van Wilder is funnier.
  • Dwayne Johnson stars in a spinoff of the Mummy movies, The Scorpion King, a prequel about the origins of the horrible CG monster that borrowed his likeness in The Mummy Returns. It’s his first big lead role and nowhere near his best but very much not his last.
  • After trying the “What if we say this is the last one” trick for a second time with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, the Friday the 13th franchise goes for the hail-Mary option of “What if we set it in space” with Jason X. Between this and Halloween: Resurrection, 1980s slasher movies are… not doing well in the 2000s.
  • About a Boy, in which Hugh Grant breaks type as a slacker who pretends to be a single father to meet women only to end up a surrogate father figure to a bullied teen (itty bitty Nicholas Hoult), might be worth another look. Book’s better, though.
  • Vin Diesel attempts to launch another action franchise by blending Bond-style movies with the X-games in xXx. It’s his least favourite, and it’s not hard to guess why.
  • The Bourne Identity’s cardinal sin is popularizing shaky cam in fight scenes. Which is dumb. Why would you take your cue on shooting fight scenes from a franchise whose big set pieces are car chases?
  • Disney keeps hand-drawn animation going a little longer with Lilo and Stitch (which I haven’t seen all the way through, but is the reason I like “Burning Love” by Elvis) and the less successful Treasure Planet. They also experiment with making movies out of theme park attractions with The Country Bears. Not… not a great start.
  • Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter one more time in Red Dragon. The TV show does this one better.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson makes the harrowing drama that lurked at the heart of every Adam Sandler comedy in Punch Drunk Love.
  • Jason Statham transforms from “gritty British character actor” to “embodiment of a genre” in the drivin’-and-fightin’ flick The Transporter.
  • I’d make a joke about how Hollywood decided to make an action movie out of nature series The Crocodile Hunter, but honestly, I miss that guy.
  • I saw no movie in 2002 dumber than Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever, with Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu. Its title suggests we know who either Ecks or Sever are, that their names aren’t ridiculous, and that they’ll fight for more than three minutes, and none of that is true. Also the plot revolved around a new, untraceable poison or nanotech assassination weapon that is delivered into the victim by…. putting it in a bullet and shooting them. Jesus Christ. That’s worse than xXx’s solar-powered submarine (!?) being used to deliver a water soluble chemical weapon, and read that again, how can anything be dumber than that.

Next Page: One Rings To Rule Them All

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