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

2005

And so come now to another great failing of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. They think themselves progressive, handing out trophies to movies that pay lip service to social progress like Driving Miss Daisy, but have their own prejudices that keep cropping up and holding them back.

In the year 2005, that prejudice was “No homo.”

Because everything said that Brokeback Mountain was going to win this year. Much as I liked to make jokes about how someone saw South Park’s claim that all independent movies are about gay cowboys eating pudding and thought “Hey, that gives me an idea,” Brokeback Mountain was the clear favourite. It took every other top award leading up to Oscar Night, Ang Lee won every Best Director award available, it felt like a shoo-in… until we had another last-second upset when we hit Best Picture.

And man were people unhappy with the Academy’s choice.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Now I very much wanted to like this because it had Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Spin City’s Jennifer Esposito, and Don Cheadle, and it was written and directed by the creator of Due South, one of my favourite TV shows.

I wanted to like it.

It takes its title from Don Cheadle’s thesis statement “[LA residents] miss that human touch so much we crash into each other just to feel something.” Which even the other person in that scene isn’t sure actually means anything. But the opening, closing, and most dramatic sequence are all car crashes, so…

Okay. So. Let’s tackle the big racist elephant in the room first, shall we? That being Matt Dillon as Officer Ryan. Officer Ryan, angry at his HMO for failing to help his ill father and the black woman on the phone who didn’t help him, makes a bad traffic stop to vent on some black people, and gets handsy with Thandie Newton to the point of sexual assault. Officer Ryan also gets the film’s one big hero moment, saving Newton from a near lethal car crash. In between we watch him struggle with his father almost certainly having cancer the health system won’t treat, to make him more sympathetic. In any other movie, Ryan’s big hero moment would be incredibly powerful. In this movie, he’s been a detestable thug this entire time so it hits a sour note.

Now I’m a believer in redemption. I believe that we can learn and improve and be better than we were, as The Good Place spent four years arguing. I have forgiven Arrow villains for some dark things because their redemption arcs felt earned. But people don’t overly care for redemption arcs for racist cops. They didn’t like it here, they didn’t care for it in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And I understand why, after the last year of Black Lives Matter protests, after seeing the difference in police response to BLM vs anti-maskers or violent but white insurrectionists trying to subvert democracy.

Because. They. Aren’t. Real.

Because we keep waiting for law enforcement to have the “Come to Jesus” moment that Sam Rockwell has Three Billboards and Officer Ryan very, very slightly has here. We keep waiting for black Americans to be treated at least as well by their own justice system as white supremacist domestic terrorists. And it just keeps not happening. So maybe we don’t want to hear that the white cop who pulled over a black man for no reason was just having a bad day. Maybe that doesn’t improve things. Maybe implying that a cop who has a bad day will take that out on the first minority person he sees is alarming, a problem needing fixing, not an opportunity to understand each other better.

(The “nice” cop who objected to Ryan’s behaviour, only to be punished for it by his precinct, kills an unarmed black man at the end of the movie. That, sadly, tracks perfectly. As does Keith David as the black police lieutenant not doing anything about Officer Ryan because he knows damn well the racist LAPD will punish the black lieutenant instead of the racist cop with 17 years on the force.)

There’s a talented cast doing good work. Michael Pena, Thandie Newton, Terence Howard, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, they’re all putting their backs into this, but… it just doesn’t have anything to say. “All sorts of people are racist or buy into stereotypes.” Wow. Deep. Thanks. Problem solved. Asian women and Latinos can also be racist, Don Cheadle summing up Hispanics with “I guess the big mystery is, who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns,” Chris “Ludacris” Bridges spouting off conspiracies about public transit and rap music, or complaining about racial bias while also being the reason people have racist bias (ie. carjacking and not tipping), racism is a tapestry! Everyone has bias! Nobody has to feel bad! Problem solved!

No. None of this takes the edge off Sandra Bullock assuming Michael Pena is a gang banger, or everything Officer Ryan does that isn’t saving Thandie Newton from a car crash, or the implication that a white cop facing charges for shooting his third black man might be getting unfairly screwed over by the system. Ryan Phillippe’s attempts to protect Terrence Howard from getting shot by white cops is really undermined by him killing an unarmed black man out of fear a few scenes later.

I wanted to like this one. But in the words of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, they did a big thing badly. Traffic did this whole “intersecting stories on one topic” thing better.

(Okay the scene where the Persian shopkeeper doesn’t kill Michael Pena’s daughter, because the shopkeep’s daughter bought him blanks in case something like this happened, is still pretty good. But that subplot was barely about racism, it was about a language barrier keeping a man from understanding that no lock on Earth would protect his shop without a sturdy door attached to it.)

(And I like that Sandra Bullock has the same “You’re my best friend” beat with her housekeeper that Miss Daisy did, but this time it’s a tragic realization about her own life and not an attempt to tie a bow on anything.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Alllll the way down at #85, barely over the bottom ten. Under A Beautiful Mind, over Forrest Gump. Yeah I get it Forrest Gump shouldn’t have won, but that’s just unreasonable. For the record, Brokeback Mountain did 13% better with critics, but 6% worse with audiences. It only took five pages of audience reviews to find my first homophobe. Just so it’s clear.

Which Fellowship Member Are You? Frequently making race-based complaints, tries to be lofty and important, but nobody takes it seriously. Much as I don’t want to say this… that makes Crash Gimli. I don’t like this. Feels like I’ve done Gimli dirty.

For box office… we have two giant franchises battling it out, and in a weird coincidence, they both did the entry where the bad guys win.

The Box Office Champ (Domestic)

Well yeah. This was it, this was the moment Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, we all wanted to see that. We also all wanted to believe that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones weren’t what Star Wars was now.

Okay let’s address some strengths… of the prequels, this one comes closest to being a real movie. There’s still CG a-plenty, but also sometimes what looks like real sets. Like Palpatine’s office looks like it exists this time, whereas in Attack of the Clones it looks like Palpatine and Anakin are just wandering across someone’s PC desktop. The light saber fights are mostly good (save for those two absolute chumps Mace brought for backup against Palpatine). Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is really fun to watch, I’m glad of everyone he’s the one set to come back. Those Trade Federation assholes finally die. And there are no superfluous side characters that make no sense like Dexter Jettster, the diner owner who can look at a poison dart for three seconds and know exactly where it came from. Although in fairness Dexter was so ridiculous he loops around and ends up back at great. And at least they knew they had to wrap up Count Dooku on screen. That’s more than Peter Jackson knew two years back.

And now the nitpicks… this breaks continuity so hard, as there’s no Earthly reason Obi-Wan shouldn’t have recognized R2-D2 in A New Hope*; Chewbacca knowing Yoda is a ridiculous coincidence that added nothing to the story; “Not if anything to say about it, I have” is just a looney-tunes excuse for battle banter; Padme gets done real dirty; why did the Jedi not invest in wrist-guards; I could have gone without “There are heroes on both sides” in that text crawl, George, this ain’t the time for centrism.

*Don’t bring up Leia remembering her “real mother,” I still think she didn’t know she was adopted before that conversation.

What this one does is suck all nuance out of the light side/dark side thing. There’s no middle ground. One second Anakin thinks Palpatine needs to be stopped but should have a trial, the next he’s chopping off Mace Windu’s hands so he can be killed. And then minutes later he apparently thinks “Welp, in for a penny, in for a pound,” and is off to murder children that he knows personally. There’s turning on Mace because you’ve decided you need Palpatine to keep your wife alive, but what did the kids do?

If you know, you know, otherwise Google it.

And yes, there had been a few pushes to the dark side along the way, like that time he slaughtered an entire village of Tuskan raiders, but between the script, direction, and performance, it doesn’t read that Anakin gradually slid to this point, there very much seems to be a switch that flicks, and Anakin does a reverse-Grinch. He goes from a loyal but frustrated Jedi to a child-murdering Sith in one moment. At lunch he thinks the Sith need to be stopped, he supports democracy, then within a day he’s yelling that the Jedi are evil, is so hooked on murder he force chokes his only motivation for doing this at all, and is talking about “his empire” and plotting to rule the galaxy. Say what you will about the sequel trilogy but at least they give the light/dark side stuff some nuance. Anakin goes full-remorseless-monster in less time that it took me to rewatch the Rings trilogy and it very much plays like it’s only because he’s afraid his perfectly healthy wife is definitely going to die in childbirth unless he learns secret Sith techniques to prevent it, despite living in a society where losing most of your limbs then getting set on fire from being next to lava is perfectly treatable.

Although admittedly he may have been right to worry, apparently no medical science existed to counter “sadness.” Not a great end for Padme. But I’ll let Jenny Nicholson walk you through the problems with her as a character.

Her production value has gone way up in the past five years but she still makes some good points.

Anyway it’s better than the last two but still has many problems. Being a franchise for children still somehow about war worked better for Star Wars when they went all-in on animated series. I mean I’m pretty sure it did, everyone tells me it did, but instead of catching up on The Clone Wars or Rebels so I understand better what’s been happening on The Mandalorian, I’ve been doing this. You’re welcome.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A surprisingly high 80% from critics, if only 66% from audiences. Look, RT, give it that 80% if you must, but if you’re gonna try to make me say this one isn’t worse than Rise of Skywalker, you’re gonna have to send more than a couple of guys. I will go to the grave insisting that every sequel movie is better than any prequel movie.

Meanwhile, I’d be willing to bet the UK played a role in pushing a different saga over Star Wars at the international box office.

The Box Office Champ (International)

Okay, let’s check in on Harry Potter.

Goblet of Fire was a turning point for the franchise. Harry Potter grew up with its audience and stars in the way Star Wars fans had expected their thing to. From simple wish-fulfilment magic school adventures against trolls and trying to outsmart the teachers to full-blown war being fought between good and evil. And Goblet of Fire, book and novel, is where the stakes shift. Where it stops being quaint adventures at wizard school and starts being a desperate battle against evil reborn, as Voldemort finally regenerates and we have our first real cast casualty, a warning shot from the author that shit gets real from this point forward.

This process was probably more gradual if you watch each movie in sequence, but going straight from Philosopher’s Stone, it’s a very noticeable shift. The action beats are bigger, the hidden menace darker, and the ending bleak. No hall full of students applauding Hagrid, minimal hugs and smiles, just a funeral for the first casualty and three friends admitting that life is never again going to be as carefree as it was a year ago, and, like, moreso than the average 14 year old friend trio splitting up for the summer.

And it’s better than the first one. It’s got some good fantasy action sequences, decent comedy, the core trio is coming into their own as actors (Neville Longbottom is still a few years away from his post-puberty glow-up). Plus Ralph Fiennes debuts as Voldemort, a villain arguably as evil as Amon Goeth but more fun. That was good casting. And it has not only David Tennant, but minimum five notable Doctor Who actors– look if they didn’t want me dragging Doctor Who into this they shouldn’t have had multiple key setpieces where something’s bigger on the inside.

As to the story… well, that’s gonna depend on your perspective, isn’t it? Because they have to trim the story even more this time, as Goblet of Fire was the longest book thus far. Notable casualties, to my recollection, include the obligatory chapter of Harry stuck spending six weeks with the Dursleys before inevitably spending most of August crashing with the Weasleys or something (which is where we join him), the continuing mistreatment of house elves, Ron’s coolest older brother turning up, and Harry learning the spell that lets him survive the first action beat. Also any amount of Quiddich. The movie opens at the Quiddich World Cup and we don’t see any of the match.

So if you’re a deep fan of the novels, maybe the way it pares the entire story down to just the Triwizard Tournament related topics and a few key character beats feels aggressively simplified, especially if you were already upset that Peeves the Poltergeist and Harry’s one big Quiddich Cup victory got cut entirely. On the other hand, if you’re just into the movies, maybe you appreciate the simplicity, because the central plot just chugs along. Despite the 150ish minute runtime.

Goblet of Fire is also where some noted that world-building was starting to get a little lazy, just cramming in new concepts that have been around forever because the plot needs them to exist, but that’s not the movie’s fault, it’s not the movie’s fault that portkeys had never been mentioned before or that the French and German magic schools are single-gendered, raising the question of where German witches or French wizards go.

It’s good, it’s good Potter, and transitions well from “Yay magic is awesome” to “Oh my god we’re all gonna die.”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 88% from critics and 74% from audiences, it’s clearly the better of the two box office champs, maybe I should have just watched this.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Constantine works better than it has any right to given how it transplanted the character from London to LA, and has gotten more popular with age; Fantastic Four spends too much time on the origin and not enough on being interesting; Jennifer Garner gets a Daredevil spinoff in the tragically lamentable Elektra; Christopher Nolan brings a new level of grounded reality to Batman in Batman Begins, and it works shockingly well; and Son of the Mask is a failure on every measurable level.
  • Shane Black writes and directs the noir buddy detective movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, it is incredible start to finish, it’s one of my favourite movies, I love it.
  • Disney attempts to replicate Lord of the Rings with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s not a failure, they made three of these, but it’s no Rings or Potter.
  • The beloved but short-lived space western Firefly, from TV wunderkind Tim Minear, got its big screen finale in Serenity. (I’m aware Firefly has a more notorious creator, but turns out he’s always been a problem, and Tim Minear never hurt anyone and I met him at a Lois and Clark fan convention* and he was cool, so…)
  • Meanwhile Peter Jackson follows up his magnum opus (opi?) with a dream gig, remaking King Kong. It is also no Rings but it’s still decent Kong.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Tim Burton is a favourite take on Willy Wonka for people who actually haven’t seen the Gene Wilder version stop yelling you don’t know I meant me
  • Phillip Seymour Hoffman takes every acting trophy available as Capote. The other Truman Capote biopic with Toby Jones gets absolutely steamrolled. Reese Witherspoon does the same as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
  • Stephen Chow follows the beloved Shaolin Soccer with the madcap and utterly delightful Kung Fu Hustle.
  • Joel Schumacher tries to make both Chicago and Moulin Rouge! at the same time with Phantom of the Opera. I highly recommend this video explaining how that went very wrong. And then maybe her other video about what’s wrong with Rent, also out that year. Also out this year was The Producers, big year for musicals-turned-movies, none of them great. Thanks, Chicago, thanks for that.
  • We surely were impressed with Sin City at the time. Maybe… maybe don’t revisit it.
  • xXx: State of the Union settled an argument with a friend for me: whether doing a sequel without Vin Diesel would be worse, or whether a sequel to xXx being worse than the last one was actually impossible. It was, and it shockingly wasn’t. Somebody slapped the xXx brand on an unrelated generic action movie script despite not being able to get the actual lead back, and it showed.
  • We also argued whether or not the Dukes of Hazzard movie was ill-served by starring Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, and Jessica Simpson. His point: “You’d rather they put better actors into a Dukes of Hazzard movie?” Mine: “I don’t like studios having the idea those three can anchor any attempted blockbuster.”
  • With Hustle and Flow and “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp,” Three Six Mafia had now won more Oscars than Martin Scorsese.

*Yes I went to a Lois and Clark fan convention, I went to three and they were amazing and only God can judge me.

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