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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 52

Part 52: 2003


MOVIES:

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

  • Gangs of New York

  • The Hours (hidden gem)

  • The Pianist

  • Chicago (winner)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Middle children have it rough. They need to live up to the legacy of the first, positively influence the next, and somehow still work as a distinct individual. Quite the challenge.


Whether or not The Two Towers succeeds at being the perfect middle child seems to be a matter of opinion. I don’t think it lives up to the first film and, like most middle movies, it can’t really stand on its own. However, The Two Towers succeeds – almost effortlessly – at storytelling…braiding three major plotlines together to form the vehicle that will take the characters and situations introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring and prepare them for The Return of the King.

Our first strand picks up where Fellowship left off, with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continuing their journey to Mordor. With the weight of the Ring becoming more burdensome, Frodo stoops to new lows, even using the emaciated Gollum (Andy Serkis) as a guide…despite Sam’s reluctance to do so.


The second strand follows Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) through the war-torn lands of Rohan, where King Theodin (Bernard Hill) lies under a spell of the wicked wizard, Saruman (Christopher Lee).

The final strand in the braid involves Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who manage to escape their Uruk-Hai captors and find solstice in the Fanghorn Forest, where they encounter the mysterious tree beings called Ents.


These individual plotlines run parallel, but don’t converge until The Return of the King. However, Two Towers still offers plenty of action. The climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep helps give this film the gusto it needs to stand among its siblings. There are also a few heartstring-tugging moments, including Aragorn’s love for Legolas numerous lady problems, peasants forced to abandon their villages, and the return of Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), back from the dead with a new makeover to boot!

And speaking of Aragorn, all you Hobbitses who harbor an eternal flame for Strider (raises hand) will find plenty to love in The Two Towers…as he’s pretty much the only one with any character development here.


Frodo, the nominal hero, spends much of his time staring off into space, watching others decide his fate, and occasionally gazing upon the Ring. Sam the Brave remains on the sidelines and Merry and Pippin spend most of their time riding Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), an ancient Ent that resides in the Fanghorn Forest. But Aragorn jumps, swings, and rides his way through battle after battle, operating within the tradition of a freaking Viking swordsman.


For the amateur viewer, that is to say most of us, the appeal of The Lord of the Rings trilogy lies in the visuals. Here there be dwarves, elves and Orcs; vast caverns and mighty towers; epic battles and long-haired action heroes who ride down the stairs on a freaking medieval skateboard, all while shooting arrows from a bag that appears to never run out of them…but, I digress.


Needless to say, The Two Towers leaves us feeling at least somewhat hopeful, thanks mainly to our true hero, Samwise Gamgee, who brings Frodo out of his depression with a heartfelt speech that proves his loyalty. As Sam and Frodo grow closer to Mordor, and Frodo becomes more and more aware of the burden he carries, our beloved characters face the ultimate test.


One tower remains; the War for the Ring is about to begin.


-Read the review for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

-Read the review for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

 

Gangs of New York

Much like the city in which it takes place, Gangs of New York is crowded. Crowded by ideas, production design, big names, lofty goals and lack of focus. In fact, it’s so jam-packed that it fails to make room for the one thing it actually needs – narrative structure.


In yet another movie, Martin Scorsese explores the role of violence in American society…the view here being that brutality and corruption basically gave birth to the American nation. Gone are the powdered wigs and pantaloons…these Founding Fathers mismatched plaid better than any fashionista I’ve ever seen. They spoke like Shakespearean kings, walked in streets bedazzled with neon lights and wrote with knives soaked in blood.

In the words of the characters, this New York is “the forage of hell”, in which gangs make way by killing their rivals. In the catacombs carved out of the Manhattan rock, an Irish-American leader named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) prepares for battle almost as if he’s preparing for the Mass. With his young son Amsterdam trailing behind, he walks through the labyrinth of his domain, gathering his forces – The Dead Rabbits – before taking to the streets to fight the forces of the rival American-born gang, the Nativists.


With knives, swords and cleavers in hand, the two gangs battle it out in an almost animalistic fashion. By the end, the field is littered with bodies, including that of Vallon, killed by his enemy – and leader of the Nativists – Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis).


Now left parentless, Amsterdam is forced into an orphanage. Sixteen years later, he emerges in his early 20s (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and returns to Five Points, still under the rule of Bill, to avenge his father’s death.

By day, life and death swirl through the Five Points. By night, love and lust fight for dominance. As he slowly hashes out his plan to take on Bill, Amsterdam crosses paths with Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a skilled pickpocket with a naughty disposition. Thus begins a love triangle that honestly serves no purpose in the grand scheme of things. Not only do DiCaprio and Diaz have little to no chemistry, they also struggle with their fading Irish accents and lack of character development. Diaz does the best she can with what she has, but is given no room to move beyond her pretty face and voluptuous boobies. We get a tease of maybe finding out a little bit more about her history, but not before it’s squashed by Bill the Butcher, clad in a freaking American flag.

Several other A and B-list celebrities come out of the streets to play in Scorsese’s world, including Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly and Jim Broadbent. Still, it wasn’t enough to save this movie. Critics were torn, audiences were torn, and, despite its 10 Oscar nominations, it didn’t win a single award.


In the end, Gangs of New York brought us astonishing sights, but couldn’t really tie everything together. It started a lot of storylines, but then didn’t know what to do with them. Simply put, Gangs of New York just bit off more of the Big Apple than it could chew.

 

The Hours

Who’s afraid like Virginia Woolf?


The Hours, aka “Three Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”, intertwines a single day in the lives of three women in different eras, each of whom is suffering from some level of depression: a melancholy 1920’s English novelist is weighed down with the fear of encroaching madness…a depressed housewife in the 1950’s, who can’t even bake a cake for her husband, is paralyzed with the horror that she’s not a real homemaker…and an editor in modern-day Manhattan is caring for an ex-lover dying of AIDS, all while trying to come to terms with the fact that her best days are behind her. Three women, three lives, three souls all imprisoned in the same cell block.

Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) has a room of her own…filled with pages upon pages of her new working novel, “Mrs. Dalloway”. Already struggling with her sanity, Virginia hears voices, succumbs to “moods”, stares off into space (and at dead birds). Her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), a publisher, has removed her from city life and taken her to Richmond, a quiet English suburb. He hopes the solitude will save his wife’s life, but it only works to heighten her depression.


Sheltered in the candy-coated colors of 1950’s Los Angeles, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) has also submerged herself into Mrs. Dalloway’s world. Diving into the pages of “Mrs. Dalloway” is about the only exciting thing in her life, or so she feels. She’s the wife of a proud and adoring husband (John C. Reilly), she’s the mother of a young, adventurous boy (Jack Rovello), and she has another little one on the way. Yet, she’s still depressed to the point of collapse. Even baking a birthday cake for her husband is a monumental task she can’t complete.

Nearly 50 years later, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) doesn’t so much read “Mrs. Dalloway” as live her life. Dalloway’s words pour from her mouth as she becomes something of a reincarnation of Virginia’s fantasy. For ten years Clarissa has lived with her lover, Sally (Allison Janney) and raised a daughter (Claire Danes). But she still holds a flame for her previous lover, Richard (Ed Harris), who is now dying of AIDS. Seeing Richard at the end of his life not only depresses Clarissa but reminds her of the fact that her best days may now be behind her.

In retrospect, these three women should all be happy. Virginia is an accomplished writer, Laura has a loving (and growing) family, and Clarissa has enough money that she can essentially just worry about planning parties, but are these stereotypical thoughts of happiness really enough? Just below the surface, all three women are suffering from depression, almost to the point of suicide. As each one reaches their breaking point, death becomes a sort of freedom. A relief from madness, sickness, and loneliness.


As she nears the end of her writing process, Virginia Woolf contemplates killing her main character. When her husband asks why, she responds, “Someone has to die that the rest of us should value life more.” And it seems that’s the main takeaway for all our ladies. A death looms over each storyline and, in facing that loss, these characters are able to finally face their demons. In this cross-cutting between historical time periods, a larger picture begins to form. In this case, a portrait of the war between life and death that always and forever rages through the ages.

 

The Pianist

To lump The Pianist in with movies like Schindler’s List seems to do it a disservice. It’s certainly tempting to compare the two – and even more tempting to say The Pianist just isn’t as good as its fellow masterpiece. However, does either one really need to be better? Each stands alone, a towering artistic attempt to shed cinematic light on one of the darkest episodes in human history.


What sets The Pianist apart is the fact that it features no concentration camp scenes. Instead, it leaves us on the streets of Warsaw, where life and death were just as uncertain as in the camps. Like other Holocaust films, we see the horrors perpetrated by Nazis on the Jews, but we also see the effects of starvation and overcrowding in the Polish ghettos. We see the elderly murdered in their homes, starving men slurping spilled soup off the ground, and bored guards forcing Jews to dance in the street for their entertainment. It’s unwatchably harrowing. And, just like those images in Schindler’s List, these are sure to stay with you long after the movie is over.

Directed by Roman Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor, The Pianist opens in 1939 Warsaw, shortly after Poland’s defeat to Germany. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a celebrated Jewish pianist who, along with his family, is forced to watch as restrictions mount against the Jews. Initially, Jews are forbidden from eating at certain restaurants, walking in public parks, and sitting on benches…but then, as we all know, things escalate.


Soon, armbands must be worn. Passing Jews must walk in the gutters and bow to Nazis in the streets. Eventually, all the Jews in Warsaw, about 500,000, are moved into a ghetto. Families are crammed into single rooms. Children die trying to find food and water. Mothers have no choice but to smother their babies.

After the implementation of “The Final Solution”, those who survived the ghetto are shipped to the concentration camps. Only those capable of labor are allowed to stay behind, and it’s here where Szpilman is separated from his family. He has no choice but to watch as his father, mother and siblings are literally shoved into a train car and, ultimately, sent off to their deaths.


The rest of The Pianist rides on Brody’s tiny, skinny shoulders. He becomes part of the work force, then escapes into hiding. Along the way, he battles starvation, disease, the Poland winters, and utter delirium until the arrival of the Soviets. We see him transform from prim and proper musician to an overgrown cave man, communicating only in grunts.

This is another factor that makes this film different from others in its category. While most Holocaust movies focus on the event as a whole, The Pianist essentially tells the story of one man and his quest for survival. Ironically, there’s little to no time spent on his love of music, nor is there any insight given into his existence as a pianist…and because of that, The Pianist never quite generates the sheer terror of Schindler’s List, where death could visit any character at any time.


That being said, this film doesn’t set out to conquer those big themes of outrage and triumph, good and evil, cowardice and courage. Instead, it tells a story (and a true one, at that) about life and death, civilization and chaos, music and silence.


Towards the end of the film, Szpilman is asked what he will do after the war. His answer is simple: “Play the piano again.” The film ends on a bittersweet note. Life and hope may have returned, but no aspect of the future will remain untouched by the past.

 

Chicago

Fame, as we all know, is fickle. And nothing titillates the public like sensational scandal. O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, the Monica Lewinsky affair, the infamous Nipplegate…we love it all.


Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Chicago, a musical about the celebrity status often given to criminals, continues to find its audience every time it’s revived. Bob Fosse, who choreographed and directed the original Broadway production (and was a Chicago native), lived in a city where the daily papers roared with the kinds of headlines the movies love. Killers were romanticized, cops and lawyers lived in each other’s pockets, and newspapers read like pulp fiction. Hell, a quick scroll through Netflix proves that we’re STILL obsessed with all levels of crime, from the petty theft of The Bling Ring to the horrors of Jeffery Dahmer.

Chicago begins in a whoopee spot, where the gin is cold, but the piano’s hot. Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is a housewife who dreams of stardom. She’d give anything to be like the beautiful jazz singer, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones), and she knows her dummy hubby, Amos (a wonderful John C. Reilly), won’t be her ticket to fame and fortune.


So, she starts “fooling around” with other men. Fooling around leads to “screwing around” (which she defines as “fooling around without dinner”) with one Fred Casely (Dominic West), who says he has connections down at the jazz club. However, the only connections on Fred’s mind happen between the bed sheets, so it’s bada-boom, bada-bang-bang when Roxie shoots Fred.

Sentenced to hang, Roxie finds herself on “Murderers’ Row” down at the Cook County Jail. Ironically, fellow inmates include one Velma Kelly, who has also been locked up for a double murder after finding her sister in bed with her husband. As luck would have it, the twisted warden, Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah), takes pity on Roxie and agrees to set her up with lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who has never lost a case.


Just one problem – Billy also represents Velma…and now both women must not only compete for his attention, but the attention of the adoring press. His method is simple: he sets up his clients as media darlings, then uses that exposure to swing the trial in their favor. “In this town, murder’s a form of entertainment,” he says. A courtroom is just a “three-ring circus” and any judge and/or jury can be blinded with a little bit of the “razzle dazzle” he charges so much for.

In no time, Roxie is transformed from cold-blooded killer to convent-girl-led astray by jazz and liquor. She quickly takes center stage, moving Velma back to page 6. But the Windy City has another storm brewing. When a new murderess threatens to steal her thunder, Roxie must do anything in her power to keep the reporters, her lawyer, and her adoring fans, on her side.


Unlike most movie musicals, Chicago doesn’t interrupt the drama with songs; rather, director Gary Marshall sets the songs within Roxie’s imagination, where everything pumps with color and jazz. Throughout the film, we see two different versions of the same event: what’s actually happening, and what Roxie is fantasizing in her mind. It’s a tactic that separates the film from the stage production, and one that, I think, makes the movie even better.

For example, in Roxie’s first press conference, the members of the press are alternately seen as actual people and marionettes on strings, controlled by a larger-than-life Billy Flynn. It’s a wonderful commentary on how easy it is for a lawyer to control the press – an effect impossible to portray in the theater, but one that works perfectly on film.


Upon its release, Chicago was also criticized for its casting choices, mostly Zellweger who was not quite a triple threat like her co-star, Zeta-Jones. However, the whole point of Roxie is that she isn’t supposed to be a star. She has a dreamy infatuation with herself, and Zellweger captures that so well.

In Chicago, and often in reality, the guilty live happily ever after. The innocent are neither rewarded or admired, and no one even seems to care that the entire system is flawed. And, as Roxie and Velma make bank on their bad-girl sweethearts image with a double vaudeville act, you almost have to wonder…is this life following art? This film is not only about playing to the public with razzle-dazzle and sex, but is actually itself playing to the public with razzle-dazzle and sex. Are we meant to be appalled by the way these Merry Murderesses of the Cook County Jail play the system, or are we merely meant to be entertained and titillated? Either way, Chicago gives us everything we want in a movie musical: catchy showtunes, stunning cinematography, and all that jazz.

 

SCORECARD

 

The Hours

Wins: Best Actress (Nicole Kidman)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Best Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore), Best Costume Design, Best Director (Stephen Daldry), Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


LOTR: The Two Towers

Wins: Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Picture


Chicago

Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (John C. Reilly), Best Actress (Renee Zellweger), Best Supporting Actress (Queen Latifah), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Rob Marshall), Best Original Song ("I Move On"), Best Adapted Screenplay


Gangs of New York

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Film Editing, Best Original Song ("The Hands that Built America"), Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


The Pianist

Wins: Best Actor (Adrien Brody), Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Picture


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