Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Adventurous 00's

The 10 Best Adventure Films of the 2000s – Part 16 in our ongoing series

The Motorcycle Diaries ©2004 Pathé Pictures International

We are heading steadily towards the conclusion for this series. I used to have an idea that I'd do seperate posts about both Martial Arts films and Road Trip films, but in the end, it seems more accurate to shoehorn them both into the same post. Now, it may seem that a few of these films fit pretty loosely to the Adventure genre per se, but seeing as I'd like to cover as many of the very best films of the decade, this is one of their last chances to be featured, so I had to loosen up a little. I see adventure as a film that changes locations during its running course. Die Hard is purely an action film, as it stays among the limits of a single apartement building, but the James Bond movies are action/adventures. Of course, many fine adventure films have already been dealt with in posts such as The Fantastic 00's or The Action 00's. But the leftovers are all the more sweet because of limiting the ranks a little.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, 2000)
Director: Ang Lee

This chinese wu xia epic truly changed the face of cinema in the western world. It became the most succesful foreign language film of all time in the Unites States, and its iconography was soon adapted into larger cultural context. It also helped a number of Asian directors whose careers in the US were going downhill – you could be succesful even when going back to your homeland. This brought new chances for new rising for the careers of John Woo, Tsui Hark and the like. Yet, at first viewing, I didn't like the film much. I was subsequentally proven wrong.

The legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) decides to give away his famed jade sword as a present to his friend Yu Shu Lieh (Michelle Yeoh). But before he can do that, the sword is stolen by the master thief Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi). The pursuit is further complicated when Li learns that Yu is working with the notorious assassin Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). The Fox has her own reasons for wanting revenge toward Li.

Part of the wu xia genre is that the characters themselves are legendary and possess superhuman powers. Yet this is never underlined, or explained to viewers used to pampering and thorough explanations. More crucially, the characters act and feel as human as us who don't possess flying kung fu superpowers. The importance is in the melodrama and the relationships between the three-dimensional characters. It's nice to see that the film features multiple strong female characters, who are treated as more than equals in fighting, compared to the men. The action, of course, is also jaw-dropping and beautifully shot.

Hero (Ying Xiong, 2002)
Director: Zhang Yimou

When talking about beautifully shot martial arts films, nothing can hold the candle to Hero, the finest hour in the careers of both director Zhang Yimou and director of photography Christopher Doyle. The eerily quiet landscapes are flowing with living colours and breathtaking beauty. All the better, then, to host a kick-ass wu xia battle. Which come aplenty in this story as well.

Before the reign of the first emperor of China, the kingdoms are raging and there is much bloodshed on the battlefields. The most powerful warlord Qin (Chen Daoming) is gaining power and influence over others fast. That's why there are multiple plots going on to assassinate the ruthless war-mongerer. A minor servant of the warlord, who has no name (Jet Li) defeats three of the most notorious assassins of the land to save Qin. That's why he gains audience with his liege, to tell the stories of his victories. But Nameless has some plans for himself as well.

Hero cuts down on the melodrama on brings on the business. Yet its characters are still finely caharacterized, with subtle strokes. Different fighters have a style matching their name (Broken Sword, Flying Snow, Moon and Sky) and also personalities to match. Usually also their scenes refer to their names somehow. Initially, the film is kind of Chinese nationalistic and preaches that one must obey the leader as he is the only one that can bring peace and unite the country. One may not agree with the statement, but there is still no denying that the resulting film is impressive and beautiful.
Kill Bill, vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

Kill Bill vol. 2 ©2004 Miramax

It's hard to believe that before delivering this two-parter, Quentin Tarantino dropped out of the limelight for six years, as it feels like he's been with us from time immemorial. Likewise, it's hard for me to imagine the time watching movies before Kill Bill any more. The first film had a huge impact on me when I first saw it. It is one of the most important films leading me to other films that I've had. Tarantino decided to go even further into his love of old-school films and created perhaps the most kick-ass love letter to martial arts cinema ever created.

Volume 1 presents The Bride (Uma Thurman), an ex-assassin who has tried to escape her old life, and thus been tracked by her former employer and lover Bill (David Carradine). She is shot in her head on her wedding day, yet survives in a coma. When she wakes up, she makes a list and goes to kill every one of Bill's Assassin Squad one by one. In the first film she takes on Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who has managed to leave her old lifestyle a lot more smoothly than the Bride, and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the boss of a big Triad gang called the Crazy 88. While Volume 1 is light with its story, the way it executes its action scenes is nearly flawless. The editing, photography and black humour in the script make this one of the best American action films, not just from the 2000s, but ever.

Volume 2 is the more story-oriented of the duo, and thus a bit more uneven in execution. Still, Tarantino manages to pull the rug under the feet of the viewers and brings a real heart into the roaring rampage of revenge. The Bride takes on Bill's loser brother Budd (Michael Madsen), Bill's current lover Ellen Driver (Daryl Hannah) and finally, Bill himself. Even though the film has a few scenes that feel like padding one film into two (particularly the one about asking for directions from Bill's foster father Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks)), it still has a brutally honest spaghetti western heart beating inside it.

It would be a dream come true if tarantino could finally be arsed to release The Whole Bloody Affair as a blu-ray. The second one could use a few more scenes of the Bride and Bill's backstory, so at least the deleted scenes should be included. But by the way the things are going, we are probably going to get Kill Bill: Vol. 3 before that will happen. I'm not actually particularly interested in seeing that.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir 

Moving on from Martial Arts films to more classic syle of adventure we have this sea-faring adventure that is multiple times more exciting than anything the Pirates of the Caribbean films can throw at us. It's not exactly swashbuckling, with it having a more realistic look at life in a Napeoleonic era war ship. The attempt really makes it such an exciting film for viewers of all ages. Peter Weir is truly a master of making captivating films set on unexpected milieus.

The film deals with the friendship that the determined Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and the more analytical surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) experience. Together, they're on a trip to destroy Napoleon's most formidable war vessel, the Acheron. To achieve this, Aubrey commandeers his ship, H.M.S. Surprise to a lengthy journey to the south along the coast of South Africa. His men, the ship, and his commands must be taken to the extreme, should they survive the dangerous trip. 

It's a film about different world views and how they can find common ground and peace when facing a threat to both of them. It is also a film about determination,a nd to what extent it can lead. The life of the adolescent sailors is a sad one, but historically accurate. The crew must face horrific conditions among scurvy, gangrene, malnutrition, and of course, enemy bullets and cannon fire. Yet while Weir manages to make all of those elements seem concrete threats, he never forgets the sort of boyish charm the film has, and the excitement of life at the sea. Well done, old boy.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motorcicleta, 2004)
Director: Walter Salles

A film about the trip that Ernesto Guevara (later to be nick-named Che, played by Gael García Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna) made through South America on their motorcycle in the early 1950's is bound to be political, right? Well, yes and no. For Guevara's book itself is adored by students across the world for reasons that go beyond political issues. Like the book, the film is more about the sensation of being young, going out feeling the wind in your hair, and experiencing the world first-hand. Like today, back then there were a number of inequalities in the world, and seeing them with your own eyes shaped bothe men for the rest of their lives.

It is also a buddy movie. Ernesto and Alberto don't always see eye to eye on every thing, bickering and teasing each other. Along the trip, there are bound to be a few minor crises, and overcoming them is also a part of the coming-of-age that the film portrays. All of these elements are brought to life by the believable performances by Bernal and De La Serna. Of course, the most important part of this kind of road movie is the sense of being there yourself, which is achieved beautifully with shooting both the magnificent natural landscapes of Argentina, as well as the living conditions the poor working class have in the small villages. Also, in this film it really feels that things are happening, and it is not mind-numbingly boring. Steven Soderbergh should have taken a page here.

O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

The first part of their George Clooney-starring Idiot trilogy sees Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill and two even bigger morons, Pete and Delmar (John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) escape from the chain gang in the Deep South of the 1930's. What follows is a sort of Homeric Odyssey, where the boys meet Sirens, a Ku Klux Klan Cyclops (John Goodman), a bank-robbing gangster, and a blind prophet. And they also become succesful bluegrass artists, which makes the film music-filled and lively.

Early on in the film, a treasure is given as a McGuffin, which turns out to be false. Nevertheless, it is one of the most captivating and fun adventures of recent memory. As ever, the Coens have filled the film with outrageously funny comedy, well-observed charecters, just the right amount of absurdism, and some of their own je ne sais quoi. The whole film is shot with a yellow-toned nostalgic lense, which might explain the fondness that this film has towards its Folk music. More than actually updating Homer, the Coens are more interested in creating a mythical history for the roots of a genre of music they adore. Everything else in the film is just a sweet, sweet bonus.

I'm a Dapper Dan Man, myself.

The Road (2009)
Director: John Hillcoat

This is not a very happy adventure. But it is a road movie of sorts. When the world has reduced to nothing but ashes, a father and a son must fight for survival and hit the road to have a purpose. Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece novel is not an easy one to adapt by any means, but John Hillcoat succeeds in the job about as good as would be possible. The film is also very utilitarian – there's no unnecessary metaphors nor parables (and you can make your own mind about those that are there), and the film is to the point. Most of the running time is spent while the father tries to fight off starvation as well as the outside forces who are looking for their own interests. he sleeps one eye open, and ready to protect his son, no matter what the cause. Their journey takes them through what used to be America, but is now nothing more than a giant game of survival of the fittest.

The film is pulled of course by the leading performance by Viggo Mortensen. There isn't anyone who can portray just the right mixture of love and compassion, yet also hard-nosed determinism and the ability to resolt to brutal acts to achieve that, quite like him. Beside the father and the son, other characters are pretty disposable, popping up for a quick cameo of sorts. But nevertheless Hillcoat also manages to cast these small roles very well, and altough the film has major movie stars, they feel believable as their characters as well. The film's worldview is bleak as all hell, but it seems that the determined father is not so much the one leading as the son, who still has kindness in his heart. Thus the story has a glimmer of hope in its resolution. The children may yet turn out better than their parents did.

Sideways (2004)
Director: Alexander Payne

It felt a little unfair to just leave Sideways in the Comedy list with your Anchormen and Dodgeballs. While Alexander Payne's depiction of midlife crises can also cause just as big giggles, it is also much more than just a vehicle to make people laugh. It is also a melancholic film by nature, and as a mature piece of cinema, head over shoulders better than anything else on that list.

The recently divorced Miles (Paul Giamatti) is an expert in wines, so he takes his best friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) out on a trip through California's Napa Valley. Jack is getting married soon, and the trip is a bachelor party of a kind. Or at least Jack takes it as such, trying to get laid as much as he can when his soon-to-be wife isn't looking. Miles is against this, but powerless to stop Jack's raging libido. When he gets drunk, he also starts to feel crushing depression, and is bound to call his ex-wife. Jack also tries to get Miles feel better and hooks up with a pair of friends, Stephanie and Maya (Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen).

Payne makes films about real people, and Hollywood glamour is far from the film's characters. They are middle-aged, and not particularly well-matured. Every one of them has their personal crosses to bear, but the perfect cast makes them all believable in their vunerability. I've praised a lot of casts in this blog post alone, but the cast in Sideways is so pich-perfect, it could probably take on any of them. Wine as a metaphor is first used as an excuse to deal with something else as their troubles, then as a means of pouring some gasoline into already raging fires, and in the end, a sort of metaphor to life itself. Depending on who's tasting it, the same kind of life can taste bitter or delicious, but it usually pays to let one's feelings mature and allow one to move forward. For a roundabout long-weekend trip, the goal is a long way away looking at the start, but at a comfrotably lofty place looking from the finish line.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Teenagers can be just as horny as the middle-aged men. I know, shocking, right? This is another film that I dismissed upon my initial viewing. It felt too much like another teenaged sex romp, only without that many jokes. But I came to my senses. It's certainly not a clear-cut coming-of-age tale, and its ending can actually seem quite bleak. the things that Hollywood films usually praise, like finding the one to love, that friendships endure, and that the journey makes people grow up, don't apply here. Two of the film's three main characters would probably be better off without ever going on the film's trip. But the third one... Better not spoil too much.

The teenaged friends Julio Zapata (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna) stay at home while their girlfriends go off to Europe to become exchange students. The boys immidiately start to miss their sex life, and start to plan further hookups. They meet Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdu) at a wedding and try to persuade her to join them to a road trip to find a beautiful secluded beach. The married Luisa is initially recluctant, but suddenly changes her mind when she finds out her husband has been cheating her. The road trip will take strains on the formerly tight friendship between Julio and Tenoch, and also Luisa will walk away with mixed feelings.

The film does sell itself as a sort of teenaged hijink show with loads of sex in the beginning. Director Cuarón has a wicked sense of humour, and isn't afraid to cross boundaries of good taste to show just what is going on in the mind of his main characters all the time. But the heart of the film, which starts to slowly unravel, is that even with a carpé diem attitude towards life, good times start to vanish and seemingly untouchable relationships can also crumble and die. The film surprisingly doesn't seem very nostalgic or autobiographical given its source material, but actually has the sort of in-the-moment sort of rhythm to it. It is a cynical film, in which a road trip doesn't heal all wounds, but also deepens them. But in that, it is also a suitable remedy to all the other road trip movies.

Bubbling Under:

About Schmidt (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2002) – Payne's other soul-searching road trip looks at the difficulties of one's autumn years and coping with losses.

The Darjeering Limited (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2007) – Three depressed brothers try to deepen their souls and to come together during a railroad trip through India. Anderson doesn't veer too much out from his comfort zone, but this is still among his better works.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
(Dir. Gillermo Del Toro, 2008) – Del Toro's sort-of superhero film is more of a creature feature, that discards the gothic sensibilities of its source comic, and flows around various magnificently realized fantasy worlds. Better then the first one.

Into the Wild
(Dir. Sean Penn, 2007) – A graduate decides to leave everything behind and hitch-hikes to Alaska to survive on his own terms. Ponderous look at the human spirit, a road trip, and a character study of a real-world incident, all at the same time.

Ten Canoes
(Dir.  Rolf De Heer, Peter Djigirr, 2006)These mythical stories about the Australian aborigines open up a lot of questions about our relationship with Earth and the way we deal with our histories.

To Be Seen:
District B13, The New World, OSS17: Lost in Rio, The Russian Ark, Sunshine

So, don't be shy. What are your favorite martial arts / road trip films (or straight-out adventures) from 2000-2009? Also, I'd love suggestions on what I've left out on previous lists for the grande finale of this series.

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