The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

December 29, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

This film was originally called “There And Back Again”–but Jackson changed it, with the justification being that Bilbo was already ‘there’ in the second film, “The Desolation of Smaug”. So it’s now “The Battle of the Five Armies”, and it is extremely aptly named since almost the entire film is literally just one long battle. It is breathtaking to watch, however, and serves to be a very satisfying ending to a somewhat bloated trilogy that probably should’ve been one film–or, simply left as the opening of “Fellowship of the Ring” in “Lord of the Rings”.

But, Jackson makes the most of his budget here, and takes us on one final journey into Middle Earth–for the time being, at least. The film opens with Smaug attacking the city of Laketown. Smaug is taken down by Bard (Luke Evans) with the “black arrow”. With the end of Smaug, the dwarves take the Lonely Mountain. Thorin (reprised by Richard Armitage), is not satisfied. He is looking for the Arkenstone, a royal jewel of the Dwarves. Bilbo has actually taken it, keeping it from Thorin as he is suffering from “dragon sickness” as Smaug did–being crippled by greed and driven to madness. The Arkenstone is basically like the ring of power, and has similar effects. And after all, Smaug does sound like Smeagol.

But there are other problems. The Orcs have finally built up their armies and want to attack. The humans and elves try to reason with Thorin to claim their gold within the Lonely Mountain’s treasure. Thorin thinks they have stolen the Arkenstone, or thinks one of his own dwarves has betrayed him. But Bilbo thinks he can barter with Thorin and reveals it was he who stole it. This does not go over well, as now Thorin lashes out at Bilbo as well.

It looks bad for the Dwarves initially until Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly) appears with a big dwarf army. So there’s your five armies, and let the battle begin.

The elves, humans, and dwarves end up allying with each other as the orcs attempt to kill all of them. Azog the orc chief is intent on killing Thorin especially, and Thorin goes after him to do the same.

You’d think with all of the fighting, it would just be one big noise, the way “The Matrix Revolutions” ended. But this is quite a spectacle to see, perhaps aided by seeing it in 3D.

The story is still strong, with the characters of Tauriel (reprised by Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aiden Turner) falling deeper for each other, and Legolas still coming in to break it up–while shooting arrows like a machine as usual. And also, as usual, Legolas pulls a miracle out of his legs by being able to step on falling stones before falling to his own death. It’s these kinds of shenanigans that are going to either have your eyes rolling in your head, or popping from them in wonderment.

But if you’re in the right frame of mind (maybe not 48 frames though), you can still enjoy this film for what it is. It’s certainly more thoroughly entertaining than “Smaug”, which really fell short of being anything more than a hammock film. It brings the story to a nice close, and it’s good to see that Peter Jackson took us there and back again, and didn’t totally ruin it.

My rating: :-)

After Earth

June 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“Danger can be very real. Fear is a choice.” That’s a line from Cypher Raige in “After Earth”, a film that is so very basic and simple in its storytelling, it was refreshing to see a science fiction film that really understood the medium. The film takes place in the future, of course, and Earth is no longer inhabitable. Instead, there are human colonies set up on another planet in the solar system. But humans are not entirely safe after evacuating earth. There is an alien race that wants to destroy humans inhabiting Nova Prime (the new planet the humans have colonized) and their weapon of choice is a creature known as an Ursa, which can sense fear and find and kill humans that way since they can’t hear, smell or see. But there are certain humans who can “ghost”, which means they do not give off fear and can remain undetected by the Ursas, killing them undetected.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) is one such “ghoster”, and also is a superior Ranger who leads a group of other Rangers on one last mission before retirement (of course!) including his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has failed becoming a Ranger thus disappointing his father. There’s another backstory regarding the father/son relationship as well, though, that complicates it a bit more. We learn that Kitai had a sister named Senshi who was killed by an Ursa while Kitai was a boy, and he watched her die from a little bubble she had put him in to protect him. Cypher believes he should have saved her. While Kitai is riddled with guilt, he also feels his father should have been there as well, instead of just on some other mission.

The two of them are thrust into a very dire situation when their ship hits an asteroid belt and they are forced to crash land on earth, susceptible to all of the problems that the planet has now such as large, primal animals that will kill them; and, tempature shifts that cause the planet to freeze overnight. In the crash, everyone but the father and son are killed. Cypher is badly injured, and so it’s up to his son, Kitai, to retrieve a beacon from the tail end of the ship that landed halfway across the planet. The atmosphere is not breathable so he has to take oxygen capsules with him in order to survive. This sets up what I call the “video game plot”, in which a character’s only means are basic tools that all will serve a very specific purpose in getting to the end and completing the mission. You realize, too, that whatever the character is given will be challenged and possibly taken away during the course of the plot as well.

The story unfolds predictably; but it’s directed at such a good pace by M. Night Shyamalan that it feels okay to just sit back and enjoy it. The morality tale that lies beneath the action is nice, and the performances by Smith and his son work even though the elder Smith is far superior as an actor and has much better range. It rarely is distracting because the two of them rarely share the same screen time since Kitai is off on the planet and Cypher is back in the ship, directing him through a communicator.

There’s a nice little subplot involving a large condor as well that serves as possibly the only other “character” in the story. But the focus is mainly on the father and son, and their journey not only to recover this beacon to send a distress call, but also to mend their relationship. For Kitai, he must get over his fear and guilt in order to survive the final “boss” of the film, an escaped Ursa that was being brought along on the ship in captivity. For Cypher, he too has guilt over allowing his daughter to die and his own fear of losing his only other child.

The climax and resolution is satisfying, mainly because the film does not rely on a deus ex machina like so many sci-fi films do these days. Instead, Kitai must look within himself in order to “ghost”; and while you still have to suspend disbelief a bit in some of the third act, we’re invested enough in the characters by then to forgive some things that are outlandish. This is sci-fi fantasy, after all.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a film directed by Shyamalan and it was nice to see him take a step back a bit. He co-wrote this film, and Will Smith provided the story. I think it was smart for Shyamalan to share this time, and it should benefit him for the future if this film is a success. On balance it is a nice enough film with plenty of thrills and even some touching moments that were unexpected. I hope this is the start of a recovery for Shyamalan. As for Jaden Smith, he still has a long way to go. But this was certainly a big step for him

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Much like the individual films of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s hard to review something you know is simply part of a bigger story. Like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”, you’re only seeing a portion of the whole story. Most trilogies are forged simply because they’re just stringing together sequels (like the “Alien” and “Back to the Future” franchises), whereas these films almost cannot be viewed on their own without seeing all 3 of the films. There is no ending in “The Fellowship of the Ring”; there’s no resolution at the end. Same, obviously, with “Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”. Well, we have the same problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, which seems more like an unexpected trilogy since “The Hobbit”, unlike “The Lord of the Rings”, was only one book.

I wasn’t enthused about this being stretched into a trilogy. Peter Jackson has gained an apt reputation of being rather self-indulgent with the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, and here it just seemed like he was milking it even more.

But after seeing “An Unexpected Journey”, I think I may have been a little harsh on him to begin with. Besides some pace problems in the beginning, and a lack of a clear reason why Bilbo Baggins (played marvelously by Martin Freeman) wants to go on a dangerous journey, the film is certainly reminiscent of the energy and fun that permeated “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I suppose these could be called prequels; but this is already a better start than a certain other prequel trilogy which I won’t name.

Here, though, Jackson doesn’t have to practically start all over with his palette of characters. We are familiar with Bilbo, but only as an aged and retired hobbit; there is no Merry, no Pip, and hardly much of Frodo. But we are re-introduced to Gandalf; and, at a later point, Smeagol. So it’s a bit of a reunion but not exactly a “gang’s all here” film. Instead, we have a new gang. All dwarves. The backstory is that a dragon named Smaug wiped out much of the dwarves’ kingdom, and the leader, Thorin (well played by Richard Armitage), is aiming to take back their kingdom. Smaug has settled in what’s called the Lonely Mountain, which is where the dwarves’ home is. Bilbo is enlisted by Gandalf who believes he has a higher purpose than just rotting away in Bag End, and thinks he may be able to help the dwarves because he’s so light on his feet and easy to miss when coming into contact with the enemy. And speaking of the enemy, a pack of Orcs are after the dwarves after their leader’s arm was sliced off during a battle by Thorin, after Thorin witnesses his grandfather slain by the war chief.

Once the dwarves and Bilbo have joined forces, the film’s pace quickens, and we’re taken on another lush journey through Middle Earth, and we even get to see Rivendel again. The special effects are very well done, and although there is some shoddy 3-D effects and the high frame rate can be a bit nauseating, the creatures look great and the magic looks splendid. I also liked the dwarves, and felt a bit of pity for them as they’re forced to be forever nomads. They’re not as easily accessible as the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings”; but they have their own unique charm. The performances by the principal dwarf characters, along with the other main characters, are all strong.

I was trying to think throughout the film what it’s about compared to “The Lord of the Rings”, which is about the journey of friendship and maturing in life. It seems as though “The Hobbit” is about discovery, and trust. The dwarves and Bilbo aren’t going to be best friends. They’re too far apart as people, and there are too many of them to become intimate. Bilbo is more independent than Frodo, and a bit more selfish. With this theme, however, I believe Jackson has enough material to span two more films.

The running time is a bit laborious; but at least the ending comes when you expect it to, and the film doesn’t run on too long in that regard. Besides that, I am a fan of fantasy films in general, and I always appreciate them being done well such as they are in this case. For this, I actually had a great time revisiting this world, and I see why Jackson has spent so much time and effort on this project. You can see he loves it, too, and that this is a labor of love rather than a love of cash. He allows his characters to talk to each other, to have fun with each other, and entertain each other as much as they entertain us. The soundtrack, again, is wonderful to listen to. This is a film that lives and breathes through the Middle Earth, and if you want to take the trip, you won’t be disappointed with it. I would say, however, if you weren’t a fan of “The Lord of the Rings”, don’t make the mistake of thinking this will change your mind. You may as well stay away from it.

There is a thought out there that says this trilogy is making us “pay” for the success of “The Lord of the Rings”. That may be true; but if you’re willing to pay the price, it’s well worth it.

My rating: :-)

Brave

June 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The original title for this movie was “The Bear and the Bow”. Separating a bit from usual Pixar form, this story would revolve around a female–a princess, to be exact. Much more in the vein of the Disney canon rather than the Pixar formula, this project was also helmed by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman. Chapman left production while the film was still being made over “creative differences”, and it was taken over by Mark Andrews, this being his first full length feature film with Pixar. The idea for the film is much in the vein of the traditional fairytale. This does have a bit of a Pixar twist, but not it’s as devastating as “Up”‘s and not as deeply involving as “Toy Story”. While the film isn’t all about fun, like “Monster’s Inc.”, it does have some kiddie elements and doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

The film’s heroine is Merida (voiced joyfully by Kelly Macdonald), who just wants to be one of the boys. Actually, she just doesn’t want to be a lady. She’s an archer and is quite skilled at the bow. Her mother (voiced by Emma Thompson with a somewhat questionable Scottish accent) doesn’t like that Merida is so unladylike. She doesn’t like that she goes off into the forest, climbing, shooting, riding. She believes Merida should be proper, and will soon be given a suitor by one of the other clans. Her father (entertainingly voiced by Billy Connolly) doesn’t really have much of a say in anything. He seems to like that Merida is boyish, but also wants to keep his wife happy. While Merida is a little girl, her father suffers a debilitating leg injury while fending off a bear after it tries to attack Merida. This bear will play a larger role later in the film.

Meanwhile, after Merida’s all grown up, she is forced to take the hand of one of the clans’ sons that competes in Merida’s favorite sport–archery. She decides to fend for her own hand, much to the chagrin of her mother, who doesn’t want to allow it. But it’s too late, and Merida and her mother have a large fight that leads Merida to follow some enigmatic wisps of the willow into a forest, all the way to a mysterious witch. Merida wants to change her fate–but for some reason thinks that the way to do that is to change her mother’s fate. I still don’t follow that logic; but the result is quite interesting.

The change in Merida’s mother’s fate causes the two to bond with each other in an effort to make everything go back to normal; meanwhile, Merida’s father still has to entertain the clans while she supposedly deliberates over which suitor she chooses. The adventure in the film focuses on Merida and her mother, and their quest to undo what Merida has done.

The film really becomes more of a coming of age story and a very affectionate tale of mother/daughter relationships. It actually makes the other stuff seem a little forced in comparison. For instance, the cute but underused little brothers Merida has. They’re a joy to watch, but they’re hardly used. Same with the witch, and her strange crow that seems to be able to speak. But instead of having them as the resident villains, they disappear without a trace soon after being introduced. The lack of a central villain is a bit of a risk considering the formula this film follows. However, I thought they were able to pull off the story with having Merida herself being to blame for her mother’s misfortune, and it being up to her to save her. The payoff is a bit too easy, but the film has its share of amusing pratfalls and screwballery that keeps you entertained.

Overall it is a nice little tale, and the ending is moving. But there seems to be two different directions this movie wants to go and never quite gets to either, and I think that can be blamed a bit on the changing of the guard midway through production. Sometimes you can tell when a project changes hands (like in “Hancock”). I even think the title change is rather curious. This film isn’t so much about bravery (in that, Merida isn’t a coward in the beginning and brave by the end), but it is about a bear, and it does involve a bow. Maybe “The Bear and the Bow” just doesn’t resonate as a film title. It’d have to be some kind of Little Golden Book classic to retain a title like that.

For a Pixar film, it’s a tad disappointing. We don’t have the typical lush characters and multiple storylines, and some of the plot elements are just all too familiar. However, I did like the main characters enough, and I loved the look of the film, and the music was wonderful. The 3-D left something to be desired; but it still gave a greater scope of the landscapes of the Scottish highlands than I would imagine you could pull off in 2-D.

The film works enough to recommend and be passable. Maybe if this stayed in Brenda Chapman’s hands all along, however, we could have had another Pixar classic on our hands.

My rating: :-)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

July 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I think it was around 2000 that I first took notice of a book called “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. I was working at amazon.com, and it was starting to gain popularity very quickly. It wasn’t long after that I saw more books with the name “Harry Potter”: “Chamber of Secrets” and “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. I thought, what’s the deal with these books? Well, the answer was…they had just become the most popular childrens’ books in circulation.

By the time the fourth book, “Goblet of Fire”, was being released, Harry Potter mania had taken full effect. In 2001, a film version was made of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. My sister was ecstatic, and even went so far as to work out something with a local theatre to promote a kid-friendly showing of the movie, complete with a Sorting Hat and people dressing up. I went to this showing to support what she was doing, and I had finally taken interest in the books after she repeatedly inflected the highest praise I’ve seen her give a book since she had read Roald Dahl.

I enjoyed the first book, enough to continue with the series. I liked what J.K. Rowling was doing: Harry was a very special child, but he was severely underappreciated and abused by his adopted parents (his own were killed). Harry learns that he’s a wizard, and he can perform magic and all sorts of special things that he couldn’t do in the “Muggle World” (muggle being the word for regular human, or an English person). I was taken by the journey and wound up reading the entire series, getting the concluding book the day it came out and finishing it in a week (a record for me).

Meanwhile, I went and saw the movies. And I was less than impressed with most of them. While some of them (“Chamber of Secrets”, “Order of the Phoenix”) were OK, only two really stood out for me as well done films: “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Half-Blood Prince”. Finally, these movies provided some much needed character development that made the books so entertaining and endearing.

For the final adaptation, the money-grubbing producers I suppose thought it’d be better to split the book into two movies. Yeah, I’m sure it was for artistic purposes. See my review on “Part 1” to see if they succeeded. I had my doubts that it would serve well as a two part…mini-series, and I think I was right to be so dubious.

In Part 2, we’re taken right into the action from the start. Why we needed a long-winded 2 and a half hour long “intro” (Part 1), I have no idea. Well, I do have an idea. But in any event, I saw it, and I was just anticipating this film to see if they could conclude it in a satisfying manner, the way the book did.

Obviously, there’s always going to be a disconnect between the film and book, in any adaptation. Certain things cannot be filmed, and sometimes things are left out. The “Harry Potter” series was a frequent culprit of this, especially in “Goblet of Fire” (which was my favorite of the book series). In this adaptation, from what I remember, they do get pretty much all of it right. But something was still missing. And I think because of all of the short comings of previous installments, this film was never going to deliver for me what I had been starved for the entire time–and that’s actually…caring for these characters.

I’ve never thought of Daniel Radcliffe as a good actor, nor Emma Watson. But they’re not entirely at fault for their cardboard cutout characters–the screenwriting in this series has been dreadful in many of the installments, including this one. The film’s pace never seems quite right, especially in Part 1. But there’s just no sense of urgency other than spewing out the dazzling special effects. That’s always seemed to be the driving force of these films.

If aesthetics were all you could base your opinion on in this series, I’d say it was a smashing success. But that’s not what drew me into the books, and that’s not what drew me into liking Harry Potter as a character, along with the other characters. I liked that Rowling gave them complexity and flaws. In the films, they just seem to go along with the story, not really offering any real emotion or showing pain or anguish. It all just seems like window dressing. And while it’s very nice to look at, it just doesn’t do anything for me.

And that’s basically what I thought of this conclusion. Everything is in its right place. But the puzzle itself doesn’t move me. And there was even a conclusion missing, I thought, between Harry and Draco–two characters who were heated rivals throughout the series. There was nothing I felt throughout this film; not even in the last scene, where we finally see Harry as an adult and without the scar. It struck me as interesting that in the film, he does not rub his forehead as he does in the last line of the book. That line was used to show that Harry had finally gotten through everything, and his scar “healed” so that he was pretty much…born anew. In the film he doesn’t touch it–almost signifying that he just never felt anything. I know that’s kind of an insult, and a bit short sighted.

I do not think the film series has been bad, necessarily. It just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. I was hoping for something more meaningful, such as the “Lord of the Rings” adaptations. In that, they cut out a lot from the books but they retained the most important thing–the relationships. Harry Potter’s relationships in the film series just serve as plot devices more than anything else. And all of the films worked on a visual level. But not on any other level. And what made me like Harry Potter so much was that there were so many levels.

But I am relieved that it’s finally over. My scar’s gone, too. And all is well.

My rating: :?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I’m not always sure how to review a Terry Gilliam film. These days, I think it’s safe to say it’s an achievement for him to even get one made anymore. After projects coming together, then falling apart (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, “Good Omens”), and with this one even being in question after the main star had died during production (do I even have to say his name?), the fact that this film is FINISHED can be given a thumb’s up, no? But this is the film critiquing business and I still have a job to do. Even though I’m not paid for it and nobody really reads these anyway. I still believe in myself. So there.

I’d have to start off by saying if you enjoy Gilliam’s earlier works, you will most likely enjoy this. If you’re not a fan, this won’t make you one. It keeps within the visual styles and narrative themes that he and his co-writer Charles McKeown have been making for decades now. In this film, the theme is self-indulgence and selfishness, and it’s presented in a typical, Gilliam way.

The “Imaginarium” is a world beyond a mirror that you can be taken to for a donation, as a traveling “circus” like stage moves about towns, seeking customers. Anton (played by Andrew Garfield) is the attractor. Valentina (Lily Cole) is the beautiful temptress to lure the men. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) merely sits on the stage in a zen-like way, waiting for those who want to come into his world.

It looks like a cheap parlor trick, but inside the Imaginarium is literally a fantasy world. In it, your wildest dreams come true. But there is a price. Actually, there is a choice. The devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), is waiting in the Imaginarium to seduce you as well. As the plot continues you learn that the two of them are battling for souls, as part of a bet that Parnassus made with him long ago.

But Parnassus is not made out to be God, or god-like. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures and simple desires–and he’s an alcoholic. He is accompanied by a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) who tries to keep him in line (“What would I do without you, Percy?” “Get a midget.”) but Parnassus is consumed with himself. He made a deal with the devil that if he doesn’t win, he loses his daughter to him. His daughter, nor Anton, know about this and Anton is in love with her.

The plot thickens when they encounter a hanging man that they bring back to life, who’s revealed as Tony (Heath Ledger, among others). They’re not sure where he’s come from but he bears strange markings on his head, and he’s dressed in a suit. Tony, meanwhile, cannot remember anything, not even his name. Parnassus gets a few tidbits from Mr. Nick (though they’re “enemies”, the two have a relationship) and Parnassus convinces Tony who he is and what he was doing (he was hosting a charity event). But Mr. Nick swears that Tony is “not his”, nor sent by him. Tony feels obligated to pay Parnassus back, so he joins their traveling show and woos women into coming into the mirror. This allows Parnassus to possibly win the bet and get his daughter back. He needs 5 souls.

But problems arise once Tony is sucked into the world himself. He transforms, becomes other manifestations of himself. He grows increasingly selfish about it, and is revealed to be somewhat of a bad person. It is in this world that brings other performances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell into the film, as Tony. Each one delivered is a good one, and in some way resemble Ledger’s Tony. This is what saved the film. It would not have been finished without this happening. However, it makes perfect sense in the narrative for it to happen regardless. In fact it strengthens the theme because of how much Tony “changes”.

While I enjoyed the theme and the look of the film, it was actually the performances that I found the strongest element of it. Andrew Garfield is perfect as Anton; Waits is a pure delight to watch, and Ledger & Co. are all entertaining, especially Jude Law.

The film bears striking resemblances to earlier Gilliam works as well. I’m not sure if I’d call it a weakness, but it certainly doesn’t possess the uniqueness that some of his older work has. For instance, the “street” scenes with Parnassus are straight out of “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys”. The character of Tony is extremely reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines. Parnassus himself reminds me of Baron Munchausen. Some of the disjointed and disorganized dialog and presentations in the Imaginarium are straight out of “Brazil”.

All of that being said, however, the film is fun to watch and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its climax and ending are very satisfactory, and I left with a smile on my face.

I’m sure this is not the last film we see from Gilliam. But I hope his next venture isn’t as much of a hassle. I won’t hold my breath, though.

My rating: :-)