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: :-)

Cloud Atlas

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

“What is an ocean? But millions of droplets.” That line, spoken by one of the protagonists in the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas”, pretty much sums up the idea of the film in general. It also illustrates how empty headed this nearly 3 hour pseudointellectual exercise is.

It’s hard to really lay out the plot of this film, because it’s one of those movies that strings together a bunch of little vignettes to try to tell one singular narrative. In this case, your choices lead to consequences, which lead to legacies. That’s what the film is about, and it strains it until it becomes completely meaningless.

It takes a few different main characters, some played by the same actors, and tries to tell a story throughout time about people who all have choices to make. Their choices will change the futures of some of the characters, just like in real life, you know? The most interesting stories involve a journalist (played by the always appealing Halle Berry) uncovering a malicious nuclear plot that could destroy mankind, set in the 70’s; and a bisexual pianist who has been chosen by one of the greatest composers to flesh out his last masterpiece before he dies. The pianist, Robert Frobisher (played by Doona Bae), has to leave his lover, Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy in one of the film’s only Oscar calibur roles), and in doing so, compromises his only true love for the love of himself and musical self-glory. This story is probably the most keen in bringing out what the film is about.

The film’s at its weakest and most groan inducing when it is in the future, where 2 of the stories are set. One looks straight out of “The Matrix”, in a place called Neo-Seoul, where servants are produced and re-produced to supplement the regular population. The other takes place deeper into the future, something that looks straight out of “The Time Machine”, where a tribal people led by Zachry (Tom Hanks) are ruled by a god that was actually one of the replicants from Neo-Seoul hundreds of years ago. The Neo-Seoul future is just preposterous and retread. But it’s at least somewhat entertaining. The tribal future is just downright silly, and there’s an annoying “demon” that honestly looks like Leprechaun popping up whenever the hero Zachry has a moral dilemma.

There are other plots involving a slave stowaway on a ship in the 1800’s, and a publisher who becomes the victim of his brother’s revenge after a debt is needed to pay off gangsters. The former is a bit stiff, and the latter is amusing but sometimes over the top in its attempt at humor. All of the stories, as I said, reuse the same actors. I would say that by the 6th incarnation of Tom Hanks, you’ll be rolling your eyes. There’s one version of Hugo Weaving that is supposed to be funny, I guess, but it really just comes off as ludicrous and stupid. And it’s somewhat disjointed in its attempt to be humorous because the rest of the film is supposed to be taken so seriously.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it’s ambitious. In the tradition of similar films that try and use different time periods to beat you over the head with a simple theme such as “Being Human” and “The Fountain”, “Cloud Atlas” tries too hard to be important, and doesn’t try hard enough to be engaging. The characters are never given enough screen time to be anything more than a guessing game of “OK which actor is this?” Behind the makeup (some of which is awful), it is hard to tell at times. And I’m sorry, but as much as Tom Hanks can be a fine actor–here it’s like he’s trying to be that fun uncle at a birthday party to trick the kids into thinking he’s 8 different people. But he is always Tom Hanks.

This film is based on a book, and I can imagine the book is not this abrasively eager. It could be equally ambitious; but a book can get away with that, because I’d imagine the characters are more fleshed out in the book. A film is constantly moving; you can’t sit there and ponder something when the film changes to something else. And this film doesn’t let up for a second with its story. You go from the middle of a story to the next, with no breather. It’s literally flipping back and forth, with its own agenda, and it’s up to you to keep up.

There are good performances by Jim Sturgess and the man who plays a slave, David Gyasi; and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant have some funny moments in their different roles. But as I said, you become so aware of who the actor is far more than who the character is, and that takes the emotional impact the film is going for right out of you. There are perhaps 2 moments where I “felt” the film. One of those involved the characters of Sixsmith and Frobisher. There’s a very nice moment where Frobisher has lured Sixsmith into thinking they’ll meet, and they never do. There is a wonderful subtle beauty to that scene, that moment, and that idea.

But the film never achieves take off with its ideas. Instead it uses narration to drum between the ears about its supposed thoughtfulness on life, the universe, and everything. And that ocean of droplets becomes nothing more than a body of water that can easily be flushed down a toilet, and never thought about again.

My rating: :?

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I remember back in the summer of 1990, I was going to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the second time in the theatre, when I spotted a really cool looking poster for an upcoming movie. All it was was a shield, red white and blue. I recognized it immediately. It was Captain America.

In my youth, there was nary a superhero film (besides the “Superman” sequels) until 1989’s “Batman”, so I was really excited. I thought, well if there’s going to be a movie for Captain America, then maybe they’ll make a Spider-Man movie, too!

Well, that poster was the last I heard of “Captain America”, the movie. It was only about a decade later when I read that the movie was such a bomb, it wasn’t even really released at all. Back in those days, Hollywood wasn’t about to spend money to churn out superhero movies the way they do now, like a fast food combo meal.

And so, my childhood was left with no “Captain America” movie. And now, into my thirties, I realize by seeing this 2011 film, that I wish I could go back to my childhood and take this film with me. If I were 11 years old again, I probably would have enjoyed the film thoroughly.

Instead, I was absolutely thoroughly bored with this film. Every simple-minded gag and plot device is utilized here. It’s just your average Rah-Rah Go America style action flick, and the lack of depth to the characters and plot would’ve been ignored had I been a kid, simply amazed and swept off my feet by the dazzling special effects. Instead, nothing worked for me.

The film is, like every other comic book movie, an origin story. And like most Marvel comic book heroes, this one is an underdeveloped kid who suddenly gets massive powers. He goes from being the Little Engine That Could to the Coors Light Train, blasting through enemies (who look like a cross between S&M enthusiasts and the Cobra Command) at a breakneck pace. He has a love interest, played dutifully by the amazingly beautiful Hayley Atwell, and he has a boss, played amusingly by Tommy Lee Jones. The only real waste of a good character actor is Hugo Weaving, who plays the main villain known as the Red Skull. He’s so paper thin and uninteresting, it’s really a shame. Captain America himself is played actually pretty well by Chris Evans, who has already had a comic book character attached to his name in his career. That’s another thing that’s strange to me: time was, a comic book hero that became a movie also became the identity of the actor. Christopher Reeve was Superman. That was it. But now, you’ve got actors who are appearing in several comic book movies as separate heroes. I wonder if kids know the difference, or care.

What does it matter anyway? We’re so inundated with comic book movies, they all start to look the same. I enjoyed “Thor” for what it was, and it was at least a bit different. But this movie is just your average, garden variety, run of the mill superhero movie; but it lacks heart and eagerness to please. It’s almost as if just because it’s Red, White, and Blue, we should cheer. It’s the Flag Waving Comic Book Hero Movie.

Well, I’m sure that will appeal to certain audiences. Count me out.

My rating: :(

The Wolf Man

February 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Out of all the movie monsters we’ve been subjected to throughout the history of Hollywood, I still think the wolf man is one of the most haunting and frightening, and engaging. There’s something mysterious and horrifying about a wolf man for some reason. Lon Chaney, Jr. perfected the look and feel of what a wolf man would have to suffer and live through back in the 1941 film. In this day and age, with the advent of CGI, the question would be: can you have a synthetic wolf man FEEL real?

I think back to the two “Hulk” movies that were made in the past decade. It’s practically the same story, and both borrow from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” anyway. The problem with both movies, though less of a problem in the latter film, was that the Hulk wasn’t played by a person. It was a CGI construction. While the second film presented a more realistic and poignant version of the Hulk, you could still tell it was computer animation, and not a person (“Avatar” suffered from this flaw, as well). I was afraid that this film would present the same issue.

However, the only time that the wolf man is all CGI is when he’s bounding around on all fours, which does look unrealistic. But sometimes you do have to ask yourself: am I really of the knowledge of how fast a wolf man can travel? Do I know any wolf men? Am I a wolf man?

CGI is also used during the transformation scenes–but they look great. I still think that the best transformation scene of any werewolf film occurred in “An American Werewolf in London”, but this one passes as well.

As for the story, it’s fairly run of the mill. It borrows a bit of the original story from the 1941 film, but there’s one little twist that’s different. You see it coming a mile away, though, so it’s not really all that effective. It involves a man, Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro) who returns to London after learning of his brother’s death (whom he only knew as a child) and meets his beautiful fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt). Lawrence visits his father (Anthony Hopkins) who still lives in the castle that he raised the boys in. As the story progresses, details about his brother’s death (and his mother’s years prior) start to unfold and Lawrence’s life becomes ultimately more complicated when he is bitten by a werewolf one evening.

The performances by all four leads – Del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt, and Hugo Weaving as an inspector from Scotland Yard, are all top class. Hopkins just revels in seeing his son suffer, and Del Toro’s expression never strays from anguish and despair.

This film bounced around release dates for a while, and was pushed back several times. Typically this means the movie will be rubbish. But in this case, I still think it’s a solid film even if the character development is lacking and the relationship between Gwen and Lawrence is contrived (they share one moment skipping rocks and suddenly they’re in love)–the film still works. And the wolf man design is pretty terrifying. It’s loyal to the original design, and doesn’t look cartoonish.

It’s interesting that it was released on Valentine’s Day weekend. In a strange way, I guess you could call this a romantic movie.

Werewolves can be sexy too, no? Why do vampires get all the fun?

My rating: :-)