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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit (2012): Written by Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro.  Directed by Peter Jackson.  Starring:  Martin Freeman, Ian Mckellan, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt. Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, and Cate Blanchett.  Rated PG-13 for:  Heavy fantasy action, Gollum.  Running Time:   169 Minutes.  Based on The Hobbit (and other assorted writings) by J.R.R. Tolkein. 

Rating: 3/4 Stars

It’s finally here.  9 years after Peter Jackson concluded one of the most powerful and dominating film trilogies of all time, we’re back in Middle Earth for a new trilogy, this one centered around (but not solely based on) the master storyteller’s LOTR prequel, The Hobbit.  And I honestly could not be any happier.  The entire LOTR universe is one of unique imagination, creativity, and depth, whose stories will certainly end up being among the most enduring of the past century.  The fact that Peter Jackson managed to pull off filming such works on his first go around is little short of miraculous, so of course, the expectations for the first of his new Middle Earth trilogy were on par with those surrounding "The Avengers" and "Dark Knight Rises".  And, in my opinion, "The Hobbit" matches and exceeds expectations with aplomb.  "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a wonderful, incredibly fun film, and offers nothing but good vibes for the next two Hobbit movies. 

                Taking place 60 years before the events of the Fellowship & Co., "An Unexpected Journey" (at least at first) begins the tale of how Bilbo Baggins, once as doddering, stodgy, and inflexible as any other hobbit, is coaxed by Gandalf into joining a party of dwarves on a quest to vanquish the dragon Smaug, during the course of which (completely unnecessary spoiler alert) he acquires the fabled One Ring, which will of course later set in motion the events of the LOTR trilogy.  The dwarves, we learn via several flashbacks, were driven from their kingdom by the evil dragon Smaug, who coveted their extensive hoards of gold, leaving them abandoned and homeless.  Now their prince, Thorin, and his motley crew (extra emphasis on motley) of ragtag dwarves (extra emphasis on ragtag), along with Gandalf, have hatched a plan to sneak back into the mountain and retake their kingdom-under-the-mountain, all the while being pursued by orcs led by an old foe of Thorin’s family. 

                While the dwarf-quest aspects of the film stay pretty close to the book from what I can remember (a nighttime encounter with three Stooge-esque trolls, a visit to Elrond at Rivendell, their escapades under the mountain), Jackson fairly quickly breaks away from The Hobbit’s traditional storyline to delve into aspects of Middle Earth’s history only hinted at in The Hobbit and LOTR, specifically the growing power of a being called the “Necromancer” (who may or may not be Sauron, circa his pre-flaming-reptile-eye days), and the threat both he and Smaug pose to Middle Earth.  To flesh out this addendum to the plot, we get a variety of additional cameos and bit roles (including an expanded role for Radagast the Brown, the only other wizard to appear in the LOTR books) to set the stage for what could potentially be the focus of the third Hobbit film, currently titled "There And Back Again". 

                As excited as I am about the idea of bringing the Necromancer to film, and possibly introducing other characters not seen in Jackson’s previous LOTR films, the constant asides could end up pulling focus and importance away from the journey of the dwarves to the Lonely Mountain.  The Hobbit is a fairly tight, contained story, with a far lighter and more whimsical tone than the serious, deep, symbolism-laden Meisterwerk that is LOTR.  And while Jackson does an excellent job of bringing the more silly, childish aspects of The Hobbit to the screen, it can sometimes seem dwarved (pun intended) compared to the bigger threats and ideas hinted at by Gandalf, Elrond, and Radagast. 

                Jackson also attempts to make the story feel bigger by expanding the few action bits of the book into huge, fighting-laden set pieces.  While certainly fun to watch, an unfortunate side-effect of both the parallel storylines and the expanded action is that Bilbo is often quite literally forgotten, disappearing completely from the film for big chunks of time, whereas the book is written exclusively from his point of view. 

                On the whole, though, I am not yet bothered by this, since much of the time away from Bilbo is well-spent introducing the audience to the additional stories being brought into play, and help to set the stage nicely for the next two films.  I do, however, feel that it detracts from this first film only because the parts focusing on Bilbo are, in my opinion, the movie’s best.  The opening scene establishing the characters of the dwarves (as they completely pillage Bilbo’s house of all food) is as raucous and comical as anything else in the movie, and Bilbo’s attempts to maneuver around the three aforementioned trolls are both gripping and hilarious.  The scene that makes the movie for me is the confrontation between Bilbo inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo finds the One Ring, and has to play a game of riddles with Gollum in order to survive and find the way out.  Andy Serkis’ Gollum is as spellbindingly disgusting and pathetic as ever, with few visual changes from his design in the original trilogy.  Seriously, when is that man going to get his Lifetime Achievement Award from the MPAA? 

                Like I said though, Bilbo’s vanishing acts aren’t that big a deal, since the time away from our little hobbit are put to good use.  What I did find problematic was the amount of time devoted to the Pale Orc, a huge albino determined to hunt down and kill Thorin.  While certainly a good plot point (and probably an eventual leader in the Battle of Five Armies, awaiting us down the road), he falls flat as far as being a villain is concerned, simply because he’s….well….boring.  He’s big, he’s pale, he wants to kill dwarves.  And that’s about it, really.  And he constantly reiterates his desire to kill anything short and bearded in monotone exposition, gazing into the nether through wide, dead eyes, and pulling a Christian Bale by never fully closing his mouth.  There were several times I almost thought he’d fallen asleep, or was having a quiet seizure between monologues.  Honestly, I found the Urukai leaders of "Fellowship" and "Two Towers" more engaging that Whitey the Warg-Whipper, and they barely opened their mouths. 

                It’s a minor complaint though, as the rest of the film is incredibly good, both story-wise and effects-wise.  I can say without hesitation that I am a fan of the new 48-FPS cameras used for the movie.  Jackson is one of the few directors who can actually put 3D to good use and make it enhance the film, rather just throw it in as a superfluous money grab (although I’m sure he wants money too- but as long he delivers a great story, I am willing to pay).  From the first scene onward, the sheer beauty of the film had me gaping, although thankfully there is genuine depth to back up the pretty visuals this time around.

                All in all,"An Unexpected Journey" is really, really good, and well-worth seeing.  Despite its flaws, it is easily one of my favorite films of the year, and bodes well for the next two movies.  If it’s available in your theater, spend the extra money to see the HFR in 3D.  Few other films that I’ve seen put the technology to such good use.  Another Middle Earth adventure has begun everyone!  Be very excited. 

-Judge Richard

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Skyfall

Skyfall (2012): Written by Neal Pervis, Robert Wade, and John Logan.  Directed by Sam Mendes.  Starring:  Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralpf Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Judi Dench, and Wolf Blitzer.  Rated PG-13 for: violence, language, drug use, and Bardem’s patent creepiness.  Running Time: 143 minutes.  Based on the graphic novel series by Yvorne Mollywobbles. 

Rating:  2.5/4 stars

    I am not, as the saying goes, a “Bond fan”, or a “Bondian," as it were (Bondonite?  Bonder?).  Nothing personal, I just don’t like the guy.  The whole Cold-War mentality that initially inspired much of his character ceased to be relevant while I was still in diapers, and on top of that, I think both he and the films as a whole are horrid to women (though I am told that that has varied from one incarnation to the other).  So as you can imagine, while drawing up my list of films to see this year, the latest Bond-venture “Skyfall” ranked slightly above the last Twilight movie on the list of films I simply couldn’t be bothered about.  However!  Never let it be said that I am not willing to give franchises second chances!  After repeated assurances that this one was, indeed, quite good (and some time spent silencing the voices in my head), I thought, “Why not,” and sat down to give Skyfall a chance to sell me on the latest Bond-jovi romp. 

    And after seeing it, have I been converted?  Was Skyfall so good that it completely whitewashed my earlier hesitations towards the franchise, and turn me into a......”fan?” 


    Well, was it a solid, entertaining action film with enough good bit roles to make it a fun watch?  Yes, very much so. 

    We open with (what else) an extended chase across the rooftops of Istanbul (literally).  Bond, aided by Calypso from Pirates III (no, I can’t bring myself to call her by her real name), tries to retake a chip containing the ID’s of every single undercover British agent in the world from...someone wielding a gun and shooting at Bond.  Making him evil.  Why MI-6 thought it was a good idea to amass such sensitive information in a single item is never answered.  Budget cuts, perhaps. 

    Anyway, during the whole scene, it is established that Bond is still tough as nails, but maybe starting to slow with age, Calypso is eager but possibly not meant for field service, and M (the head of MI-6, played by Judi Dench) is a frigidly cold person to work for.  Seriously, the main arcs of the film revolve primarily around how brutally and unflinchingly she will do whatever she personally deems necessary to carry out MI-6’s objectives, and also about how she (pretty much) never bothers to apologize, even when the result is devastating for people she clearly cares about. 

    This is actually a nice atmospheric change for the Bond franchise, openly acknowledging the gray moral middle-ground that all intelligence agencies are inevitably forced to occupy.  And, rather than absolving its characters of their sins, they are forced to confront them in painful ways, especially Dench.  Furthermore, Bond himself is no longer the untouchable, bullet-proof one man machine of old, getting shot twice in the very first scene (much to my joy).  The entire first act of the movie is essentially a Dark Knight Rises-esque “Bond is way out of shape and has to get back in the game” montage, one that I wished had gotten a little more attention than it ultimately received.  Nonetheless, I was impressed by how willingly the film aged Bond.  Craig is no longer as dapper as he used to be, his face deeply lined and looking like he’s missed an awful lot of sleep.  Although he ends up being as un-killable as ever, he is not spared some moments of frustration or humiliation.  My favorite scene in the entire film is when Albert Finney calls him a “little shit” his face. 

    The murkier tone of the film is further enhanced by the presence of the villain, Javier Bardem, proving once more that few actors can be as determinedly creepy as he can.  His character, rather than being a simple power/money-hungry baron or Communist spy or whatever, is instead a former MI-6 agent, describing himself as essentially an earlier James Bond, but even better.  However, hurt (in more ways than one) by Dench, and bitterly disillusioned, he hatches an elaborate but not overly excessive plot meant simply to personally injure Dench as much as he can. 

    As much as I enjoyed the individual performances of Craig, Dench, Fiennes, and Whishaw as the various members of MI-6, Bardem is easily the film’s defining presence.  His tortured and insane character bears plenty of shades of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but is enough of his own creation to avoid being a complete copy/paste.  The moment he first enters the film (which is actually pretty late), I ceased to wonder why people are already declaring him one of the best Bond villains of all time.  If nothing else moves you to see this film, seeing Javier Bardem do what he does best- namely, scaring the bejeezers out of you- is reason enough to check this one out. 

    So, on the whole, I heartily enjoyed Skyfall, my earlier misgivings aside.  It never pushes its moral ambiguity to the depths that I tend to prefer, and Bond is ultimately far less interesting than Bardem, but it already takes some fairly big steps away from many of the earlier Bond films.  For me, that’s an improvement, and I hope future films in the series continue that trend.  I’ve also warmed to Craig as Bond.  I think it’s the eyes.  Craig’s icy-blue eyes, so distant and calculating, strike me as perfect for a character like Bond.  And while I was initially indifferent when I heard Adele’s cover for the movie, it actually fits together quite well with the grim, murky opening credits, and the song has only grown on me since.  And who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, I won't dismiss the next Bond flick so readily.  

-Judge Richard

Friday, December 14, 2012

Golden Globe Nominations: My Reactions AND My Votes

Well kids, it’s that time of year again.  Decorations are going up, presents are being wrapped, credit card limits are spiking.  And nominations for the biggest award ceremonies in film are starting to roll out like so many moldy, blood-red carpets.  Although the total number of festivals, organizations, guilds, and cities that have their own awards each year are beyond count, the two most “prestigious” ones (or at least the most well-known) are, obviously, the Golden Globes (for both movies and TV) and the Academy Awards, or Oscars (just for movies). 

    Now, it’s always important to remember at this time of year that, of course, there is no objectively “best” film, or score, or performance, or art direction, or makeup, etc. etc.  All these awards are purely subjective opinions of the people who vote for them (which are usually very small, VERY exclusive groups), so there is never any requirement to accept any of the awards these people give out as valid. 

    However, I would be lying if I said that I did not enjoy Awards season.  Not because I think the Academy and the Foreign Press Association are more “objective” than other film organizations (they aren’t) or because I agree with all of their choices (I don’t), but because awards season gives us all an excuse to take a pause and remember the truly great films of the year gone by, whether they get their proper due or not, and why.  If nothing else, the Golden Globes and Oscars are a great starting point for good discussion about what makes a “great” film, or the “best” film.  And for that, I appreciate what these people do, even if it sometimes sets my teeth on edge. 

    With that, on to the Golden Globes, whose nominees were announced earlier this week (the actual ceremony will take place on January 13).  A full breakdown of the categories and nominations can be found here

    So who are the major players this year, and who will end up getting snubbed?  The nominations are actually spread out pretty well, which the FPA is known for.  Lincoln, predictably (and deservedly) has the lead with 7 nominations (and will definitely win at least a couple).  Argo and Django Unchained (neither of which I have seen nor will see by next month) are up for 5 apiece, and Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook are up in 4 separate categories.  Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, Life of Pi, and Moonrise Kingdom got a few nods as well. 

    I am quite pleased with the array of films present on the list, but, as always, there are plenty of “forgotten” films to go around, some predictable, others understandable (but no less frustrating).  The Master did not get nominated for Best Drama, Cabin In The Woods (still my personal #3 for the year) was ignored for Best Comedy, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is nowhere to be seen.  The two that bother me the most, however, is the complete absence of both Cloud Atlas and The Secret World of ArriettyCloud Atlas was out there enough that I can understand the FPA overlooking it, but I sincerely hope the Academy rectifies that with their nomination list (which comes out next month, I am told).  And as for Arrietty, although I’m not convinced it’s the BEST animated film of the year, I do take umbrage with the fact that both it and Paranorman were passed over for Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie

    My own personal frustrations nonetheless, this is a pretty solid lineup of movies, and I am excited to see how things play out next year.  It’s a shame Ricky Gervais will not be 4-peating his brilliant performances of the last 3 years as host, but Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are a damn good alternative. 

    I’ve always found it to be particularly interesting to see how the FPA and the Academy diverge with who they give out accolades to.  There is plenty of overlap with who gets what, but every now and then they will split on the “major” awards.  Cameron’s Avatar took both Best Director and Best Drama in 2009, whereas the Oscars for both of those categories went to its big rival, The Hurt Locker.  The very next year, The Social Network took those same awards at the Globe, whereas the more straight-laced, traditional King’s Speech took the Academy Awards for both.  With the bevy of excellent films to choose from, along with the high praise being garnered by both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, it should be another interesting year for both the FPA and the Academy. 

    To conclude this brief reflection, I present to you my personal ballot for the Golden Globes, who I would vote for were I a member of the FPA (note- I’m only voting for categories where I’ve seen enough of the films to be able to express a reasonable opinion).  Enjoy:

 Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television:
Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey” Come on.  Maggie Smith.  Please. 

Best Animated Feature:
“Wreck-It-Ralph”- I’d much rather vote for Arrietty, but, again, I don’t have that choice.  Brave was just a bit too hectic to get my vote.   

Best Original Score:
John Williams, “Lincoln”- It’s not his “biggest” soundtrack, but its subtleties compliment Spielberg’s direction perfectly, as always. 

Best Screenplay:
Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Best Supporting Actor:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, “The Master” AND Sally Field, “Lincoln”- I really don’t want to pick between these two.  Can’t we just call it a draw? 

Best Actor, Drama:
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”- Sorry Joaquin.  I really am. 

Best Actress, Drama:
Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Best Director:
Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy:
“Moonrise Kingdom”

Best Picture, Drama:
“Lincoln”- QUALIFIER:  Pending my viewing of Zero Dark Thirty, this may change by the time the Oscars role around. 

Happy voting! 

-Judge Richard

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi (2012):  Written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee.  Starring:  Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall.  Rated PG For:  Emotional content, occasional scary images.  Running Time:  127 Minutes.  Based on the novel by Yann Martel. 

Rating:  3/4 stars

    Life of Pi has been billed in its trailers (and by many who’ve reviewed it) as the next Avatar (Blue-Cat Avatar, not the REAL Avatar), mostly because its focus is on building a story out of stunning and groundbreaking visuals.  And, although I did not see it in 3D, the opening credits alone were enough to confirm for me the assurances of others that it is the first film since the said Cameron epic where the 3D actually enhances the film, rather than detracting from it.  Unfortunately, stunning special effects and an effective art design are not the only things Ang Lee’s latest project shares with Cameron’s last film. 

    We open up with a jump forward to after the main events of the film have ended.  A middle-aged Pi begins to tell his life story to a struggling writer, which he has heard will convince him of God’s existence.  Pi, we learn, is really named Piscine, which he changed early in life due to the subsequent “pissing” jokes he got from his fellow students.  His father was an entrepreneur who opened up a public zoo.  Both he and Pi’s mother consider themselves “new” Indians, concerned more with modern logic and reason and not traditional religion.  Pi does not think that way, however, and in his youth he eventually discovers (and adopts) Christianity and Islam in addition to his Hindu upbringing.  His father responds, disdainfully, that “a man who believes in everything believes in nothing.” 

    Eventually, for.....some reason or another, Pi’s father decides that the family must leave India and go to the United States, bringing the animals with them to sell for the money to start a new life.  However, disaster strikes en route, and the entire ship (along with all the passengers) sink into the deepest trench in the ocean.  Pi, along with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and a tiger, is the lone survivor, left drifting along on a stocked lifeboat.  Within a short span of time, the tiger has killed and eaten the other animals, leaving Pi to figure out how to survive both abandonment at sea AND the danger of a hungry, Bengal tiger. 

    This is easily the strongest part of the film, and thankfully it takes up the bulk of the running time.  It’s also where the art direction and visual effects budget is on full display.  Instead of one monotonous shot after another of waves rising and falling, Pi blends the ocean and sky together, so that it’s often impossible to tell where the earth ends and the heavens begin- the boat seems to simply float along in a whole other world from our own.  At night, with untold numbers of stars dotting the sky, the boat is surrounded by fluorescent fish and algae, bathing everything in a blue-green glow.  Pi never lacks for something to look at, and I honestly found the film to be visually more immersive and creative than Avatar

    The survival-at-sea tale is fairly well-done as well.  Unlike in many other man-and-beast movies, the tiger is never personified, or made out to be human in temperament.  The tiger enters and leaves the film as a wild animal, able to accept Pi as a fellow creature of survival, but never ceasing to be a constant danger to Pi’s existence. 

    For all of its clear strengths though, Pi, like Cameron’s Avatar, is held back from being a truly great film by relatively superficial characters and an overall plot that, in the end, fails to achieve real emotional resonance.  Aside from Pi, none of the other characters have more than a few scenes at the beginning and end of the film, leaving little room to offer them real depth.  And that would be fine if Pi were a strong central character.  And yet, even he never really comes across as a flesh-and-blood person.  After comparing the scenes of him as a child, young adult, and middle-aged man, there is little discernible difference between the three.  He never seems to change, even after living on a boat with a tiger for months on end.  Halfway through the film, he states that hunger can make one question everything, but we never see him go through any sort of sustained spiritual crisis.  His beliefs at the end of his voyage are exactly the same as they were at the beginning.  On top of that, the fact that the film opens up with Pi as a grown man removes pretty much all sense of real tension or danger from the otherwise solid survival story, because, no matter what, we know he’s going to pull through. 

    In addition, Pi (again, like Avatar) also suffers from a pronounced lack of subtlety.  The art direction on display is clearly strong enough for the movie to be able to show and not tell.  Even here, though, where the film is at its best, it still feels the need to over-explain everything.  Case in point: in one scene, something happens that (without spoiling it) is a huge blow to Pi’s efforts to survive, and visually so.  However, as the scene plays out before the our eyes, Pi’s voice cuts through the immense silence, to let us know that, yes, that was, in fact, a VERY bad thing that just happened.  I didn’t find Pi’s constant monologueing to be as much of an irritant as others have (the montage of him reading a survival manual is, I think, one of the film’s better parts), but it occasionally borders on the unnecessary or superfluous. 

    There is a slew of interesting ideas and designs playing out in the film, but few of them are ever explored in depth.  Pi’s assertion that Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism need not be mutually exclusive is a great concept (one that I happen to agree with), but after a passing statement that they can coexist, the idea was never again addressed or explored, much to my disappointment.  There is an addendum to the tale at one point (not saying when) that offers a possible alternative interpretation of the whole movie as an interesting allegory for human nature, but, again, it’s done so fast and so late that it never has the time or space to develop. 

    I realize this review may come across as a bit harsh, which is unfortunate, because I really did like and enjoy Life of Pi.  I disagree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the year’s best, but it’s creative, beautiful, and inventive, and has plenty of interesting things to say, even if it doesn’t quite say them the way I personally would.  My quips with the story and narrative structure only started to surface after I’d left the theater and the spectacular visuals started to fade from my eyes.  If you are up for a different kind of film, one that, even if you don’t like it, will at least leave you with something to chew on, you can do a lot worse than Life of Pi

-Judge Richard