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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014): Written Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, directed by Peter Jackson.  Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom.  Running Time: 144 minutes.  Based on The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. 

Rating: 3/4 

            Well folks, this is it.  Two massive trilogies, each filmed back-to-back-to-back, costing a collective $1 billion to produce and generating over $5 billion and counting in box office revenue (both very rough estimates), 36 Oscar nominations and 17 wins (with at least few more nominations probably on the way), and it all comes down to this; the third installment of Peter Jackson’s still-hotly-debated trilogy of The Hobbit.  Was it all worth it, in the end?  Has the big-screen re-imagining of Middle Earth been enhanced or tarnished by several hours’ worth of extrapolation and narrative add-ons stuffed in by Jackson and his team?  How damaging of a miscalculation was it on the studio’s part to force Tauriel, easily the best invented character in all 6 movies (and I will fight you on that one), into an obviously shoehorned-in love triangle?  In the end, which wins out, the soaring high points, or the tiresome low ones? 

            For me, it’s the high points that come out on top.  I have loved too many moments and felt that sweet sting of nostalgia too often over the past 3 years to regret having seen each film multiple times in theaters.  Middle Earth is one of the greatest imaginative worlds of the past century, a land that has been filled with a history that so perfectly captures the indescribable sensation of something beautiful and essential beginning, reaching its time, and then leaving.  There is a power in the narratives Tolkien has crafted that can shine through any interpretation, no matter how faulty.  The Hobbit movies are not perfect- though truly, nothing is- but they are earnest endeavors, and I feel confident in saying that they will surely stand the test of time.  The Battle of the Five Armies effectively and movingly wraps up what will likely be our last filmed adventure in Middle Earth, and although I can certainly nitpick these films with the best of them, I am sad indeed to see them go. 

            It’s interesting to note that, for all the gripes that have been made regarding the wisdom of turning this slim volume into a trilogy and the issues of padded length that wore down the first two films somewhat, The Battle of Five Armies is actually the best-paced, quickest, and most tightly-written of the three films.  After a brief opening sequence showing Smaug’s enraged attack on Laketown and his subsequent death at the hands of Luke Evans’ Bard, the film settles down to its main focus- putting the pieces in place for, and then jumping gleefully into, the final, massive battle for control of the mountain between the human survivors of Laketown, the army of Elves under King Thranduil that arrives soon after the attack, Thorin, Bilblo, & co., the forces of Thorin’s cousin Dain, and a massive army of goblins and orcs, led by the Great White Albino himself, “Mad Dog” Azog. 

            Although the massive sequence of the battle never reaches the emotional heights of the Battle of Gondor in Return of the King, it is perhaps the most visually comprehensible battle out of all 6 movies, with the establishing shots well-utilized to show the tactics, maneuvers, and locations of each side of the battle.  Jackson stays quite true to his word of not straying for more than a minute or so from any of the main characters, but neither does the whole affair devolve into an incomprehensible brawl, for which I am immensely grateful.  And while it stretches the bounds of the battle’s context within the book, it builds up to an excellent climax on top of a frozen waterfall, a final confrontation between Thorin and Azog.  Fellow lovers of the book know what ultimately transpires here, but there is a nice touch that Jackson adds- the fate of one of the last sword fights rests on a conscious, sacrificial decision by one of the heroes.  Like many of the film’s best moments, it is small, but not unnoticed, one of a few gestures of genuine grace in a film filled with a great deal of admittedly unneeded noise. 

            Speaking of sacrifice, if there is one thing that kills many of the emotional vibes the movie succeeds in building up, it is the tragic treatment of Tauriel.  As I said above, Tauriel is among the best additions Jackson makes to the books, a tough-as-nails female fighter able to go toe-to-toe with Legolas, who in this movie reaches even higher levels of impossible awesome.  She was able to shine despite being the focus of an awful love triangle in the last movie, but sadly, the romance aspect in this one overwhelms everything else she is given to do, and the conclusion of her character arc is easily the weakest aspect of the otherwise very solid wrap-up at the end.  Evangeline Lilly did great work with what she was given, and deserved better.  

            As far as the wrap-up itself goes, no, it is not as drawn-out as the end of Return of the King, but it does almost feel a bit too cut back, as if Jackson was in a hurry to wrap things up, which is a shame, because as excellent as many moments as it has, including Bilbo’s reaction to the death of one character, his goodbye to the dwarves, and a perfect final scene back at Bag End, I could have used a bit more gravitas, or a few more quiet moments to add to the emotional weight.  Which is a shame, because this film actually succeeds in having far more and far better character moments than the last one, especially with Bilbo and Thorin.  Richard Armitage has really made Thorin his own character.  Overcome at the beginning of this by greed for the horde they have seized in the mountain, Thorin finally confronts his own demons in one of the series’ finest scenes, staring down at the golden floor created at the end of The Desolation of Smaug and imagining himself being swallowed whole in its shimmering depths.  It very nearly excused the drastic lengths the last movie went to in order to put the damn thing there.  All of his scenes with Bilbo are filled with emotions that make the film’s start color pallet glow with warmth.  They are too few and far between to lift the film from good to great, but their power is not diminished by that, and I am grateful for their presence. 

            In fact, I think that’s the best way I can sum up my mixed feelings towards the series as a whole; scenes or sequences of real brilliance and genuine cinematic magic, diminished somewhat by others that are less inspired and are, occasionally, atmosphere-breaking in their absurdity.  They never could measure up to LOTR, but I never expected them to, and that, perhaps, is one of the keys to my enjoyment of the films.  Another is my very strong love for the world of Middle Earth itself.  Ultimately, I love these movies simply because they allowed me to spend another 6 hours exploring the realms of dwarves, elves, hobbits, goblins, and men.  For such opportunities, I will endure very near anything.  My favorite of the trilogy is probably The Desolation of Smaug, mostly because of how excellent Smaug turns out.  I understand those who do not like them.  But I do, and it truly does pain me that this is likely the last journey we will get to take to Middle Earth on the big screen.  At least until the promised 72-part adaptation of The Silmarillion starts production. 

-Noah Franc


Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari): Written by Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi, directed by Isao Takahata.  Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, and Nobuko Miyamoto.  Running Time: 137 minutes.  Based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

Rating: 4/4

            I will not mince words- The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only the best animated film I have yet seen this year, it is the best film overall I have seen this year, period.  Over the past two decades, animation has been increasingly oriented towards CGI and greater, more “realistic” details and colors, and in many ways this is a good thing- the visual depth seen in many recent animated films is, on a purely technical level, unlike anything that has come before.  But as a work like this one reminds us, when we neglect the older, simpler, less-visually-stuffed hand-drawn styles of the past, something is lost in the process.  An ability to capture so much of the elementary nature of our existence with so little becomes that much harder to cultivate and attain.  Roger Ebert once wrote, in his review of Princess Mononoke, that “Animation…is freed from gravity, and the chains of the possible.  Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.”  If he is right, and I would argue forcefully that he is, then The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an essential tale indeed, one that encompasses themes of growth, familial love, the joys of youth, the sweet nostalgic aches of aging, and the core sensations that make our lives worth living. 

            This is the first feature-length film in 14 years to be directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki back in 1985 (his last film, released in 1999, was My Neighbors the Yamadas).  It is currently slated to be the one of the last feature films produced by Studio Ghibli for some time (the only other one slated for an upcoming release is When Marnie Was There, which first aired in Japan this past summer), although rumors that the studio’s production arm is being shut down permanently seem to have been premature.  How fitting then, especially if it does end up being true, that this latest work of his will rank alongside Grave of the Fireflies (also by him) and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as one of the greatest films the company has ever released. 

            Based off of an old Japanese legend, we witness the story of a spirit of some sort that appears inside a bamboo stalk before a simple farmer.  Astonished, he takes the tiny creature back to his wife, where it turns into a bawling, rapidly-growing human baby right before their very eyes.  Soon afterwards, the farmer’s wife finds she has milk for her despite her advanced age (and what a miracle it is, to finally have a film that treats breast-feeding as something beautiful instead of shameful).  The girl’s subsequent growth is astonishing; in a single scene, she goes from imitating sounds, to hopping, crawling, and walking, all within a few minutes.  Much later on in our story she is given the name “Princess Kaguya” in a formal ceremony, but for the other children in their small, remote village, she is called “Little Bamboo,” because her rapid growth resembles that of the bamboo stalks in which she appeared.  To the elderly couple, overjoyed at suddenly finding themselves parents (after a fashion), she is quite simply, “the Princess.” 

            Despite her mysterious origins and astonishing growth spurts, she is in every other respect a perfectly normal child, content to run, swim, climb trees, steal fruit, and hunt down fowl for dinner alongside the village lads, singing nursery rhymes all the while about the simple beauties of life.  Her biggest partner-in-crime is a somewhat older boy named Sutemaru, but due to her growth spurts they are soon close enough in age to wonder about what else their relationship could become.  These moments, depicting reckless childhood fun in the countryside, will evoke a great deal of nostalgia for older viewers, remembering times their limbs were just as limber and their thirst for adventure just as unquenchable. 

            This all comes to an abrupt end for her when her father announces that they are moving to the Capital, so that the Princess can be raised as a proper Japanese noblewoman, with respect paid to all the normal traditions.  Strongly possessive of her ever since he found her, her father becomes only more convinced that this is the “true” reason she was sent to them, and despite Kaguya’s pleas (and sometimes the objections of the mother as well), he persists in pushing for them to live in a splendid castle, lessons in music and calligraphy, the restricted movements and laughter of a “proper lady,” and plucked eyebrows and heavy makeup; in short, everything that will make them fit in with the upper classes.  The attempted physical and behavioral makeover of Kaguya is accompanied by other traditions as well; a raucous party when she receives her first period (boys only, of course- she is kept in a side room so that no one sees her), and lines of suitors promising her that she is worth more to them than all the treasures of the earth (again, all without ever having seen her). 

            The animation style we see here is quite different from what most Ghibli fans would expect.  Instead of the sharp and clear lines between characters, objects, and backgrounds that Miyazaki and most of his colleagues employ, both the characters and backgrounds seem to have been etched out and colored with chalk, and the dividing lines done with charcoal pens.  The edges are not smooth, the colors not perfectly uniform.  The evenness of the lines between people and backgrounds blur when there is motion, and sometimes, there simply are not very many details on-screen in an image- faces could lack features, and backgrounds could swirl together.  The effect shifts between being dreamlike, and resembling old pieces of artwork strung together along a wall to tell a story.  It is difficult to put into words why this style, so simple and yet so passionately energetic, has the effect it does.  Suffice it to say that I cannot imagine this story being shown in any other form. 

            This film has powerfully reinforced my already-firm belief that animation is, in certain respects, the superior form of cinematic storytelling.  As the above quote from Roger Ebert points out, live-action films are always crucially limited by having to show things that are “real-“ real sets, trees, houses, people, clothing, animals, weather events, etc. etc.  The purpose of art, conversely, is to break down or transcend all the barriers that our physical surroundings impose on us.  We cannot physically walk across the surface of the sun and live, but in our minds we can, and in our art we can capture the feelings and sensations of such an experience.  Here, a simple shot of a red flower opening to the dawn, or a butterfly pulling itself out of its cocoon, or a breathtaking sequence underneath a cherry tree in full bloom, capture the elegance and beauty of our world better than any high-res photograph could- the side details are not to be found, because they are not needed.  The superficiality of the object’s physical appearance is stripped away, leaving behind the true nature of the subject at hand. 

            Although the film starts off as a tale of childhood magic, it crosses over into the realm of an epic fantasy by the end.  We know that Kaguya’s origins are supernatural, but answers as to exactly what she is are offered only in pieces.  The movie does not last much longer than two hours, yet we seem to traverse years in people’s lives and miles upon miles of the Earth.  There are traditional morality tales to tell as well, especially when Kaguya challenges her suitors to prove their love by actually finding the magnificent artifacts they compare her to.  Many of the characters need to learn these lessons just as much as we, the viewers, do. 

            Above all else though, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the story of a father and daughter, how their relationship grows and changes over time, and how both are hurt by the father’s stubborn insistence that his vision, his traditions, and his idea of proper happiness must also, quite naturally, be Kaguya’s as well.  Many may scoff at his simplemindedness, or criticize how old-fashioned he is, which is easy for us living in an age where no tradition, no old custom, is above ridicule, but tread carefully, dear reader, if you do so.  Yes, this conflict is here set within a particular time in Japanese history, but the central strife between the desires of the parent and the instincts of the child is truly timeless, bound to continue playing out for as long as humans exist.  There is no villain here- just people, living the only way they know how.  The father can be pig-headed, yes, but his simple, pure love for Kaguya shines through everything he does, and is heartbreaking in its intensity.  And what difference is there between Kaguya being compelled to pluck her eyebrows and move around only on her knees and Western women being compelled to force themselves into corsets, and to not aspire to being anything other than a housewife? 

            This film is a powerful rebuke to those who would claim that, when compared with modern animation technology, older hand-drawn styles no longer have a place in this world.  It looks like scratches and slight shadings compared to the overwhelming details in many of the year’s other great animated works, like The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and even the other major Ghibli release of the year, The Wind Rises.  It is not loud, and is only humorous in its effortlessly natural depiction of many of life’s little absurdities.  Its colors are subtle and light, and the only details on the characters or background are strictly that which is needed to differentiate one from the other.  The movement is, again, entirely natural, with none of the frenetic motion filling the edges in seemingly every other animated film (and increasingly many non-animated works) of the past few years. 

            And despite all that, or perhaps precisely because of it, The Tale of Princess Kaguya rises far above nearly all other films, large and small, that have been released this year.  Its story is a thousand-year-old legend in its home country, and this cinematic rendering of it is worth being remembered at least as long.  It is a rousing call to a life of fullness, of laughter, and of joy, that can somehow always find a reason to cast of the darkness that so easily weigh us down through the thousand-and-one cuts of daily living.  It recalls the things of beauty, pure and often painful in their intensity, that make humanity and human life, for all its tragedies and comedies, something truly awesome.  It is, in my opinion, the best film of this year, and of quite a few of the years preceding it. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1 (2014): Written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and, of course, Donald “I sell this better than any of you mofos” Sutherland.  Running Time: 123 minutes.  Based on the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4

            I am as skeptical as anyone regarding the newfound trend of splitting up the final volumes of definitive Children’s/Young Adult literature series when they are made into film form.  Not that the result has always been bad!  The Deathly Hallows Part 1, the first Harry Potter film since Chamber of Secrets not choked to the gills with plot ended up being probably my second-favorite of the entire franchise (Sorcerer’s Stone will always, ALWAYS come first).  What makes it hard to swallow is that it is always painfully obvious the decision to do so has nothing to do whatsoever with an artistic desire to be able to translate the source materials as accurately as possible- the studios just want more money.  But again, this does not necessarily make the resulting films bad; in fact, I consider Mockingjay Part 1 to be the best Hunger Games film yet. 

            I was especially pleased to see the films continue to slowly but surely expand the scope of the story and action, much as they did with last year’s Catching Fire.  After being rescued from the arena at the end of the last movie, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, if you have somehow contrived to remain oblivious to this fact) was informed by Jacob (sorry, Gale, my bad) that District 12 had been completely annihilated; a return visit to her hometown later on includes some of the most gruesome imagery I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 film, once again raising very fair questions about why we continue to hold on to such an archaic system. 

            But I digress.  She and the others who were saved have been taken to District 13, which they thought had been wiped out by the Capital long ago.  Instead, it turns out that they have been hiding in a series of deep bunkers that allow them to hold off against the worst the Capital can throw at them, where they have also stockpiled a decent amount of weaponry that allows them to defend themselves, but is not enough for them to take on the Capital alone.  That has all changed since Katniss’ public persona of the Mockingjay started to really take off in the different districts, leading to one protest and open rebellion after another.  The leaders of District 13, President Alma Coin and her chief strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman), see this as their chance to seize the initiative and finally topple the Capital, and after a bit of haggling are able to agree with Katniss to terms whereby she will agree to work as their poster child to inspire the Districts. 

            Something that I heartily enjoy about this franchise (and thankfully the films have improved in this regard as well) is how the usual action tropes regarding heroes, villains, and story twists are all subjected to the iron laws of reality TV, namely that perception is everything.  Every move the characters make is calculated to appeal to a wider audience, including several speeches offered by President Coin to the highly-regimented denizens of 13.  One of my favorite shots of the movie shows Plutarch mouthing the words of a speech that he clearly wrote himself in perfect time with Coin’s delivery.  A major part of the climax at the end hinges on a broadcast meant to be so fascinating in its implications it will distract the Capital from noticing a raid to rescue several of the victors from the last movie that were captured by the Capital after Plutarch made off with Katniss, including definitely-not-a-love-interest-oh-who-are-we-kidding Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, who over the course of the film completes his physical transformation into an even thinner version of Neil Patrick Harris, minus the charisma and singing chops. 

            It’s no psychology thesis, but the elements at play of how having to act for cameras almost nonstop can wreak havoc on your mental health and stability are great to see in a franchise aimed at teens.  I have lamented in the past that most of Jennifer Lawrence’s past film choices (including the first two films of this franchise) have done a poor job of tapping into her considerable acting skills (and yes, I am including her still-incredibly-baffling Oscar win), but at this point she really seems to have found a good balance with Katniss, and has grown into the character well.  That said, there is a hilarious scene where she (Katniss the character, that is) tries to act in a studio ad for 13’s PR team, and the result is an unholy fusion of her miscast performances in each of David Russell’s last two films. 

            This is a much slower and less active film than the first two (again, very much like Deathly Hallows Part 1), since it’s really just moving the major pieces into place for the INSANE stuff that goes down in the final battle (seriously, the books go to a very dark place here, and I am praying the movie producers don’t chicken out).  It’s real focus is on the PR war being waged between the Capital and the rebellion to win the hearts and minds of all the districts in between, with the rebels utilizing Katniss, who soon develops an ability to come up with perfect propaganda moments without even needing to try when she’s in the right setting, and the Capital using an obviously-tortured Peeta-as-Barney to plead with the rebels to surrender. 

            These developments, along with a major plot twist right before the end, all fuel Katniss’ continuing mental breakdown, something Jennifer has been doing an increasingly better job of bringing across.  I love how the first shot we have of our hero is of her having a massive panic attack and being forced to return to her quarters.  We have so many action movies that show off their heroes as totally cool badasses who can kick ass, take names, and carry on after the final boss has fallen as if nothing ever happened, when in reality, anyone who would actually do things like that would sooner or later end up like Katniss; whimpering on the floor of a medical facility. 

            I am on the fence about Julianne Moore as Coin at the moment; my thoughts about her character won’t yet be finished until I can see whether or not the filmmakers really do take the gutsy route with the finale (readers of the book know what I mean).  The same must be said regarding the others as well.  Katniss’ family barely registers, Gale and Peeta continue to compete for who can have the least amount of physical charisma when the cameras are rolling, and out of a team of filmmakers brought in to capture Katniss at her best, the only memorable one is the cameraman incapable of speaking (go figure, I guess?). 

            The lone exceptions to this are Donald Sutherland’s deliciously evil President Snow and, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch.  After his death, I revisited my review of Catching Fire, and recalled being disappointed in his seeming utter lack of energy in the film.  I don’t know if that was connected to the increasing struggles that led to his death.  Maybe it was, or maybe it was something unrelated, but it seems he was able to shake it off for this one, because here he once again manages to take a character that in less-capable hands would be a total write-off and turn him into a sideshow all his own, never less than interesting to watch.  As the credits roll, we see a dedication to him, one that I hope they include in the final one as well (they were apparently finished with all but a single scene of his at the time of his death).  It is one final great performance from a master, and makes his passing even harder to bear. 

            The show must go on, of course, and the film rolls to a decent conclusion, but one that ultimately undercuts itself enough that I once again don’t feel comfortable labeling this a legitimately great film- it’s just a very good one.  There are reasons for this- some stilted acting, and a few very awkward directorial choices, including the fact that every speech of Coin’s ends with the citizens of 13 hooting like tailgaters at a football game.  But the saddest part is how the plot twist mentioned above also undermines it, mostly because the director decided that the film should just keep going for a bit afterwards.  If they had ended it at the twist, it would have been one of the ballsiest decisions of the year, leaving people furiously chomping at the bit for the final installment.  I understand why they did it- they choose instead to end on an image that is well-done and effecting on its own, but it inevitably pales in comparison to what just recently transpired, leaving things feeling a touch too safe by the time the credits roll. 

            But no matter.  This franchise keeps getting better with each film, and I am very much looking forward to next year’s big finale.  Here’s hoping they send Katniss out proper.  And maybe use some of this film’s massive profits to buy her boyfriends some Red Bull. 

-Noah Franc