Archive for the ‘ Movies ’ Category

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug is the second movie in the Hobbit trilogy. I found it to be fun and very polished, though a little disappointing. In short, Peter Jackson succeeded at making the light fantasy action movie that he wanted, but it felt like there was a lot of wasted potential.

For the most part, the movie was most enjoyable when it added scenes to Tolkien’s original. Gandalf’s investigations into the evil of Dol Guldur feel like generic fantasy, but they tie in to the Lord of the Rings movies very well. A new subplot about elves hunting orcs is as slick and emotionless as a video game, but Peter Jackson excels at these bubblegum action scenes. And even the flashback where Gandalf first meets Thorin is a nice way to round out the plot.

But the scenes that were originally in he book are flattened out, since the humor, characters and subtleties were apparently getting in the way of extra orc battles. Bilbo’s taunting and outwitting of the giant spiders? Replaced with a huge fight, even though actor Martin Freeman could have made that very fun. Stumbling on an Elven feast? Nah, it’s more efficient just to have the Elves appear out of nowhere and capture everyone. Conversations with Beorn, or developing his interesting character? Gone completely. In fact, Beorn is the most confusing change, since he offered a lot of opportunity for visual effects and badass fights. Instead, his appearance is so brief and irrelevant that people who have read the book will feel cheated and people who haven’t will wonder what the point was of including him at all.

But the most disappointing changes were to Smaug. The dragon looks incredible, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s CGI performance feels suitably inhuman. Expect some well-deserved Oscar victories for this creation. But in the story, it’s less impressive. For the first few minutes, the dragon feels enormous, unpredictable, and scary. But he gets what feels like an hour of screentime with a series of new chase scenes. No characters ever get caught by him, and by the end his apparent threat level has dropped from “could beat up Godzilla” to “the Looney Tunes coyote”.

As I said in last year’s Hobbit review, Peter Jackson needed to make changes to the book. I’m comfortable with the thematic tie-ins to Lord of the Rings and even to the dumb-but-fun orc attacks that keep happening. (One battle, fought as the Dwarves float downriver on barrels, is laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creative.) But I wish it hadn’t also dumbed down the source material. It’s fun, and funny, in ways beyond shooting orcs with arrows. Desolation of Smaug brings us breathtaking sets and special effects, frenetic action, and Manly Fantasy Brooding™. That’s not enough to sustain it, especially since the movie runs for almost three hours and it sometimes compares poorly to the kids’ book it’s based on. It is sufficient, but just barely, to make this worth watching, though I don’t feel as forgiving as I did a year ago.

Grade: B-

 
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Oz the Great and Powerful (Movie Review)

Oz the Great and Powerful promo poster

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a slight, by-the-numbers movie that you can expect to enjoy while watching and then forget about within a week. The plot sticks to broad brushstrokes that the audience is already expected to know by heart: An egotistical circus magician gets sucked into a land where magic is real and picks up a couple cute animated sidekicks. He tries to continue as a con man, claiming to know real magic, until he’s forced to become a hero after all. It also helps that this is based on another movie the audience already knows, so there’s no need to confuse anyone with new ideas. (In fact, this Disney movie cannot be legally associated with Warner Bros.’ classic The Wizard of Oz, but they push the boundary frequently with likenesses to that movie’s icons.)

Oz coasts along on slick CGI that is enjoyable but never notable, and photogenic actors who fit smoothly into their two-dimensional characters. Sam Raimi directed this, but his flair for low-budget surprises is completely lost in the safe big-budget atmosphere. There are a good number of laughs and clever tricks, and it finds an inoffensive way to appeal to our modern deconstructionist takes on fairy tales. (Despite that, the good and pure rubes that Oz meets sound more like a cynical person’s idea of a guileless one, rather than like true innocents.) The only real surprise, though, is how predictably it plays out. The movie contains a single clever twist, but rather than playing up any uncertainty about the new information we get, the movie proceeds as if it were proven. Even the citizens of Oz immediately seem to switch loyalties after this private four-person conversation occurs, because why should the audience have to remember that not everyone knows the same things? For all its efforts at a modern, self-aware twist on a classic, Oz subscribes to a clear-cut view of good and evil that even most fairy tales would consider unsubtle.

For all its inadequacies, this movie mainly works as a light popcorn flick suited to today’s formulas. One thing keeps me from giving it a half-hearted recommendation, though: Its portrayal of female characters is especially bad. I normally don’t talk about this too much, and just agree from time to time that, yes, as The Bechdel Test demonstrates, most movies still have a subtext that women only matter for their relationships with men. Here, though, that’s not subtext so much as a starting assumption. The only things that define the female characters here are whether they’re Fairy Tale Good or Fairy Tale Evil, and what their feelings are for the title character. It’s never questioned that the competent woman who drags Oz along to his destiny will gratefully fall in love with him when given the chance, because why should she hold out for an equal? And when we learn the backstory of the Wicked Witch, I found it to be tragic and a little disturbing. She’s driven entirely by vindictiveness over a man who shouldn’t matter that much, and tricked into that by someone who is manipulating her to the dark side. Even when she finds out that she was tricked, she sticks to evilness and jealousy, because she literally gives up her agency and cannot make another decision.

I’ve discussed those concerns with a few other people, but they didn’t mind it at all. I think that is just because we already know the Wicked Witch is evil, so this is just interpreted as required backstory rather than something happening to a real character. And they’re right that the movie is too cartoonish to take its characters seriously. But it’s not really a good sign when a movie is saved by the fact that no one will care much about what happens in it.

Grade: C

 

Let the Right One In (Movie Review)

Let the Right One In DVD cover

Let the Right One In

After reading Let Me In (a.k.a. Let the Right One In), I watched the movie. To begin, I should confess that I had the version with the “bad” subtitles. You may remember this: A few years ago, every horror fan and every cinephile were up in arms over the fact that this Swedish movie was screened with one set of subtitles and then released with different ones that missed the subtleties. This has since been fixed, but you need to be careful about which one you pick up. I’ve seen enough examples online to agree that the version I saw is definitely weaker. However, I don’t think that would have sufficiently changed my opinion of this. Ironically, the complaints about the new subtitles missing losing the depth are similar to what people point out when they say the book was better. Having just read the novel, and admittedly dealing with the subtle erosion of meaning that I’ll have with any foreign movie, I think that my own internal narrative would have had to fill in most of the same gaps with either set of subtitles.

This movie definitely does have gaps that need filled. It’s a very faithful adaptation, cutting out many parts for time but keeping what it can almost identical to the source material. While I miss a lot of the parts they removed, it was an admirable job of paring the story down to its core. However, maybe it needed to be simplified further. There still didn’t seem to be time to establish characters and relationships, with the early stages of Oskar and Eli’s relationship feeling especially arbitrary. Worst of all, Håkan (Eli’s handler) has his story abridged so much that he ends up feeling unexplained and unnecessary. While I really think that the triangle between him, Eli, and Oskar should have remained part of the fundamental story, this movie would have been better off eliminating him completely than in keeping the fragments that it did.

Other than cutting things out, about the only changes this makes to the story are to fit the remaining fragments together as smoothly as possible. The actual modifications are so rare as to be notable, and are generally good character moments in existing scenes. (A little event in the final scene, for example, as well as Eli’s reaction when being offered candy.) As much as I loved the book, I wish the movie had tried to change more. Different mediums require different stories, and following the original so closely guarantees that the new version can be judged only by whether it’s a good copy or not.

Beyond the story, the movie is decent but not spectacular. The sets and direction create a sparse, bland world. It was probably intended, as it conveys a very mundane life interrupted by horror, but it adds to the feeling that this movie doesn’t flesh out everything that the viewer should know. The acting is generally good, but a lot of key scenes, especially with children, involve unnatural delays. These are awkward silences, not pregnant pauses, such as everyone standing around for a couple seconds after someone is hit and THEN suddenly acting startled. Also, Eli feels frustratingly human all the time, without the cues she should be providing, or even the isolated air that defines her character. However, as Oskar and Eli’s relationship progresses, their scenes together are poignant and effective. Coming from child actors, this is especially notable. Fortunately for the movie, this means that the scenes near the end are the strongest, and therefore the ones that everyone will remember afterwards.

I can only judge Let the Right One In from my perspective, which leaves me surprised that it felt like a fully-realized story to people who weren’t familiar with the book’s details. It’s still unique, though, and has many powerful moments. I’m still glad I read it first.

Grade: C+

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey movie poster

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There’s always some risk to writing sequels (or prequels) of beloved stories, but The Hobbit already ran into those pitfalls as a book. Fellowship of the Ring opened up with retroactive changes to The Hobbit in order to change The Ring from a fun magic trinket into a force of corruption. By making a movie with a full understanding of Tolkien’s entire repertoire, Peter Jackson has the unique opportunity to fix the existing problems. However, he also has to deal with the fact that The Hobbit is intended as lighter fare than Lord of the Rings. In this, he half-succeeds.

The problem is that after his previous trilogy, Jackson now has the budget and experience to make a movie even more stunning and epic than Lord of the Rings on every level. As fan service, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t always feel appropriate to the story. We see so many stunning vistas that the journey Bilbo and company take to the Misty Mountains feels longer than the entire trip to Mordor we saw before. The underground goblin kingdom is an excellent work of design and CGI, but it feels wrong that it outshines the machinations of the actual Dark Lord from the previous movies. And the fight to escape that kingdom is action-packed and well-choreographed, but the attempt of twelve Dwarves to run away just can’t feel as epic as the clashes of armies at Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith. It’s almost confusing to see something hit all the cues perfectly without feeling like a big deal.

Those pieces are still a lot of fun, though, and Jackson does show elsewhere that he appreciate’s The Hobbit’s role. The action feels a little more fast-paced and cartoony, while the more everyday scenes (such as the dinner that introduces the Dwarves) are a joy to watch. Actor Martin Freeman has a great handle on the character of Bilbo, and his reluctant hero act works well. By the end of this trilogy, Bilbo may be a more popular Hobbit than Frodo.

Yes, of course The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just part of a trilogy. In addition to dealing with the different demands of this story, Jackson also had to deal with an industry that has changed in the years since his Lord of the Rings movies. Remember when Fellowship came out, and all the fan outrage was about the things he’d had to cut out in order to fit it into a single long movie? Well, now everyone is talking about the things he added to make the much shorter Hobbit into a full trilogy. Sometimes, he simply pads out scenes or adds flashbacks. The history of the Dwarves before the story starts is fully shown, and it adds a framing sequence tying this into Frodo and the other movies. Gandalf’s barely-mentioned concerns about a gathering evil are now fully explored, with many completely new scenes that nonetheless do fit into Tolkien’s story cleanly. For the most part, these additions do feel appropriate, and help the story fit into the more epic style that Jackson wants to tell. The Dwarves now have distinct personalities, and their stubbornness and enmity with the Elves is given more attention. This should give weight to the later parts of the story.

Some parts feel very padded, though. Several unneeded minutes are given over to the giants that cause the storm in the Misty Mountains, and an additional plot about a vengeful Orc leader hunting them down feels more like generic fantasy than something Tolkien would have written. That’s not the only part that feels as if it were run through the Hollywood action machine: When the company flees up trees to escape pursuit, they are now precariously positioned next to a ravine, and end up climbing back down to fight anyway.

I think that three movies is pushing it, but there definitely would have been enough material here to give The Hobbit an excellent two-part story. At three, though, each weakened one will still be worth seeing, and that is probably a better result from the corporate point of view. It’s too bad, but I can’t get very upset about it. Fifteen years ago, I never would have dared hope that The Hobbit would be treated this well.

Grade: B-

 

Comedy Movie Capsule Reviews

Wrapping up my movie reviews for the year (unless I manage to sneak away from my new daughter long enough to watch The Hobbit), here are three slightly older comedies I watched on video over the past several months.


Horrible Bosses movie poster

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

This is one that a friend practically had to force on me. A comedy about three men with bosses so bad that they plan to murder them, the trailers expected big laughs from the reverse sexual discrimination of one of the bosses (a sex-starved Jennifer Aniston). It seemed dumb, unrealistic, and potentially minimizing real-world problems.

I was wrong, and that subplot is actually a good example of why. Horrible Bosses is an irreverent black comedy that may deserve its R rating, but puts a decent amount of effort into justifying its offensive content. Aniston’s character is a ridiculous caricature, but we do get explanations for how her subordinate got stuck in that position and why he can’t leave or turn her in. It’s still ridiculous, but it’s acceptable for a comedy.

In fact, “acceptable for a comedy” describes this whole thing, but the movie is so consistent that the whole is greater than the parts. This starts as a simple buddy comedy, then mines some humor out of three hopelessly lost men trying to plot murder. But the plot grows in complexity, the stakes rise, and its twists and turns always feel consistent with the movie’s internal logic. It’s a Coen Brothers-lite plot with a slightly warmer worldview. This never really feels like it threatens the heroes, and its grossest jokes seem carefully calculated not to actually offend sensibilities. That’s not a problem: Horrible Bosses knows what kind of comedy it wants to be, and it delivers.

(Speaking of the Aniston plot, I do suspect that it was put there to make the movie easier to sell. While the other plotlines get mixed together into a complex tangle, hers always seems separate. It works, but barely, thanks to the decision to cast Aniston against her normal type.)

Grade: B


Pineapple Express movie poster

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

Part of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen series of gross-out “bromance” movies, Pineapple Express does not find the perfect mix of elements like Horrible Bosses did. It goes for a genre-mix with elements of stoner comedies and light action films, but they mix poorly. The main problem is that the frequent bloody violence feels wrong next to the low-stakes humor of the rest of the movie. I have no problem with black humor or murder (Horrible Bosses had both), but it needs to feel right. The low-budget, sadistic violence is more unpleasant than interesting, and that’s a bad quality for a comedy to have.

The plot features Seth Rogen as a disagreeable stoner who tries a new strain of pot, called “Pineapple Express”, with his (disliked) dealer. When he later witnesses a crime boss murdering a rival, Rogen flees so fast that he leaves the pot behind. Later realizing that Pineapple Express is still so rare that it could be traced back to him, both Rogen and his dealer go on the run from a criminal who wants to eliminate witnesses. Can the two man-children learn to get along, despite the fact that neither seems to deserve friends?

This could have been a stronger film if their flight was all drug-induced paranoia. They are funny on their own. But no, the ridiculous premise really does have a murderer chasing after them, and that’s where the unpleasant distractions from the humor come in. (Strangely, the unrealistic paranoia ends up as part of the drug lord’s character instead. He keeps interpreting the protagonists’ mistakes as signs of a clever organization, in a recurring theme that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like Apatow just saw some other film where comedic misunderstandings led to a criminal’s downfall, and felt obligated to duplicate it. But just like the other elements of the movie, this never pays off.)

Painful to watch on multiple levels, Pineapple Express mixes a weak Apatow plot with ideas that just don’t work.

Grade: D+


The Gamers DVD cover

The Gamers

The Gamers

In contrast to the other movies I reviewed, this is actually a low-budget 45-minute film shot on a college campus and distributed by gaming company Paizo Publishing. Obviously, the production and acting are weak here. It works surprisingly well, though.

It’s main strength is that the creators (Dead Gentlemen Productions) captured the tone of a Dungeons & Dragons session perfectly. Jumping between a group of friends playing in a cramped room and in-game scenes, this feels like an evening-long game session somehow compressed into its short running length. The amateurish acting generally feels right for the geeks they are playing, and for the stilted high fantasy of their game world. (To see their acting skills fail them, you’ll need to watch the other shorts included on the DVD.)

The decisions about the game’s portrayal are excellent, with the characters in the game sometimes talking on their own, and sometimes holding still while their players discuss them via voice-over. When appropriate, we just see the players directly. Minor corrections to events cause the game world to rewind and change actions, and a lot of the sillier aspects of D&D are played straight. Among other things, it captures the rules-lawyering, refusal of players to role-play when they could skip to the killing, and handling of players who couldn’t show up. Sure, it’s obvious beforehand which dice rolls will lead to unexpected success or hilarious failures, but that gives the whole thing the feel of a “you won’t believe what happened!” story after-the-fact. (Except that this is a rare case of those stories being interesting for the listener.) When the characters have ridiculously cool ideas, it’s actually exciting to watch them pay off.

There are several amateur mistakes, including a lengthy self-aware monologue in the middle (“WHY would anyone want to spend time with an attractive woman instead of this?”) that betrays the honest geekiness of the rest of the film. It also starts with several minutes of awkward banter, and while there are good things to be said for the “clever” ending, I felt like it weakened the cleverness of everything leading up to it. In such a short film, those issues do eat up a lot of time. But the rest of it works well enough to make up for that.

Grade: B-

 

Prometheus (Movie Review and Discussion)

Prometheus move poster

Prometheus

I strongly disagree with the common consensus about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. While most people dismissed it as incomplete, illogical, or just a well-meaning mess (that last one would be much better applied to The Dark Knight Rises), it really fulfilled my hopes for an Alien prequel. It was a stunning spectacle that felt like a love letter to the originals without being beholden to the past. I don’t plan on giving a typical review here. Instead, I’ll focus more on the criticism of this movie. Just know that my experience in the theater was a solid A, and it feels like a B or B+ in retrospect. I officially give this an A-.

I really have to wonder what most people were expecting: I’ve challenged friends to name another movie series that provided a more satisfying ret-con after a years-long break, and no one has been able to. Expectations for follow-on movies are always confusing: Remember that Alien and Aliens came out in a very different culture than we have today, partly just because those very movies had yet to make their impact. Making something too different now would disappoint people, but on the other hand, one of the major criticisms of Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection was how closely they copied the first ones.

I should admit that I’m a fan of all four movies. (I haven’t bothered seeing the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs.) While I normally would complain about the repetition in the third and fourth movies, in this case I think they’re vital to the our understanding of the series as a whole. The first two movies portrayed conflicts that seemed winnable, but by the end of the fourth, the struggle feels hopeless and eternal. Ripley can win battles, but human nature and the uncaring universe combine to ensure we never escape this nihilistic cycle. Those last two may not be great, but the context they provide is what turns the first two into masterpieces.

Knowing all this, it’s not surprising that I would like Prometheus. All the key elements of the original mythology were there. But rather than being an Alien 5, the new characters and setting gave the movie an excuse for a slightly different atmosphere. By splitting the difference between the old and the new, I feel like Prometheus opened up fertile ground for a new series.

(There are thematic spoilers for Prometheus from here on.)

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The Dark Knight Rises (Movie Review)

The Dark Knight Rises movie poster

The Dark Knight Rises

Though I haven’t made it to a lot of movies this year, I did see a couple during the summer months that I never got around to discussing. Since I’m in catch-up mode now, this week I’ll post some reviews that I should have written months ago. First up, The Dark Knight Rises.

Though Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have been praised for their weighty take on the character, his secret is that he simply puts a serious sheen on the old stories we are comfortable with. Pretty much any Batman story, no matter how campy, can be translated into the Nolan Style with minimal effort. For example:

Scene: The Bat-Copter flies over the ocean. A Bat-ladder drops down, and Batman begins his decent to the water. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: Holy Sardine!

Batman (To Robin): Hand me down the Shark Repellant Bat-Spray!

Becomes…

Scene: An experimental military helicopter flies over the ocean, Batman approaches the water, lowered by a rope from a remote-controlled winch. Suddenly, a shark attacks!

Robin: <Robin says nothing. Batman works alone.>

Flashback to a Waynetech R&D room. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox are talking.

Wayne: I hear there is a shark problem in the waters where I’ll be doing my… extreme diving.

Fox: Well, we do have a way to drive them off. Too bad Waynetech could never convince those penny-pinchers at the Pentegon to fund it beyond the prototype stage.

Though I can make it sound silly, this has been incredibly successful, especially since Warner is willing to put the sort of budget and talent into these stories that would make just about any movie enjoyable. Some cracks in the serious façade began to appear in the second half of the previous movie, when The Joker suddenly transformed from a scrappy improv murderer to big-budget criminal mastermind, and Harvey Dent became a gimmicky psychopath with little more justification than “We all know this is supposed to happen, right?” The fact that that was still a masterpiece is a testament to the skills of everyone involved.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have the same quality material to build on, though. Instead of Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker interpretation, this features Bane, a stilted tough guy in a breathing mask that makes his voice more ridiculous than Batman’s. The movie has great potential, since it’s telling a single story with an ending that lets it do things to its characters that the comics could never allow. But the seven years Bruce Wayne has spent as a recluse end up meaning little more than a chance for him to go through the same sort of training he had in the first movie. And Gotham spends three months under siege in an unprecedented way, but we barely see the psychological adjustment or cultural changes within the city; Instead, it’s just a chance for people to shout about how serious this is. Meanwhile, the talents and motivations of the villains never fit the convoluted plot they come up with. Beneath the violent exterior, their logic has changed little since Adam West’s days as Batman.

Other parts work out better. Anne Hathaway’s character is perfect in every sense except that it doesn’t feel like she’s portraying the character of Catwoman. As her own ass-kicking thief, though, she is everything that Tom Hardy’s Bane fails to be. (To be fair to Hardy, the writing of Bane gave him nothing to work with. Catwoman’s success is a mix of the writing and Hathaway’s talents, though.) Also, the continuing story about Bruce Wayne’s own mental health reaches a surprisingly powerful conclusion, thanks to the movie’s ability to go places that an ongoing serial can’t allow. (This is especially important because these movies are the first Batman stories I’ve seen, in any medium, to make Bruce Wayne a real character instead of an occasional mask for Batman. While I don’t think of this as the canonical version of Batman, my mental image of Bruce Wayne now is the one Christian Bale portrays.)

The saving grace of the movie is that, like the rest of the trilogy, the Warner budget and Nolan’s drama-meets-summer-blockbuster sensibilities still make this a gripping experience. Everything, from the score to special effects to cinematography, are excellent, and while I complain about the believability of some situations, the actors never give any hint that this isn’t real to them. The movie veers wildly between fascinating and ridiculous, but always with a professionalism that makes suspension of disbelief possible.

To twist around an over-quoted line, The Dark Knight Rises is not the ending this trilogy deserved, but it is the ending it needed. It provides clear demonstrations not only of what makes “serious” superhero movies work, but of the ways they can fail when they take the wrong shortcuts. I hope the right people are taking notes. In the meantime, while this doesn’t give us the series-ender that we all hoped for, it still provides worthwhile closure and a fun action movie experience.

Grade: B-