Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Last year I was impressed by the individual components, but ultimately disappointed by the first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, and I dwelt on the disappointment. Now, PJ hasn't done an about-turn, and starting making the films by my specifications, but I never expected that. Instead I have somewhat come to terms with the way he's making them, knowing I'll enjoy what I can as a completely hopeless fan of Middle Earth. That loyal fan inside me could continue relentlessly tearing apart these adaptations -- but unhelpfully, and disproportionate to my discontentment. There are mountains of good things to dwell on, and so I will.

The characters coming to life on the screen is certainly one of the biggest pluses of these movies, so I'll spend most of my time on them, easily, and gladly. The first new character we meet is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn, and he's the only character with an unexpanded role... so far. But he's still adapted well -- very wild and intimidating. We already got a sneak peek at Lee Pace as Thranduil in the last film, and now we see him fully characterized as the elegant and cold elf-king, and it's a striking success.

I know everyone says this, but, his crown!

Also hailing from Mirkwood, Tauriel is beautiful, powerful and graceful in the hands of the very cool Evangeline Lilly, and no longer can people call her "made up" as she's identified as the captain of the guard. Her role is certainly expanded though, and welcome. And even more at home, I dare say, than her superior, prince Legolas. Orlando Bloom returns to play him, but still doesn't get much substance to work with. However, he doesn't have any Captain Obvious moments either (my brother and I were disappointed) and his elven fighting skills are better than ever and he and Tauriel tear it up with cool choreography in quite a few exciting action sequences. The worst thing about him is that the light blue contacts very often look distractingly unnatural.

Elves. For fighting like dancing.

Now my man Bard, who was a favorite in the book; I now realize I had just cause to be nervous for this character's expansion and characterization -- I had no idea of what to expect going in, but fortunately, what we get is a wonderful surprise. Bard is a meaty character worthy of every extra scene plus some, and Luke Evans digs in with contagious gusto, effortlessly carrying his scenes, and making it unavoidable to not accept and root for this super cool classic hero completely. When he runs across a row of tiny boats, then surfs the last one with ease was the moment I realized I'd been suckered by a slick bargeman (and a certain director) and didn't mind. Also working well to his advantage is giving him a regular everyman job and kids, who are invented characters, and some actually worthwhile ones.

The name's Bard. Bard the Bowman.

Smaug is that one all-important element that made everyone excited and hopeful for this movie, and I built my anticipation up so much it seemed unlikely that I could be anything but underwhelmed, but instead I was stunned. He's incredible -- red and gold, long and enormous, beautiful and menacing, classic and imaginative -- in the first full shot of him as he rises out of his vast mountain of gold, I was completely awed. And then he began to speak. And this is more than I dared hope for, even though I knew Benedict Cumberbatch was providing vocals and motion-capture, but not only does he sound like Cumberbatch... he looks like him too. More than you would think a dragon even could, and as he moves and speaks you see Cumberbatch embody a majestic, villainous beast, and it's simply incredible. Cumberbatch exceeds expectations yet again, and Jackson proves he can still make something truly amazing.

"Truly -- the tales and songs fall utterly short..." If only I could show you what Bilbo sees!

For the characters we already know and love from the previous film, Bilbo still stands out, usually an ironic head and shoulder above the rest. Martin Freeman is still the only person for the role, and yet is not content to ride the current he already has going for him. Bilbo is getting developed wonderfully well, adding courage, confidence, and... obsession, and gets his share of well-deserved great moments as the titular hero. Thorin is also on a great path of development, guided very well by Richard Armitage. He is growing him so gradually more and more obsessed, desperate and rash that you hardly notice it, until you're surprised by some out-of-character response, and then realize it actually wasn't. I can hardly wait to witness the conflict between these two in the next movie -- the tension is already palpable.

"If this is to end in fire, then we shall all burn together!" Let's just hope Thorin doesn't try to pull a Denethor...

One big change from the book here is that as the company leaves Lake-town, four dwarves are left behind. It seemed at first to be a ridiculous, pointless idea, but the result was surprisingly helpful, as, by splitting up the dwarves, it much easier to develop them individually. The recipient of most of the available development is Kili, (Aidan Turner) who also gets a little extra in Mirkwood when he is smitten with Tauriel. In this movie he jumps from the status of "one of the dwarves" to being undoubtedly his own character, and I only wish they all could get that treatment. Still, others get their varying amounts of attention, Fili (Dean O'Gorman) Bofur (James Nesbitt) Oin (John Callen), and Balin (Ken Scott) getting a noticeable extra.

Dwarves. Can't deal with 'em, can't kill 'em, 'cause you don't have any decent weapons.

Ian McKellen and Gandalf spends most of his time away from the dwarves doing his wizard things, sometimes with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) (and Benedict Cumberbatch, in the movie twice, voicing the Necromancer) and while I found that plot-line to be more boring than the rest, it's still Gandalf, so of course he's still great.

In fact, there are only two big things that truly bothered me.

One: The orcs. There is a little merit to having them chase the dwarves, and their appearance -- like urukai on steroids with a twisted fashion sense -- is forgivably silly. Whenever there's a scene with just the orcs though, they speak orcish, and it's very annoying on the ears. Plus those scenes are a waste, because all they ever say is the same: "Let's go kill the dwarf scum!

Two: (Spoiler) In the climax of the film, when the dwarves come up with an elaborate and far-fetched plan to kill Smaug, lead him through the mountain, and then try to drown him in molten gold. I only realized afterward that it was supposed to be the climax! (End Spoiler) The whole sequence is uninspired and cheap feeling, with only one very cool shot after the fact.

Dwarves overlook the desolation of Smaug -- the ruins of Dale.

For the most part though, the action sequences were much improved, as are the majority of adapted scenes. More things are added than changed. And in fight scenes, nothing looks like a video game this time. The uneventful escape down the river in barrels was turned into a lengthy sequence, but happily it wasn't boring or (much) annoying. The spiders' episode was probably my favorite bit of adapting though, probably mostly because it was like the book, just in movie form. And the highly anticipated scene of Bilbo meeting Smaug, while not quite reaching the level of the Riddles in the Dark writing-wise, is still is nothing but impressive.

Yay, barrels!

I have come to terms with it -- these movies are not like the book I love, and since I loved Tolkien's Hobbit first I will probably always love it most. Some of The Desolation of Smaug was pure brilliancy and truly awesome, and some draws contempt from that loyal fan in me, but still I left the movie excited with anticipation from the cliffhanger ending, loving the characters, and happy for the improvement on An Unexpected Journey, so how can I deny the truth: that, with all its flaws, I found a way to love it anyway.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Round two of one girl on fire vs. the world.

After surviving the Hunger Games with not only her own life, but against all unfavorable odds with that of her district partner's as well, Katniss Everdeen figures she's won, but the best anyone can do in the Games is only survive them -- and what she did to save their lives she saw as simply survival, but the people of the Capitol saw it as love, and, even worse, people of the Districts saw it as rebellion. To appease the President and calm the people, Katniss continues her charade with Peeta on their Victory Tour, but too little too late; the fire of rebellion has been lit, with Katniss unwillingly at the front. The 75th Hunger Games arrives, and this time they are going to be very different.

Ladies and gentlemen... the victors of the 74th Hunger Games!

With the new leader -- aka director Francis Lawrence -- and an obvious budget upgrade, the world of Panem was upgraded as well, and the franchise soars to new and extraordinary heights. The style of the Capitol and its people are the same, but much, much more richly done, and in the Districts there's more to be seen, plus we see more of the other Districts than is absolutely necessary, which was nice.

The special and digital effects have all jumped up to the highest quality, and fight scenes are cleanly choreographed and still very realistic feeling. The filming style was unobtrusive -- no more dizzying shaky-cam -- but not so much to be called generic. There were some very bold and memorable, and even beautiful shots, all adding a considerable amount to, but never overshadowing the dramatic impact of the story.

Here's an example for the effects and the filming artistry.

And that story is adapted flawlessly from its book source. Not word-for-word-precisely, but so impressively close to it that I could count on one hand the deviations from the book I noticed immediately, and all were only details. Few things were left out and even fewer were changed, and all, I believe, with the commendable reasons of creating a more concise storyline, a tolerable length for the movie, and a natural feel and flow -- as if it wasn't adapted from a book at all.

On the acting side, Jennifer Lawrence continues to blow me away. I have never before seen any actor leave so many consistently poignant performances in their wake, but for her there is no end in sight. As Katniss she is immaculate -- we see how Katniss' being tirelessly rash and cynical gets on other character's nerves, but she effortlessly wins our affection, and leads the movie with power and a huge, albeit masked heart.

She's Jennifer Lawrence -- of course she's going to blow us away.

But this time, and to their credit, the supporting cast is able to step out of Lawrence's talented shadow, and hold their own next to her.

Josh Hutcherson's Peeta gets more real attention a few minute tweaks and is a stronger and more compelling character this time around. Even though he's not a survivor-at-all-cost like Katniss, he has a strength (to quote Pippin) of a different kind, and here we begin to see his merits that make him the moral center of the franchise. And he is actually helpful in fights now as well. Hutcherson takes all the character improvement and deepening in stride and ups his game to match.

And Peeta is a pretty impressive actor himself. Also, Stanley Tucci returns as Caesar, complete with his over-the-top hair, teeth and personality.

Liam Hemsworth does the same for Gale; even though Gale still isn't as much of a main character as characters that are included throughout the plot, he still shows improvement from the first, feels more comfortable in the part, and is primed and ready for his giant role increase in Mockingjay.

He may be the lesser Hemsworth, but he's still pretty great. Katniss agrees.

As for the new characters, the only casting I was wary of was Sam Claflin as Finnick (which I'm sure you understand if you've seen Pirates 4 or Snow White and the Huntsman) but as soon as he spoke, all my worries flew away. He adopts a natural sounding American accent and displays the cool, sultry charm and hidden pain of Finnick perfectly. Turns out he's a fine actor, and completely deserves this beloved role that will likely help him land more parts that require slightly more than a pretty face.

Mags and Finnick. Does anything get more adorable than this? No, no it does not.

Jena Malone as Johanna, though, I knew would be great from the beginning, based on her being one of very few impressive things in the '05 Pride and Prejudice (as Lydia). She did not disappoint, and completely embodied the snide, rude, and angry character so well that I've already completely forgotten how I'd originally imagined her. Not that she was much removed from my imagination anyway.

Oh the intensity. Yikes.

All other new editions also hit their mark exceptionally -- Havensbee, Beetee, Wiress, Mags, etc. right down to the new head Peacekeeper were adapted, cast, and characterized with care and attention, and it shows. As for the returning supporting cast, still great, and still getting their share of development. I was especially impressed with Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who could not have been creepier.

Newbie, Plutarch Havensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and returning old (but awesome) grump, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).

With the plot splitting so dramatically into two distinct sections, there was dangerous potential for uneven pacing, but even at two hours and twenty minutes, the pace never faltered, and the amount of details from the book that were packed in is amazing. Some of my favorites: firstly, Buttercup is actually orange. Cheers! The way they introduced Snow's... breath problem, was pretty genius too -- perfectly subtle. They also stepped up Prim's development, simply and effectively. Finnick and Mags' relationship was very, very sweet to see too. Katniss' speech at Eleven about Thresh and Rue was straight from the book (as were many lines) and doubly moving coming from Jennifer.

They even kept the drinks that make you sick in this scene. Also, as you can see, Effie's (Elizabeth Banks) style has been taken to the next level of flamboyancy.

But even with all the little details and fine performances, this movie could've still disappointed, if it hadn't kept the deep themes of the book. In a time where violence is more often than not played either for laughs, the "cool" factor, or tossed aside carelessly, it is wonderfully refreshing when death in entertainment is treated with weight. And I find it disturbing yet amazing seeing the similarities between the Capitol and our modern world and government. How this franchise is so equally good at being a sci-fi thriller, a "teen romance" and a thoughtful commentary on society is simply incredible. Catching Fire isn't as dramatically controversial as The Hunger Games, but it's still extremely thought-provoking, and a very far cry from anything that could possibly be considered mindless. It's so entertaining, but not hypocritical with its cautionary message. The deeper side is why I adore it, but as even as pure entertainment this movie is just about as thrilling as it can be, and astonishingly well-made.
In short, another victory for Katniss Everdeen.

For the entire two-and-a-half hours, I was completely immersed in the unique world, characters, and themes that make up this brilliant adaptation, and I didn't want it to end. The Hunger Games was a great movie, but its book was better; with Catching Fire, the film and book are equally great, and probably the best of the series. However, if the pattern and the movie's quality continues as it is, the Mockingjay movies will be even better than their book counterpart, and the idea of that is making me very, very excited. This franchise... is on fire.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Upcoming Movie Roundup -- December

In November I finally got out, and went to the movies. I saw Thor: The Dark World, and you can read my review of it here if you missed it, and I saw Catching Fire, and am currently working on the review for that one -- coming very soon. I also still want to see Ender's Game, which didn't get the best reviews but I still think I'll enjoy it, and Frozen, which surprised me by actually being (apparently) as good as I was hoping. When I get around to seeing it, I'll let you know for sure. As for December releases, there's a few interesting films, and one that I'll definitely be seeing... on opening night.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Dec 6th, Limited, 20th Wide; R
The Coen brothers' next movie is about a music artist Llewyn and the hardships he and his cat face during one week of his life. Now I know that doesn't sound super interesting, but here's why I am: The Coen brothers, for a start, and there's music involved, so the Coens, and music -- always a good combination. The cast looks very fine, with Oscar Isaac as the lead, and (most interestingly to me) Carey Mulligan who is brilliant, and one of my favorite actresses ever. There's also John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake. So the Coens plus a amazing-looking cast, with a plot about music. And one more thing: it's vintage -- set in 1961. Yep, that's interesting. Sadly, with it being rated R it's unlikely I'll be seeing it anytime soon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Dec 13th; PG-13
Oh yes. It's almost time. Peter Jackson's second of three part adaptation of Tolkien's beloved first tale of Middle-Earth. This time, we're guaranteed a look at Smaug (the stupendous) who is set up to be an amazing villain, and being voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, gives me chills every time I hear him. Of course you can't forget our hero, Bilbo, who looks to be as perfect as ever in the hands of the ever-reliable Martin Freeman. Gandalf is also still here, and all thirteen dwarves -- Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Kili, Fili, Balin, Dwalin, and Thorin. (And yes, I named them all so I could brag that I know all their names.) As for newcomers, I'm very excited for Luke Evans' Bard the Bowman -- looking very awesome. Thranduil looks promising under Lee Pace, and even Evangeline Lily's added character Tauriel is intriguing. Of course with An Unexpected Journey being a mixed bag of awesomeness and disappointing laziness, I still have some reservations for this one, but I know for sure that at least some of it will be absolutely incredible.

Saving Mr. Banks
Dec 13th Limited, 20th Wide; PG-13
What looks to be a wonderfully charming, apparently true story of P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) author of Mary Poppins, who doesn't want to sell her story to be made into a movie. Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) is very determined though and courts her persistently for the rights. We know, of course what happens -- we've all seen the result -- but how does it come about? Well, I guess we'll see, won't we? And with Hanks and Thompson at the lead, and the supporting cast including Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti and B. J. Novak, I'm sure it'll at least be a charming ride, and I'd like to see it sometime.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Dec 25th; PG
I don't have very much to say for this Dramady starring Ben Stiller as the title character who vividly daydreams about having an exciting life, and then finally does more about it than just dream. It's already getting reviews and they're pretty mediocre, but the premise and trailer are just so unique it keeps sticking out in my head. So I'll keep an eye on it.

American Hustle
Dec 13th, Limited; R
This one's got a pretty strong R rating, so I doubt I'll see it until 2 or so years from now when I might find it on TV, still it's worth a kind of runner-up mention because it certainly going to be a big hit, and how could it not be with this cast -- Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner! A true dream cast. I'm very disappointed.

So, who else is super excited for The Hobbit? And what else has hit your radar for this month?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

It's been two years since New York and the Chitari invasion, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just finishing cleaning up Loki's mess. Now the nine realms are back in order. And soon, they'll literally be in order, as they're aligning -- a phenomenon that happens thousands of years apart. Last time, Thor's granddad was king, and he barely prevented the dark elves and their leader Malekith from covering the lands in darkness. Malekith escaped of course, and now is back, and bent on bringing the darkness with him.

Malekith is played by Christopher Eccleston, and half the time speaks a made-up "dark elf" language. I understand that the idea is to give them credibility, but while reading captions it is very hard to pay attention to anything else, so while I was halfheartedly trying to do both, I did neither. Malekith sadly ended up a rather generic bad guy. His sidekick, however, made up for it a little by being impressively creepy and intimidating.

This is neither Malekith nor his number one, just some typical creepy elves...

There's also a secondary plot resolved at the end of the second act, and its climax was more climatic than the third act, which sets up a huge climax, but then falls short. (See spoiler #1 at the bottom of this post) The main plot has an intriguing premise and it slowly builds throughout the film until it reaches enormous proportions. It was so great that, apparently the writers had a hard time figuring out how to beat it, and their solution was underwhelming. (See spoiler #2)

I doubt it needs saying, but Loki is what I enjoyed most out of this film. All Loki needs to be his incredible self is the equally incredible Tom Hiddleston, who is as good as ever here, (as always) but it's interesting to see the slight changes that different directors have directed in the character. Branagh's influence on Loki made him pitiable; Whedon's made him an awesome villain, and this director, Alan Taylor made him unpredictable, and mysterious. And Taylor did nothing wrong -- Loki is still by far the best character in the film, and funnier than ever -- but he seems to just be humoring us Loki fans instead of actually being interested in developing the character for himself, and appreciating the importance of a character like that. (Spoiler #3) No matter how small a part he is, he's still a step above, so why not include him more throughout movie, and let the movie benefit from the boost? The majority of Loki is seen in the second act, and that was definitely the peak of the film.

Loki takes up light reading.

All the concentration was centered on Thor and Jane, and I'll get to them in a minute, but what is it they have against Fandral, Sif, Hogun, and Volstagg? They had bigger roles in the first film, and I was hoping they'd get some more development and screen time for this one. Especially since Zachary Levi is now playing Fandral. But no, we're only teased with the characters' development, and they're only used until they're not necessary anymore. Levi does get more than the rest, but Jamie Alexander's Sif is only shown enough so we know she's jealous of Jane, and Hogun and Volstagg get next to nothing.

And that's not even mentioning these guys. The supporting roles from Earth. Though they do get more screen time than their Asgardian counterparts.

If attention had been more evenly spread it wouldn't have mattered at all that the hero, Thor's character arc was more like a flat line... or flat-line. Starting out as a great hero with no personal problems, he didn't have anywhere to go -- a common problem with sequels, and something of a catch 22, as it would be arguably worse to redo the character's original arc than for them to have none. The main drama with Thor this time around is between him and Jane. (Natalie Portman) She's hurt and confused that it's taken this long for him to return, but really there's not much drama to be had here. Everyone knows Thor is way too gentlemanly to ditch Jane, no matter how petty (and tiny) and clingy she is.


Besides being slightly more boring as a flawless hero, Thor's character was much improved since his first solo. He wasn't a blooming idiot anymore, and was wise to the ways of Earth as he should be. Still, he doesn't belong there, so there are some very subtle fish-out-of-water moments with one being exceptionally hilarious. (Spoiler #4) Still, the only time he really come to life is when he's bantering with his cheerfully evil brother.

They really do act like brothers. You can almost hear Thor saying, "Loki! Stop it, you're annoying me!"

The Dark World may be more confused, but is definitely prettier than its predecessor. The special effects got an upgrade, and were used to their best advantage. Asgard was breath-taking, and beautifully developed to a realistic, living city, slightly reminiscent of something out of The Lord of the Rings. On Earth, instead of being in the middle of nowhere, we get to see London and Greenwich, and two or three other realms in a little less detail. This huge increase in scope is probably the best improvement on the first Thor film. You can see where the budget went, and it is far from useless.

Action scenes also felt the good effects and are longer and cleaner and more epic in true Marvel style. They've found their formula, and will not be abandoning it anytime soon. On one hand this is good, because it guarantees a certain quality, and on the other, bad, because formula is the edge of a slippery slope that ends in a rut -- and Marvel may have slipped down it already.

But in the end, Thor is... solid -- and his movie is too. It was consistently funny with two particularly great jokes, (Spoiler #4 & 5) and it never turned too cheesy, or dull and generic that I couldn't enjoy it. It may not have met my grandest expectations, but it succeeded in its purpose of being a fun, visual and action-packed Marvel blockbuster, and a great backdrop for Loki to shine against. Not that last part? Watch the movie, and see for yourself.

The end. Thor is now protecting you from evil spoilers.

WARNING: SPOILERS! If you haven't seen the movie, I have located the spoilers here, away from the rest of the review for your convenience to avoid. If you have seen the movie, read on, and I ironically apologize for the inconvenience.

Spoiler #1 - The secondary plot has to do with Jane being infected with a substance which Malekith needs to succeed in his plan. The whole second act revolves around Thor and Co. trying to get it out of her while still keeping it away from Malekith. This plot was way more interesting and involving than the main one, and it resolved awesomely with Loki playing for the bad side, but really for the good side, but really for his own side.

Spoiler #2 - In the end Jane tinkering with her data-collecting Earth technology is the key to ruining Malekith's plan thousands of years in the making, which really brings the epic climatic levels down a lot.

Spoiler #3 - He puts his death scene at the end of the second act, and even though he didn't really die, he doesn't appear again, and the third act suffers the loss. And while I'm on the subject -- the death scene wasn't traumatic enough, so as soon as they walked away from the body and cracked a joke, I knew he was fine.

Spoiler #4 - When he hangs Mjolnir on the coat rack -- brilliant.

Spoiler #5 - When Loki turns into Cap. I did not see that coming and it was great -- in fact that entire scene was hilarious.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Wow -- that was an incredible movie.

Such is the only thought I could muster once the credits rolled on this long-awaited movie. Let's see if I can create some longer, more coherent thoughts and opinions on why it's so incredible.

Duncan (Liam James) is going to be spending his entire summer in a beachfront cottage, and he's miserable about it. See, the cottage belongs to his mom Pam's (Toni Collette) boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) who's overbearing and insulting in an underhandedly "well-meaning" way. He waits for Pam to be asleep before he tells Duncan, as he sits in "the way, way back" rear-facing seat of the station wagon that he thinks on a scale of 1 to 10, he ranks a 3, and callously encourages him to improve. Trent's daughter Steph is even less subtle in her disdain. Trent's friend Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) are obnoxious and patronizing. Then there's the neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) with her rude, unfiltered mouth, her weird son Peter with a lazy eye, and sullen but pretty daughter Susanna, (AnnaSophia Robb) who just seems to bring out all the most embarrassing awkwardness in Duncan. Beachfront or no, this is looking like the beginning of an awful summer.

How to be miserable while on a yacht 101: Ridiculous life-vests.

To escape, Duncan bikes around town on a little pink bike and happens upon exactly what he desperately needs: Sam Rockwell. Owen is a fun-loving, full-time jokester and manager of Water Wizz, and most importantly, the direct opposite of Trent. Even though he never overlooks an opportunity to poke fun, he gives Duncan a job, and along with other water park employees Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) and Roddy and Lewis, (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, also co-writers and directors) makes him begin to feel comfortable, welcome, and at home. So maybe this summer won't be complete torture after all.

Roddy, Owen, Duncan and Caitlin ready to procrastinate.

Okay, so that was a nice, short plot summary -- now where to start? How about with the spot-on and simply amazing writing and directing from Faxon and Rash -- their overall story in general is never ground-breaking or very original, I'd say it's a very classic indie coming-of-age plot, and I wouldn't say it's a bad thing, but it doesn't matter because the story goes way beyond ridiculous trappings like trying to be "original" and instead focuses on being actually meaningful, and honest. In that, it's wonderfully successful, and from it comes a surprising amount of originality. (How paradoxical!) Based partially on the writers' childhood memories, every situation has a sense of familiarity, particularly the awkward and painful moments, as we unfortunately all know the glory of an awkward stage. There's also a wonderful balance of sharp, brilliant comedy and potent, unforced drama, and we get a nice, hard look at human nature.

I also love how realistically the scenes flow, especially group scenes like this one.

The characters are perfectly fleshed out in that not-too-obvious way classic to independent films that I love. Each character is complex and realistic, and (more or less) has their commendable and flawed sides. And even though every one of them appear at first to fit snugly into a stereotype, finding just one word to perfectly describe any of them is difficult. Here is where praise for the writing begins to blend with praise for the acting. With this movie more than most, I realized the teamwork it takes to create such great characters, and Faxon and Rash were obviously very lucky and scored and all-around brilliant cast who enhanced their great characters in the most complementary way to the writing possible.

This lady, Allison Janney, is one prime example.

Duncan is basically the epitome troubled loner introvert hiding in a tightly closed shell, and Liam James embodies him impeccably, with pitiful awkwardness and slumped shoulders. It's impressive acting anyway for a fifteen-year-old, but I find it even more impressive considering the vast difference between this role and playing the younger version of class-clown Shawn Spencer in Psych for four years. When he left the show to get into films, I thought it was an ignorant move; I was wrong. Even with all those well-seasoned older actors constantly surrounding him and in spite of his character being such a wallflower, he still consistently holds the spotlight of our attention and affection.

I still think he was the best "little Shawn" though.

The only one who really distracts us from Duncan is the ever-incredible Mr. Rockwell. The great thing (or one of many, anyway) about Sam Rockwell -- and therefore Owen too -- is that he can be the most immature goof-off, spewing a relentless torrent of wise-cracks and punch lines, each more sharp and hilarious than the last, but when it's time to be serious, he's equally amazing, trading in his goofy immaturity for some somber and kind sincerity. Owen is the main source of the best and most consistently funny comedy I've seen in a long time, but he's also a part of the most compelling and heartfelt moments of the film.

This guy never ceases to amaze me.

Also worth a quick mention: Allison Janney is the next person in line to scene-steal with sharp comedy, and she does get away with a few, but in order to really appreciate her performance, watch her in an interview first or something -- otherwise you'll think she's naturally that way. Toni Collette is exactly as wonderful as Pam as you would expect her to be if you've seen her before. She plays the struggling single mother exceptionally well. And I don't hold the popular opinion that Steve Carell is a classically "likeable guy," I more appreciate his ability to be a funny jerk than a charming everyman, but still I felt shocked at how awful his character was being, and he did it horribly -- amazingly -- well. AnnaSophia Robb hit my "serious actress" radar with her role; Amanda Peet was very simply a perfect bit of casting, and Maya Rudolph had a cute dynamic going with Rockwell.

Really though, with a movie set at an awesome water park, you just can't go wrong!

Still, add up all these positives I've mentioned and it still comes short of how much I love this movie. I think what I'm leaving out are many wonderful, small, or seemingly insignificant details (some of which I cannot mention due to spoilers) that made this movie everything I was hoping and predicting it'd be. I love the subtlety in the movie with its straightforward pace, always from Duncan's perspective, and its simple scenes that understand that very often silence can be much more effective than even the best dialogue. The nostalgic vintage feel, the awesome soundtrack, or even tinier things, like that fact that no one uses cell phones, or that Susanna dresses a tinge more modestly than her "friends," all add a little to the wonder of the film. Then there's the last ten minutes or so -- a nine-digit budget and all the special effects in the world won't buy you an ending with a heart like that, plain and simple.

Jumping back to that awesome soundtrack I mentioned... Here is its best song -- or my favorite at least -- it's featured in its entirety in the film, matches it perfectly, and has a great set of lyrics: Power Hungry Animals by The Apache Relay.

But after ALL that, I still think my first thought sums it up the best...

Wow. What an incredible movie.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Upcoming Movie Roundup -- November

Ender's Game
Nov 1, PG-13
The first of two movies based on books releasing this month that interested me into reading the stories before their movies came out. This one caught my attention with it's cast full of favorites; Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin, and after reading the book (which I recommend -- it was very good) my interest has been holding steady. Since it came out today I already know what critics generally think. They say it's not quite as good as the book, but still faithful to it. So I'll probably enjoy it and forgive any little slip-ups, but I'm hoping the visual side will be spectacular if nothing else. I'm already sure the acting will be great though -- with a cast like that, it could hardly be otherwise. Definitely seeing this. The only question is, "when?"

Thor: The Dark World
Nov 8, PG-13
Finally Loki gets his own movie... What? Never mind that title! Okay, okay, so Chris Hemsworth is still the title hero here. And we all know for sure that the Ninth Doctor, Chrisopher Eccleston is the baddie, Malekith. So the question is, which side will Tom Hiddleston's Loki fall to this time? Mostly I'm just worried he won't make it to the end alive... But, besides my pessimistic fangirly conjecture, this movie is looking great -- visually and scope-wise, several steps above the first, with an intriguing plot (particularly for Loki fans) and promises of lots and lots of action, drama, and comedy. I doubt we'll see anything groundbreaking though... besides Thor's hammer in many cool action sequences that is. Hugely anticipated, absolutely-must-see, and I expect very much to love it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Nov 22, PG-13
Do I even really need to say anything? This looks crazy good. Crazy. I loved the first one, and I'm prepared to love this one even more. The trailer looks fantastic, breath-taking, and everything seems to be in order for this to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. The returning cast led by Jennifer Lawrence promises to be better than ever, and the and the new characters appear to be adapted flawlessly. I have one tiny reservation, and that is Sam Claflin as Finnick... I have yet to be impressed with his acting skills, but, I cannot deny he looks the part, and movies like Pirates 4 and Snow White and the Huntsman aren't exactly where you'd expect to find great acting anyway, so I'm hopeful. All I can do now is wait with anxious excitement. And maybe read the book one more time...

Nov 27, PG
This movie reminds me very much of Tangled. Which is what they were going for I'm sure. (The titles are even similar.) So if you've read my review of Tangled you know that I love it, but you'll also know that I had absolutely no desire to see it based on it's horribly boring and stupid first trailer. That's pretty much the case here, except that now that I know the movie will likely be better than the trailer, I'm more willing to reserve judgement. Starring Kristen Bell, with the awesome Idina Menzel and Alan Tudyk, with a plot that mixes Disney Princesses with Narnia (eternal winter anyone?) and cheesiness and apparently a love triangle, (and the strangest "animal" sidekick EVER) it looks almost unbearably silly, but I can still hope this animation flick will follow in Rapunzel's footsteps.

Bonus: Television!

Almost Human
Series Premiere: Nov 4th
One of New Zealand's finest, Karl Urban stars in this new FOX series set in a futuristic world where cop are assigned robots for partners. And Karl is ah... a Renaissance man -- he doesn't like robots, ever since they were the cause of his human partner's death and his own robotic leg. So he gets assigned to a weird one that acts like a regular, emotional human (Michael Ealy). Do you get it? They're both almost human. Since this is a FOX series I'll try to not let myself get too attached, but in my opinion, Karl Urban in a weekly futuristic crime drama is a must-see.
Note: Well, the premiere date was the 4th, but now is pushed back to the 17th (Sun, after football to draw in more viewers) with the next episode in its normal slot on the 18th. They're calling it a "2-night series premiere."

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of The Doctor
Nov 23rd
Matt Smith and the Eleventh Doctor say "goodbye." David Tennant and Billie Piper say "hello again," (and "did you miss me?" for extra awesome. (Oh, yes.)) and then "goodbye again" as the Tenth Doctor and Rose. And Jenna Coleman as Clara says "hello" to Peter Capaldi as Twelve (hopefully). I don't know what John Hurt is gonna be doing, or saying. And I don't know what the plot is gonna be. But I am way beyond excited. But also way beyond dreading, because Sarah will have to say "goodbye" to her two favorite Doctors at once, and she's not sure she can handle it. She might be going crazy already -- she's talking about herself in the third person...

What are you most excited to see this month?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


One of the best, most overlooked actors, the extraordinary Sam Rockwell stars all alone in this understated and also overlooked science fiction thriller written specifically for him. Sam plays Sam, a lonely astronaut living on a moon base to oversee harvesting of Helium 3, a source of clean energy. His contract was three years, and his only companion an AI robot named GERTY, (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the occasional recorded video message from his employers or his wife back on Earth. Now there's only a couple weeks before his three years is up, and not a moment too soon; Sam is about to go crazy with cabin fever. He's preparing to finally go home, but then... some strange things begin to happen. Maybe Sam isn't only about to go crazy after all.

The one and only.

It seems as if including Sam Rockwell in a cast guarantees two things -- one being that the movie will be significantly improved, and often completely made by his presence, and two, that the movie will then be inexplicably overlooked or underrated, especially if that movie is set in space. Case in point: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Galaxy Quest, and this movie -- Moon. It's a little sad for the movie to be so commonly underrated, but mostly I find it satisfying to think how I'm one of few who have discovered and appreciate this gem -- like the feeling you have when you're in on that really great in-joke.

So here I am, doing my part to include you in the "joke" that is this pretty-darned-amazing movie. But as much as I like it, I can't recommend it for everyone without some reserve. It's rated R first of all, for twenty or so uses of the f-word, by my count. (And that makes this the first R-rated movie to make it into my portfolio of movies reviewed, a noteworthy milestone by my reckoning.) Other than the language though, there's not much worth a complaint -- brief rear nudity, and a scene of kissing I'd give a medium PG-13. But more importantly, to really appreciate this movie, you have to like its type -- serious, understated, edgy, and a little bit unsettling.

GERTY is happy!

And now there's danger that if I'm not careful, I may begin to rant, and go off topic... that topic being the special effects. They're worth mentioning because Moon was an independent film, and had a relatively small budget for a sci-fi movie (five million) yet its looks are deceivingly impressive. The moon's surface, big harvesting vehicles, and the base all look great -- no corners cut, nothing missing or left out. Practical effects were used to their full potential, and the often overused CGI was included only when necessary, or for that final touch. The result isn't dazzlingly beautiful futuristic space scenery, but more gritty and foreboding, and has a very realistic, down-to-earth feel (so to speak) which perfectly matches the tone of the film. The effects are used as they should be; to support the character driven story by simply making its world believable. Here's where I move on before ranting occurs...

A terrible job... but the view is a definite perk.

Now, as you might have immediately understood when I said earlier that the role of Sam (and in fact the entire movie) was written for Rockwell, the casting, characterization and acting was immaculate. You can't go wrong with Sam Rockwell and edgy sci-fi. Sam the character was written extremely well for its actor, and kudos for that goes to writer/director Duncan Jones (in his film debut, no less). Then, in the general sense of acting -- believability, the right balance of emotions, and natural line delivery -- Rockwell is great, just as he should be. Nuanced and melancholy, with his signature side of quirky, and he does it totally alone, with practically nothing to play off of. What really blew me away in this piece though was his characterization. It was fantastic, and had a bit of an awesome surreal effect to watch... and it's something you really have to see for yourself to fully understand.

Like this. The tiny wooden church makes sense if you've seen the movie.

I wish I could explain in more detail the charms of this movie -- more about the understatedly thoughtful and unique mysterious plot, or why exactly Rockwell's performance impresses so greatly, but spoilers prevent me. All I have left to say is that Moon is not a perfect film, it has its flaws, and as I said before it's not catered to be appealing to everyone, but it certainly is to me. And not only -- just a lot -- because it exclusively stars one of my favorite actors. From my perspective, Moon is all-around great, and from every angle a detailed and masterfully crafted, engrossing sci-fi tale.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


"Epic" is the perfect, ironic title for this movie, because everything is tiny... but just because something's small doesn't mean it's not epic. Course, it doesn't mean it is either...

Yeah, I'm not sure I understand either... On to the review!

Mary Katherine, or M.K., (Amanda Seyfried) is a troubled teenager who just lost her mother. She goes to live in the middle of nowhere with her estranged dad, who's a bit wacko. See, he has this crazy theory that the woods are inhabited with a race of tiny advanced people, and, well, he's right. Tiny human-ish versions of leaves, flowers, sticks and insects live in the forest. The leaf men are the warriors, riding on birds, and protecting their home and Queen from the evil rot. Amongst them, is a seasoned captain, Ronin (Colin Farrell) and a young wayward warrior he tries to keep in line, Nod. (Josh Hutcherson) When M.K. is magically shrunk down to their size, she discovers not only that her father is right about the tiny people, but they also need her help. With the assistance of Ronin, Nod, and two snails-- er, excuse me -- a snail and a slug, she sets out for an important mission to save the forest from the literally-rotten-to-the-core villain. (Christoph Waltz)

And she thought he was crazy!

The first thing you'll notice about this movie is that it's pretty predictable. Okay, it's downright predictable. Disappointing, especially considering the potential of the premise, which in spite of its promising originality, can't make up for a plot taken straight from the mold. There's so much room for creating with the tiny imaginative world, and what do the writers do with it? Doubtlessly inspired by their title, they go big, and environmental, with the fate of the forest at stake, only brushing the surface of creative possibilities. And that's pretty much how the whole film goes -- anything that turned out good is directly counter-weighted by something else that falls short.

"...can you imagine the possibilities of this!?" Who said that quote? (Hint: it's from a movie I wish this one was more like.)

For an example (and to move along) if they'd concentrated more on characters, and made them root-able and loveable, the entire story could have been about M.K. trying to get home, (or something even more creative than what I can think of) and it could have been great. Sure, not exactly "epic," but involving -- I find it easier to connect with actual characters than the things those characters care about, so make the characters relatable. This is a no-brainer. Now, M.K. is a very well-balanced heroine; smart, goofy, sweet, not too girly and not too tomboyish, but even with all the development she gets as the main character, she still feels under-developed. Same goes double that for Ronin and Nod. Ronin fares better thanks to Farrell's more seasoned talents, and his character being cooler and more understated, but apparently no one was on the same page with Nod. Every so often, Hutcherson's vocal inflection doesn't match how his character was animated. (At one point the voice sounds mad, but the character looks sad.) I've never seen this happen before, and the confused result is very distracting, and disappointing to me (who was hoping for a Swashbuckling, funny Flynn Rider type character, and got let down.)
They're fine when they're not talking though!

The problem is with the animators. I don't understand it, but for some reason the human (and humanoid) faces are blandly animated in general; "surprise" is the only emotion done with any real success. It's weird, because otherwise the animation is top-notch. The tiny world, and the forest, and even all the normal things like the house are lovely, and characters like the snail and slug are very expressive, with almost nothing to work with! (Or maybe that's why they were better.) I suppose it also helps that they were solely comic characters. In fact, anything that has to do with comedy in the movie is done well, with only a few miss-fires, and that may be this movie's redeeming quality (even though most of the best jokes are in the trailer.)

I want to be tiny so I can be epic while riding a hummingbird...

And now that I've picked the whole movie apart, I hope it won't be too much of a surprise when I say, I enjoyed it. Well, mostly. After all, how could I hate something that made me laugh? It had its moments of being cute as well, and when there weren't faces being weird, it was stylish, and pleasant to look at. And I can still enjoy predictable plots, as long as they're executed well, as this one was -- paced evenly, and with no holes... as far as I can remember. And that is as positive a note as I can manage for my not-so-epic Epic review ending.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Ah, such a quaint happening -- a Shakespeare adaptation... modernized, but with the original script intact... filmed in black and white... at the director, Joss Whedon's own house... in the span of about twelve days... with a bunch of famous people he calls "friends." I believe I had never been more interested in Shakespeare in my life.

And I finally got to see it, but now I meet with a little difficulty. I am no expert on Shakespeare, and honestly I probably feel a bit too proud of myself for understanding this movie, though it was relatively easy. I don't feel qualified to critique this movie. I lack the experience and understanding to know if this is a good adaption or not. I only know what I happened to like and dislike. So let this be a disclaimer, and from here on I'll go ahead and make this review as biased, subjective and otherwise personally opinionated as I like. As, really, these things should be.

Leonato is ashamed... no... just hungover.
Apart from one annoying hiccup, I have never has more fun watching Shakespeare than with this little film. And I'll address that one problem first, that is, that in spite of the original script remaining majorly intact, the story has been pointlessly sexed up, just to the level of  PG-13. The villain's accomplice was changed to be a woman seemingly for the sole purpose of their being a couple to add a random inappropriate scene. Then there is another exactly where you'd think it'd be if you know the story. It spoils the movie just enough to make disappointment rain on the otherwise delightful experience. This is the first and last negative thing I will say about the movie, on to the good stuff!

Like the cast. Though this is another situation where my lack of Shakespearean knowledge weighs me down, but, in general, no one sounded unnatural or like they were just saying lines. The leading couple, Beatrice and Benedick, (Amy Acker, and Alexis Denisof) are fiery and goofy -- former mostly to former and latter mostly to latter -- well matched and fun to watch. I particularly love the hilarious, over-the-top scenes where they try desperately to overhear "secret" conversations staged for their benefit. And the one scene between, where Benedick goes through a series of lunges, pushups, and crunches, in an obvious attempt to impress the icy lady.

The comedic styles of Shakespeare and Whedon suit each other very well.

Also standing out in the cast is the awesome Clark Gregg as Leonato, delivering the comedic one-liners only slightly more brilliantly than his dramatic lines. Sean Maher is the complete opposite of his Firefly character, and impressively so, as Don John, the cold, scheming evil villain, and his Firefly captain, Nathan Fillion is probably the funniest character, Dogberry. I laughed many times. And the secondary couple, Hero, played by newcomer, Jillian Morgese, and Claudio, Fran Kranz, easily manage to be an adorable couple is spite of relatively limited screen-time. Everyone in this movie is so obviously having a blast, how can we do anything but also have a blast watching them?

The most effortlessly stylish "home video" ever.

It was an interesting choice to set the film in modern times but still keep the original Shakespearean language, and it was, in all likelihood, a choice of convenience, (scripts and period costumes cost time and money) but it worked in a surprising, unique way. A little jolting at the very first, but only for the first few lines at most, before it becomes perfectly natural. Ladies in floaty dresses, men in suits and the black and white (also a convenience... that I wholeheartedly approve of) suspends your disbelief; it's not set in modern times or the 1600's, it's set in a time and a world of its own.

And a world, at that, that I would by no means mind living in -- a laid-back, joyful place where making a movie is as easy and fun as calling up your friends for a party and grabbing a video camera and a book for source material. And for someone like me, that is nothing short of inspiring.