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?