Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review - "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies" by David Pretty

For better or for worse, Peter Jackson's vision of The Hobbit is finally complete. And make no mistake about it, this is most assuredly the New Zealand director's take on the venerable children's fantasy yarn since it bears about as much resemblance to Tolkien's original text as Olive Garden does to an Italian restaurant.

Smaug the dragon (voiced by prerequisite presence Benedict Cumberbatch) has been evicted from his squatters lair in Erebor thanks to a gutsy extermination effort by the displaced dwarves. The olde wyrm decides to punish their temerity by turning the nearby hamlet of Laketown into a giant hibachi. This concludes with a fateful encounter with the dauntless and dead-eyed Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).

With Smaug out of the picture the new dwarven King Thorin Oakenshield decides to celebrate by diving Scrooge McDuck-style into the freshly-liberated treasure horde. As a result he begins to suffer from "dragon sickness", a corrupting influence left over from Smaug's extended proximity to the gold. Overcome by greed and paranoia, Thorin barricades the front gates of Erebor like the Middle Earth version of Cliven Bundy.

And his paranoia may very well be justified. The Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) have arrived en masse to recover their heirlooms which were stolen by Smaug over the years. The survivors of Laketown also come a-knockin', looking to file a dragon fire insurance claim. Even worse: hordes of orcs are converging on the relatively undefended stronghold, demanding their own piece of the action.

The best thing I can say about The Battle Of Five Armies is that all the irrelevant mush that Jackson and his screenwriters have dragged into the story are all action beats this time out. Well, most of it is anyway. For example, the subplot featuring the Wormtongue-esque Alfred Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is completely superfluous but at least Gage is fun to watch. Equally superfluous is the color-by-numbers non-existent love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the hawt dwarf (Aiden Turner).

At this stage, Jackson isn't even trying to replicate the tone of Tolkien's classic kid's adventure book. It's been re-purposed to conform with every single other modern blockbuster: in other words it's a dark, noisy and hideously violent action movie. There's absolutely no sense of adventure, discovery or wonder, just a constantly-escalating parade of digital spectacles. And that's really a bloody shame because The Hobbit should have been a training wheels version of Lord of the Rings for kids: something short, sweet, lighthearted, funny and occasionally scary but maybe not too scary. Instead we get an incessant bombardment of sound and fury signifying Jackson shouting "Are you not entertained?!?" to the widest theater-going demographic possible.

Moments of insight, emotion, tranquility and reflection are few and far between. Sadly I'm at my happiest when the dwarves are trucking along a real mountain ridge, Gandalf is galloping across the New Zealand countryside or Bilbo is crossing the threshold of the Shire. Many of the practical sets, including the dwarven realm of Erebor, the charred and ruined city of Dale and the desolate peak of Dol Guldur showcase a fine attention to detail, but most of the digital backgrounds and establishing shots look like cut scenes from Diablo III.

I also wish that the dwarves looked more rough n' tumble, like Gimli did in Lord of the Rings. It's bad enough that Legolas and Thranduil are under so many freakin' filters that they look like plastic, pointy-eared versions of Bruce Jenner but the dwarves are equally well-coiffed. When you superimpose one of these flawless, ruddy, rubbery ("ruddery?")-looking bastards in the foreground of an equally fraudulent digital background I feel as if I'm watching some sort of competent-looking fan film. For example, when Scottish comedian Billy Connolly shows up as Dáin all I could think of is how much better Varric from Dragon Age: Inquisition looks.

Jackson makes amends somewhat by serving up some of the trippiest moments of the entire Middle Earth saga. When the White Council featuring Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) suddenly bomb in like the Super Friends to confront the embryonic Ring Wraiths, you'll swear that you just popped a tab of brown acid instead of a Milk Dud. After witnessing the incongruous sight of 92-year-old Christopher Lee kicking ass and taking names like Jackie Chan in a Drunken Master movie you'll also get a load of Galadriel foreshadowing her Fellowship freak-out by going full Ozymandias on the re-constituted Lidless Eye. By the time you watch Thorin sinking into Smaug's lake of gold like a deleted scene from The Lawnmower Man you'll begin to wonder if Jackson is just trying pay homage to his earlier, infinitely more interesting low-budget horror movie career.

But for every WTF?!? moment of  there are three instances of eye-rolling idiocy, most of which involve *surprise, surprise*, I mean Legolas. I was willing to accept his patented light-as-air arm sweep / arrow in the skull bat-glider scene, but when he steers a troll around with a cranium-embedded sword and then runs up a series of falling bricks like Bugs Bunny I audibly shouted "Check, please!" in the theater. Honestly, just because the movie looks like a cartoon does the action hafta go all Looney Tunes on us as well?

But I can't criticize all of the spectacle. Smaug's attack on Laketown is harrowing and intense. The titular Five Army fracas is an epic scrum of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, giant bats, and sandworms who apparently took the wrong turn on their way to Arrakis. But even the best-visualized action scenes get boring after awhile, especially if you've been given so little reason to identify with the characters who are supposedly in peril. The reason we cared so much for Frodo and Sam in the Rings trilogy is because we spent so much time with them and suffered as they did. Here Bilbo is just trying to keep his head down as a bunch of greedy assholes get into a very stabby rugby match over a pile of gold.

It's bad enough that the characters are under-written but the action scenes drag on and on. At one point I thought that Thorin had actually used his noodle to abbreviate an already-prolonged scrum with Azog but seconds later we get a predictable, hackneyed, slasher-villain style jump scare that anyone can see coming a mile away. Eventually I started to suffer from hyper-extended spectacle fatigue and began to tune out.

Thankfully the film is aided by a horde of capable actors who give credence to the alternately functional, interchangeable and / or stilted dialogue. Martin Freeman's performance is a bit self-conscious and labored but I think that he's just trying to wring some passion and nuance out of the wafer-thin material. For a film titled The Hobbit Bilbo sure spends a lot of time in the background peeking over shoulders or wordlessly staring at other characters as they do more interesting things. Ian McKellen is his usual great self and the jarringly-quiet pipe-cleaning scene he shares with Freeman is something that I wanted a lot more of.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield enjoys a functional, if rather dragged out, character arc. It takes nearly two hours for him to go from an obstinate, avaricious hermit to a valiant, take-charge warrior. Unfortunately, it isn't the eponymous hobbit that prompts this epiphany but his aforementioned psychedelic gold whirlpool nightmare. Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly are stalwart and stiff-upper-lipped as Legolas and Tauriel. Luke Evans also deserves considerable praise for filling in as an Aragorn understudy.

I feel churlish criticizing a film as well-made as The Battle of Five Armies. The sets look cool, the music is solid, the actors are strong, the costumes are convincing and the special effects are especially effective. It just has no heart and no soul. In his effort to make The Hobbit as epic and earth-shattering as the chronologically-distant Lord of the Rings, Jackson stripped that humble little tale of everything that made it quaint, charming and unique.

Even worse, if you watch Fellowship of the Ring right after a Hobbit flick you'll realize that the two don't even dove-tail visually and tonally with one another. The Lord of the Rings still feels like a comparatively lean and mean little quest tale featuring three-dimensional characters and practical special effects while The Hobbit reeks of the modern cinematic failure of trying too hard.

   Tilt: down.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" by David Pretty


Poor Katniss Everdeen. Along with faux love interest Peeta Mellark, she managed to survive the state-sanctioned horrors of the 74'th Annual Hunger Games. But even after she's granted all the privileges and rights associated with victory she's unable to reconcile her new role as a willing pawn for the totalitarian regime with the destitution and abuse being inflicted on her people. 

During her Victory Tour she becomes increasingly willful, inspiring the despotic President Snow to propose a new version of the Hunger Games called the "Quarter Quell". A selection of prior champions, including the hapless Katniss and Peeta, are once again thrown into the field of battle to determine a single winner. But this time secret forces are at work in an attempt to turn our budding heroine into an unwitting symbol for a full-fledged rebellion. 


Of course, fans of the Suzanne Collins book series will most likely have already seen this several times over. Anyone else who digs lite sci-fi / dystopian future / big event movies will also be predisposed to checking out The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

  •  Yay, new director! Francis "I Am Legend" Lawrence replaces Gary "Seabiscuit" Ross and the results are pretty noticeable. Even though I Am Legend was downright ass-tacular, at least Lawrence didn't cheat most of the action scenes by resorting to shaky-cams and electron-microscope-style close-ups. And even though this one has a slightly-longer run time it actually feels shorter. This is, in part, due to Lawrence's breezy directorial style and partly because of my next point.
  • Introductions are over and now we're down to the real nitty gritty. By threatening to enact a suicide pact at the end of the prior film, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) managed to survive the Games and generate a groundswell of opposition to the barbaric practices of the Capitol. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) trots them out for a self-serving "Victory Tour" they begin to see just how widespread the uprisings are. Whenever someone in the crowd tries to perform the District 12 Sign to salute the two self-sacrificial "lovers" they're either dragged away, pummeled into submission or shot on sight. Even though our heroes would love to come out in public support of the people, Snow has threatened to execute everyone in their circle. Man, talk about a sticky wicket!
  • The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) finally starts to coalesce. In the first film, Peeta's motivations were tough to pin down but now that he's proven his mettle, I can see the dude's appeal. Since they've been through hell and back together it makes sense that Katniss would develop feelings for him. By the same token Gale is a childhood sweetheart and quite noble and heroic in his own right.
  • Snow's nasty solution to the surging popularity of Katniss is kinda like Jeopardy's "Tournament of Champions" but with 100% more murder. Even though this "Quarter Quell" doesn't make a lick of sense to this armchair dictator (see "CONS" below), it sure ramps up the film's dramatic tension. Especially when you consider that these Victors have been promised a lifetime of fame, fortune and security if they survive the Games. When they find themselves dragged back onto the field of battle, the resulting rancor and bitterness is downright palpable.
  • In addition to its superior pacing and story, Catching Fire also exhibits a considerably sharper visual eye. The special effects used to depict the Capitol, the Roman-esque Chariot Ride / Tribute Parade, the transport hovercraft and the combat grounds are all a lot more convincing this time out. 
  • There's also some great set design on display here including the slums of District 12, the ghostly "Victor's Village", the Capitol Train car, the Presidential Mansion, the Training Center and the battle site itself.   
  • The costumes of the Capitol residents are as extravagant as ever but not nearly as inadvertently goofy. Effie Trinket's monarch butterfly frock and Katniss's transformative wedding dress / mockingjay gown are pretty distinctive. This contrasts nicely with the shabby, work-a-day garb worn by the average District-dweller. The stormtrooper-like armor of the incongruously-named "Peacekeepers" is also chillingly effective.        
  • I'm really glad that these books and films are so popular with young people since, at the very least, it should give them the ability to recognize symptoms of fascism. Keep a checklist handy while watching Catching Fire and count how many real-world parallels you can spot. We've got a growing disparity between the rich upper-class and the working poor, overt pageantry and idolatry, law-enforcement over-reach, Orwellian language, dictatorial powers, info-tainment media distractions and an attempt to convince the average plebe that you can become one of the elite if you just jettison your morals and start doing whatever it takes to get ahead. I only hope that fans realize sooner rather then later that The Hunger Games is only nominally a work of fiction. 
  • Jennifer Lawrence is forced to endure what amounts to an emotional roller coaster here but she's sure-footed throughout the entire film. Brash and defiant towards Snow's regime, terrified by the prospects of retaliation against her mom and l'il sis and suffering from what amounts to PTSD, the character of Katniss has a lot on her plate here. Not a lot of young actresses could pull off the insight, mental agility and physical demands required to make all of this work but Lawrence is completely self-assured and sympathetic throughout. 
  • Josh Hutcherson presides over a pretty decent little character arc and even provides a few twists as Peeta. In my review for the first film I described his character as a "milksop" and wanted Katniss to just "snap" and "make his head look like a pincushion". Between the solid scripting and Hutcherson's growing command over the role, I no longer want a heavy object to fall on him such as a safe or a piano. Perhaps this was the intent of Suzanne Collins all along: to have our feelings towards Peeta mirror those of Katniss and evolve as we got to know him. Having said that, I can't escape this overwhelming suspicion that fans of the book are probably reading this and laughing their asses off at me for some reason.
  • Peeta occasionally calls Katniss Cat-Nip. Now if Katniss had only referred to Peeta's grade-school crush "Hummus" then things would have been absolutely perfect.  
  • Just as I predicted, Gale emerges here as a vaguely three-dimensional character and Liam Hemsworth finally gets a chance to do something. Even though he's miles away from the Tribute spotlight he does provide considerable emotional heft for Katniss and also proves to be a stalwart guardian for the downtrodden masses of District 12. The scene where he bull-rushes the cruel and sadistic Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) makes for a great "Hells, yeah!" moment and his resulting punishment is pretty harrowing. 
  • In a related point, congrats to St. Esprit for making the most out of his limited screen time and delivering a genuinely frightening and unhinged performance.  
  • As the "damaged veteran" Haymitch Abernathy, Harrelson is no longer a sloppy, flinty, acerbic mess. He's become a highly-functioning alcoholic with his own machinations to deal with. Whether he's dreading a return to the Games, prepping his young charges for battle or revealing a surprisingly deep agenda, Harrelson is pitch-perfect throughout. 
  • And just as expected, the flighty, audacious and relentlessly-cheerful Effie Trinket seems to be on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. It's fun to watch the fantastic Elizabeth Banks struggle to keep up appearances during the deja vu District 12 Reaping Ceremony. Effie's close proximity to Katniss and Peeta has put a pretty big hole in her Kool-Aid tumbler. Her best moment comes on the eve of the Quarter Quell when she struggles to present Haymitch and Peeta with their "team symbols" without crying. Given what these token come to symbolize later you can't help but wonder if she's done with the whole rotten edifice.    
  • There are some great supporting performances on hand as well. Lenny Kravitz is cooly self-assured as the fashion consultant Cinna. As the new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, the greatly-missed and entirely-unreadable Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a very welcome addition to the cast. Stanley Tucci is gloriously obnoxious and vacant as media personality Caesar Flickerman. Donald Sutherland is quietly terrifying as President Coriolanus Snow. Finally Jena Malone makes a real impression as the bitter, shifty and um...body-positive Tribute Johanna Mason. Her elevator scene alone is worth the price of admission.
  • As much as Suzanne Collins might wish that Battle Royale doesn't exist, the two are so similar that comparisons are inevitable. In Battle Royale the participants are secretly gassed, they wake up in captivity, they're handed a weapon and then they're told that it's "kill or be killed". There's no time to dwell on morality: their immediate actions are primal and instinctive. In The Hunger Games the Tributes have plenty of time to ponder their predicament. Hell, they're even trained, for Chrissakes. As such, I'm surprised that more Tributes don't struggle with the concept of becoming a state-sponsored murderer and that more of them don't just off themselves. I know that this is probably addressed somewhere in the books but it's petty much glossed over in the films.
  • The subtext in Battle Royale is that kids should be culled because they are, by their very nature, rebellious. In The Hunger Games these gladiatorial contests happen to distract the masses and remind citizens of the omnipotent power of the Capital. Which makes Snow's decision to martyr a bunch of honored heroes seem pretty stupid to me. Wouldn't this just piss off more people and galvanize them against the government? At the very least wouldn't everyone be gunning for Katniss because its her fault that they all got dragged back into this mess? Snow needs to take a cue from the real world: the best distractions are the most vapid. If the Capital could only find its own Grumpy Cat, PewDiePie and Kardashians they'd be all set. 
  • For the most part the action scenes are gritty, realistic and well-shot. That is until the original novel requires the film-makers to break open a barrel of monkeys. As soon as our heroes were attacked by a horde of pissed-off mandrills I was this friggin' close to shouting "Check, please!" and stopping the movie. I'm sure this scene plays out a lot better in the book but in cinematic terms it feels like a deleted pre-vis scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • Another thing that threatened to eject me out of the film was the ol' "lets-string-this-seemingly-limitless-bolt-of-copper-wire-through-the-jungle-and-electrocute-everyone-in-the-lake-and-on-the-beach" trick. If I was Katniss I probably would have stuck my hand up at that point and asked: "Um, ooookay, so, won't this unjacketed wire with a hundred gigawatts of lightning surging through it also electrocute everything else in this damp-ass rain forest? Like, y'know, us for example?"      

Catching Fire is definitely an improvement on the first film. Even though I still maintain that Battle Royale pulls off this scenario more viciously and economically, I still appreciate the in-depth world-building and social commentary on display here. I'm now officially engrossed in The Hunger Games saga and I really wanna see what happens in the last two installments.
Tilt: Up.