Sunday, December 16, 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" - a case of Been-there-Done-That...

Awright! We get to go back to Middle Earth! Like pretty much all of my geek brethren, that was my initial reaction when Peter Jackson finally got his desire to film The Hobbit pushed through the nightmare of lawsuits between Warner Brothers and MGM over film rights, and then MGMs bankruptcy proceedings.  Yay!  Then came the news that the adaptation would actually be a pair of movies.  Okay, I guess with some stuff from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” appendices and a little creative license, two average-length movies could come from the novel.  Then, we get word that this simple little adventure story would be stretched into THREE films, and three-hour “epics” at that!  Geez, Louise, how thinly can they possibly spread a pat of butter over so much bread???

Well, the finished product is finally here, so with a little bit of reservation, I went to see the first installment of this new trilogy yesterday.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll assume that you, dear reader, are among the hundreds of millions of folks who’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies, and thus won’t waste your time elaborating on the “adventures” about which Bilbo told Frodo, and which are depicted in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (and the next two movies…).

The first third of the movie dawdles a bit, with a very-padded prologue leading off things showing older-Bilbo beginning to tell this tale to Frodo.  We see thirteen dwarves showing up in separate pairs at Bilbo’s doorstep, raiding his pantry and making asses of themselves, but at least they have the good manners to do the dishes afterwards (don’t bother with trying to keep up with the thirteen dwarves - I won’t say it’s impossible to do so, but it’s not entirely necessary, as Jackson does a pretty good job of having whatever dwarf is important in any given scene identified in the course of that scene).  The show finally does get on the road, so to speak, and while there are a couple of sequences in the second and third acts that go on a bit longer than I think necessary, the final two-thirds of the story on the whole moves along fairly well, thankfully. 

If you’ve read “The Hobbit,” then you’re aware that, unlike the trilogy of books that followed, it is primarily a children’s story, and as such, the movie that comes from it certainly has a different tone than those three monstrously-successful movies from a decade ago.  Maybe that explains how the three Lord of the Rings films had a… I started to say “majesty,” but perhaps that’s a bit over-the-top.  Then I thought “originality,” but that’s being a bit too harsh on the new film.  Whatever the term for which I’m searching, there’s some sort of sense of wonder lacking from The Hobbit that was present in the Lord of the Rings.  Perhaps it’s just something as simple as the settings and effects not being new to us anymore, or maybe it’s The Hobbit’s story being a little bit less about the End of the World and more about one short guy overcoming his agoraphobia.

I realize that this is sounding a bit negative, but that’s not actually my intent, as there are good things about the movie, starting with the cast.  Martin Freeman as Bilbo was a good choice.  He is his usual put-upon, underdog-self here, a personality type he always seems to play so well (see Love, Actually and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and I liked how Ian McKellen played Gandalf with a different slant than he did in the Lord of the Rings flicks, conveying the character at an earlier stage in his life.  The multitude of dwarves are actually quite funny, and there are even appearances by some folks who pop up in the Lord of the Rings, so we do get the sense that all of this is building to something, which seems a good thing. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is this first installment of this Hobbit trilogy left me with a little bit of a feeling of “been there, done that.”  I liked it okay, but unless it grows on me in the coming months after I see it again on home video a time or two, I’m not going to be in a very big hurry to get to the theater next December for the second one.    

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A small, but essential, part of the life of "Lincoln"

If you go to see this movie expecting to see much of the Civil War, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  This movie isn’t about the Civil War.  It’s not even about Abraham Lincoln per se, as I’m fairly certain that Lincoln’s life consisted of more than just the first four months of 1865.  One could even make the case the title “Lincoln” is not entirely appropriate, and it instead might should have been named “Passage of the 13th Amendment,” as this is primarily a film about the political process surrounding that event.  However, if you go to see it expecting to see one of the greatest film actors of our generation giving a tour-de-force performance, your money will be well-spent.

Daniel Day-Lewis amazes me once again, as he so disappears into Abraham Lincoln that I don’t even see the performer.  I was most impressed by his voice – I don’t recall him ever having that speaking voice in any of his roles before, and it’s very different from many of the gruff-voiced portrayals of Lincoln we’ve seen before.  His soft-spoken demeanor and gentle movements wonderfully communicate the kind soul we’ve all believed to inhabit Lincoln.

Steven Spielberg doesn’t show us Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, or his being murdered at Ford’s Theater.  We’ve seen all that before.  Spielberg shows us Lincoln speaking to a couple of soldiers waiting to board a train, to his secretaries in the middle of the night, to some telegraph operators waiting for his instructions to them, and to General Grant while seated together in rocking chairs on a front porch.  We see him lying on the floor before a fireplace with his youngest son.  We see him fight with his wife, and with his eldest son.  These are the things that humanize Lincoln to us, perhaps more so than any other president.

As we see the job-offering, the favor-promising and the outright bullying involved in his securing the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment, one wonders just how we of this time in history can say that politics is dirtier than ever.  Looked to me like business as usual.  Well, with the possible exception of the bullying being done in much prettier language than our current president’s cronies and stooges used for cramming Obamacare down the country’s throat.  Whenever I see a well-made period-piece film of the 19th Century, I leave the theater feeling that I missed out on the language of that time.  People were much more well-spoken in those days (or at least educated people were), so much so that even calling someone else the most vile and despicable names, it sounded so much more pleasant.

As usual, Spielberg and his usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, have crafted a beautiful film.  The sets and locations here are fantastic and completely convincing (I honestly don’t know how much computer-generated assistance there was in recreating this time and place, if any at all).  I foresee Oscar nominations for photography, set design and costumes without a doubt.  The rest of the notable cast, from Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Jared Harris, are excellent as well.

Some folks I know describe the movie’s pace as slow, and while I can understand that sentiment, it seems to have a bit of a negative tone to it that I’m reluctant to agree with it.  “Deliberate” is a better adjective, as the process of politics is a deliberate one (hence parliamentary debate being called “deliberation”).  The movie’s pace was very absorbing, and I was certainly never bored.  Just pay attention, people – if you want a faster pace, rent a Bruce Willis movie.  While this movie may not be the definitive depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it should certainly become the definitive depiction of this event in our nation’s history. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Skyfall." Best. Bond. Ever.

That's right, I'll say it again in case you misunderstood me - Best.  Bond.  Ever.  I could just quit writing right there, because it really doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Don’t get me wrong – Goldeneye was great.  I still love Thunderball and Goldfinger.  Even Live and Let Die was pretty good, but if we are to take the word “reboot” literally, then I have to consider the Daniel Craig era as a separate entity from the rest of the Bond series, and as such, Skyfall is simply the best of the bunch.  One of the greatest sensations I can hope to experience as a moviegoer is when a movie lives up to my high hopes for it.  This one most certainly does.

After an intense pursuit of a stolen hard drive that contains vital information through the streets of Istanbul, Bond is wounded during a desperate fight atop a moving train, flung to a river below and left for dead.  MI-6 continues on without him, but when the complex plot of a cyber-terrorist to discredit and disgrace “M” (Judi Dench) begins to take shape, he reappears from the dead, only to be told that he’s possibly too old and out-of-shape to continue serving.  Not that he or “M” would allow silly things like physical evaluations and psychological profiles to keep 007 out of action for long, so rules are bent and superiors are ignored, and Bond then jet-sets halfway across the globe in pursuit of those who seek to make use of the information on that stolen hard drive.

That information turns out to be the identities of every covert operative currently undercover in terrorist organizations all over the world, and it’s being used by some evil mastermind to wreak havoc on MI-6 in general, and on “M” in particular.  The villain turns out to be a former MI-6 operative named Silva (played by a wonderously-creepy Javier Bardem, who can do Creepy Bad Guy better than most, as proved by No Country for Old Men), whose plans turn out to be much more complex, and much more personal, than mere cyber-terrorism.  His first meeting with Bond must be the grandest entry of any Bond villain into a film, and his ensuing conversation with him must also rank as the strangest.

Of course, it’s amazing what an Oscar-winning director can do for a franchise-formula movie (pay close attention to that statement, Walt Disney company, when deciding who will helm the next Star Wars flick…).  I have wondered what sort of “action movie” Sam Mendes could make from the moment I heard of his hiring to direct this film.  I mean, let’s face it – American Beauty and Revolutionary Road were wonderful movies, but they don’t exactly make one think he could just as easily have made Die Hard or something like that.  That said, I’ve had a gut feeling all along that he’d pleasantly surprise us and would make Skyfall something special…  and he sure as Hell did.

Mendes has given us the most visually gripping Bond film I can remember.  As exotic settings have always been a staple of the Bond series, Mendes makes fantastic use of the nighttime settings of Shanghai and Macau, with a skyscraper’s glass and a city’s neon lights apparently being the new trees and foliage in which snipers ply their trade these days.  The gloom of Scotland, the light bulbs of the London underground, and the harsh sunlight of an abandoned island in the South China Sea are all important parts of Mendes’ lovely finished product.

I can’t rave enough about this script, either.  Skyfall is certainly the most character-invested film of the entire Bond series.  We see Bond have doubt about the world changing around him.  We see “M” face her mortality.  We see other, younger operatives suffer the consequences for actions demanded of them.  We see the people to whom they answer question their very necessity in the modern world and the wars we might fight.  We also, for the first time in the fifty-year history of the cinematic version of the character, see that Bond actually did exist before he was granted his Double-O status. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan apparently took advantage of the extra two years provided by MGM’s financial problems to hone this script to near-perfection, and given the sorta-flat previous film in this series (that would be Quantum of Solace, which actually began filming without a completed script), it’s easy to forgive being made to wait longer for this movie.

We’re even given the pleasure of being reintroduced to some of the characters and details we used to love about the series that went away after Casino Royale, in ways that are entirely appropriate to the new style and tone of the series.  There were just enough winks to Bond’s past to be appreciated, but none of them so over-the-top as to make one’s eyes roll at the cheesiness of doing so.  I am so tempted to give away some of these nuggets, but oh, how I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of learning these things for yourself (I will blab that it’s great to see that Bond made sure the Aston Martin he won from Demetrios in Casino Royale got shipped over from the Bahamas after that mission was completed, and that it has a few specs that harken back to other Bond movies…).

If you’ve avoided the movie’s Wikipedia entry so far (damn those European moviegoers who’ve had an extra two weeks to see it and spoil the surprises for us over here…), then you’re in for one heck of a time.  The pre-title action sequence alone is worth the price of admission, so consider getting a completely fantastic experience the rest of the way as a bonus.  In other words, Skyfall kicks ass.  Maybe I should’ve just left it at that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Seven Psychopaths" might be two or three too many.

I recently wrote that bad reviews were much more fun to write than good ones, but sitting here wondering what to say about Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is making me feel that while writing bad reviews may be fun, writing so-so reviews is pretty dang difficult.  Throwing out a few sentences into a blank MS Word document, looking at them, rearranging them several times, and hoping some sort of coherent train of thought manifests itself as a result is the beginning of the process that (sometimes) leads to something I’m not ashamed to read back to myself, and then allow you, Dear Reader, to see.  The few sentences that get thrown onto the screen seem to come a bit faster, and contain a bit more wit, however, when I find myself on either end of the disgust/praise spectrum than they do when I’m somewhere in the apathetic middle.  Watching Colin Farrell play a writer struggling to get farther than his title of Seven Psychopaths makes me glad I don’t have to resort to some of the ends to which he must go for inspiration.

Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter who has fixated himself on a title, “Seven Psychopaths,” and now strains his brain to flesh out a narrative from those two words.  His environment presents obstacles, as his girlfriend is a nag, badgering him about getting started and making headway on the screenplay, and his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is apparently a slacker/loser, making an existence out of stealing dogs and then returning them to grateful owners for the reward money.   Oh, and it goes without saying that Marty, being Irish, and a writer to boot, drinks to excess, to the point he can’t remember his girlfriend kicking him out of the house the night before he awakens on a sofa at Billy’s place. 

On the sofa beside him is Billy’s latest “hostage,” a Shih Tzu that happens to be owned by Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a gangster of some sort who loves this furry little turd beyond comprehension and sets out on a murderous crusade to find it, one that leads to Billy’s co-hort Hans (Christopher Walken), and then to Marty.  During all of this, Billy has provided Marty some story fodder in the form of pointing out a newspaper story about a current serial killer who targets mob figures, and has even taken it upon himself to find some research opportunities for Marty by placing a newspaper ad for psychopaths to come and be interviewed, without Marty’s approval and against his better judgment and survival instincts. 

The plot weaves and jumps through Billy, Hans and Marty’s escaping Charlie’s goons, the interviewing of one of the psychopath want-ad respondents, and the visualizing of their brainstorming sessions for the screenplay – ideas that range from Vietnamese villagers and hookers in Vegas hotel rooms, to a mixed-race couple on murdering-of-murderers spree through 1960s-Civil-Rights-era America, to a current-day mass nighttime shootout in a Los Angeles graveyard.  They flee to Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert, have some deep philosophical discussions, and eventually have a showdown with Charlie to determine who gets to keep the Shih Tzu.  You know, just a quiet, introspective character study of a film... 

So was the whole thing a figment of Marty’s imagination, some sort of writer’s mental process that led to the screenplay he’s shown completing at the movie’s end?  I leave that for you to determine, but there’s probably no right or wrong answer to that question.  The opening scene of the movie is definitely one of Marty working on his story, and the tag sequence that interrupts the final credits is almost certainly a dream sequence, too, so one must wonder just how much of what happens in between is imaginary as well. 

Anyway, Farrell is pretty good here, as he usually is.  It seems he realizes that he's the center of sanity in this story, and the nutjobs around him are the entertainment, so his struggle to maintain a grasp on his less-stable companions sort of mirrors the audience's trying to keep up with what's actually happening to them and what's their vivid imaginations running wild. Rockwell has shown us he can "act out" with the best of them in such fare as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the first Charlie's Angels flick (yes, I saw that - don't judge), and Walken is... well, he's Christopher Walken. Some people (although I'm not certain that I'm one of them) subscribe to the theory that Christopher Walken in anything can be entertaining, if nothing else than waiting to see if he'll demand more cowbell at any given moment.   

This movie was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, and I liked what I believe he was trying to do here, but the final product on screen seemed like he was trying a bit too hard, and I think parody/satire/alternate reality depends on an effortless-ness in order to succeed.  While not exactly the same genre, I enjoyed his In Bruges about four years ago a lot more than this.  Although I could sense his style in the characters and dialogue of Seven Psychopaths, I thought In Bruges was much funnier and don’t feel like it tried anywhere near as hard. 

I wouldn’t have minded paying for the tickets for this one, but fortunately, I didn’t have to (thank you, Regal Cinemas Crown Club rewards points!).  That said, if you’re a Colin Farrell fan, or even a Sam Rockwell fan, then you might find this enjoyable once it pops up on Cinemax a year from now (and this one definitely feels like Cinemax – not HBO…).  Maybe you’ll have an easier time of coming up with something witty to say about it afterwards than I did.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heaven help you if you're "Taken 2" it...

I've got two words for you: Pointless Sequel.  No, wait – I’ve got at least two more: Cash Grab.  Well, since I’m reviewing this flick, I'll add yet another two that might apply to the masses ponying up their eleven bucks to see this thing over the last two weeks – Mindless Sucker.  I won’t take full responsibility for those last two words being applied to me, as seeing this thing wasn’t my choice.  I graciously allowed a certain Liam Neeson-lusting Significant Other to choose the evening’s cinematic fare, and this was the choice that was made.  It is entirely possible that this was some sort of retribution on her part for my dragging her to see Ted this past summer, but I digress...

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Taken, but it wasn’t all that bad, and there are worse action flicks out there upon which one could piss away two hours of his or her life.  I said at the time that it smacked a bit too much of the Bourne movies to be taken seriously as an original story idea, but that probably wasn’t unintentional, given the crowd to which the movie was being promoted.  That said, once it was over, it was over - daughter rescued, bad guys dead, Hero safe and sound, roll credits - there was no story-meat whatsoever left on the bone of that carcass.  Yeah, right.  Ticket sales like that don’t go unpunished, so the sequel was inevitable. 

So how does this flick go?  Well, after completing a security-consulting job in Istanbul, the former CIA operative Bryan (the afore-referenced Liam Neeson) allows his very-old-looking teenaged daughter Kim and suddenly-separated-and-now-very-friendly ex-wife Lenore to accompany him on a spur-of-the-moment vacation there.  Why on Earth should they suspect the surviving fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, grocers, milkmen, etc., etc., etc… of all those Albanian creeps Bryan killed while rescuing Kim in the first film are gunning for revenge, and seem to have pretty well-coordinated surveillance techniques to find our Hero so quickly?  Bryan and Lenore end up… well, you knew it was coming… taken… but thanks to the world’s only iPod Nano with cellular capability hidden in Bryan’s sock, he is able to be chained to a steam pipe and still talk Kim through her Urban Commando 101 lessons and guide her to rescuing him, after which he is able to apply his “particular set of skills” in finding Lenore.  No, seriously, folks – I’m not pulling your chain here. 

Producer/co-screenwriter Luc Besson is a better writer than this.  One need only watch his La Femme Nikita and Leon: the Professional to see that.  Then again, he’s also written the Transporter flicks, so maybe this shouldn’t be all that much a surprise.  Anyway, the writing laziness displayed in the development (or lack thereof) of this movie’s baddies is almost comical. The Albanian patriarch, played by Rade Sebedzija (whom you’ve seen in countless other flicks and TV shows, whenever a Russian or Eastern European bad guy is required), seethes and spews such simplistic venom about Bryan “murdering” his angelic white-slaver sons that I imagined the lawn-darts-at-chained-animals or fly-wing-pulling that might be played at their family reunion picnics.  Bryan’s climactic fist-fight near the end of the movie sort of surprised me, too, coming as it did against an opponent that was so under-developed as a character that I didn’t even realize he was all that important once they started beating on one another. 

The illogic of some of Professional-Security-Expert Bryan’s equipment choices is just as ridiculous (grenades and Sharpies…?), and let's not even get started about how poor teenager Kim can’t pass her driving test, but when bullets start flying, she can navigate a stolen taxicab though Instanbul’s streets evading tens of police cars.  There’s even a street-violinist (or whatever instrument he was playing) who conveniently continued playing in the same spot for about thirty-six hours so that Bryan could use him as a navigation point of sorts in his search for the “taken” Lenore. 

As an aside, I understand the old adage that says “sometimes, an actor’s just gotta work” when it comes to playing less-than-desirable roles, but poor 29-year-old Maggie Grace must really, really need a paycheck when she chooses to play a 16- or 17-year-old (if she’s even supposed to be THAT old).  I’ll give her credit – she looks like she might could pass for 24 or so, but that’s about it.  Sure, recasting the role was out of the question, but she was too old to play a teenager in the original film four years ago, and as we all know, the clock runs backwards for no one, so the problem is only more noticeable in this movie.  Of course, this might very well be the reason a 28-year-old actor was cast as her boyfriend… 

Anyway, the moral of all this is that, if you’re a huge Liam Neeson fan (like some gals in my life happen to be), then you MIGHT enjoy this turkey, but I question your taste if you do.  If you happen to be connected to such a person in some life-committed sort of way, however, then sadly, you may find yourself being “Taken” to it (I couldn’t resist).