Films

The Hobbit – Film Review

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The Hobbit Movie PosterMain Cast:

Bilbo Baggins – Martin Freeman
Gandalf – Ian McKellen
Thorin Oakenshield – Richard Armitage
Balin – Ken Stott
Gollum – Andy Serkis

Sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins is approached by the wizard Gandalf and embroiled in an adventure almost against his will.  Along with thirteen dwarves, Bilbo embarks towards Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, to reclaim their ancient home from the terrible dragon Smaug.

(You can also read all of The Hobbit recaps.)

I have already seen the film twice, so you can guess where this review is headed.  The film opens with Old Bilbo (played again by Ian Holm) writing his version of events down for Frodo, promising to tell him the whole story as he has never told it before.  We learn that he has sat down to write on the day of his infamous 111th birthday party, and we get to see that it was Frodo (Elijah Wood) who hung the sign on the gate – “No admittance except on party business).  He asks Bilbo about Gandalf, and decides to go wait for him.  Bilbo sits down on his bench in the front garden, smoking a pipe.  The camera follows an excellent smoke ring, then zooms back on to young Bilbo.

I have never before seen such a beautiful framing device.  It was a great way to explain the context of the events of The Hobbit versus those in Lord of the Rings, giving fans of the movies who haven’t read the book a clear introduction.  Having just read the book, I was also tickled that the opening exchange between Gandalf and young Bilbo was almost word for word of that in the book.  The only thing they left out was Bilbo’s last second decision to invite the wizard for tea.  But you know what?  It worked anyway.

There were of course several small changes in the film, because films and books are simply not the same medium.  Most of The Hobbit was written with insights into Bilbo’s mind that we cannot get in the movie.  Being Tolkien, there is also a lot of background information related by the narrator to the reader, but not necessarily between characters.  I thought Peter Jackson did a great job of taking all of the information in The Hobbit and Tolkien’s additional background and really fleshing out the movie.  While a few things might have been changed, I could see the reason for all of it, and I honestly agreed with most of his changes.  I especially liked seeing the meeting of the White Council and the urgency that was added with the Necromancer.  I’ll try not to say anymore for those who have yet to see the film.

I did not particularly understand the inclusion of a certain orc (that in Tolkien’s lore was killed by another dwarf), but I do realize that it helped with the pacing of the movie.  Let’s be honest, in the book there is a lot of walking, riding, and moving.  That’s not the most interesting thing to show on screen, so the added tension with the dwarf helps pick up the pace and keep things from getting choppy.  So while I was a bit confused when I left the first time, I appreciated it far more the second time.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was a wonderful return to Middle Earth and a great reminder of the talent of Peter Jackson.  I for one am grateful that he was able to direct instead of Guillermo Del Toro; the film feels like a seamless addition to any of the “Lord of the Rings” films with him behind the camera.  Add in the dashes of Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, and other characters, and you are firmly planted again within Middle Earth.

Rating: 9/10

The Dark Knight Rises – Review

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Main Cast:

Bruce Wayne/Batman – Christian Bale
Bane – Tom Hardy
Selina Kyle/Catwoman – Anne Hathaway
Jim Gordon – Gary Oldman
Miranda Tate – Marion Cotillard
John Black – Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, a new terrorist leader, Bane, overwhelms Gotham’s finest.  Batman resurfaces to protect a city that has branded him an enemy.

(While I don’t normally use the official synopsis for my reviews, I felt it safest.  I am going to try and review this movie without giving away any of the major plot twists.  This is not my easiest review in that sense, I can promise you that.)

Christopher Nolan was always going to have a hard time beating himself after The Dark Knight.  While I would love to get into the specifics as to why he won and failed at the same time, I would prefer to do that in the comments section this weekend after you have had a chance to watch the movie.  I balked at some of the negative reviews for the film (though not as strongly as others, who were resorting to death threats over a movie they hadn’t seen), but I knew that I was going to have to form a judgement for myself.

It just wasn’t quite there.

Nolan was ambitious, raising the stakes for his franchise as he bowed out of it.  But whether because Hardy just could not pull off the same menace and intensity that makes us never forget Heath Ledger, or whether because the beginning took far too long, The Dark Knight Rises never moved me the same way.

There were incredible moments, pieces of Batman Begins and the Dark Knight brought in seamlessly to provide consistency and closure to the trilogy.  Anne Hathaway surprised me, turning in a very memorable performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  And while Tom Hardy tried as Bane, he fell short of Heather Ledger’s Joker.  Where the villain makes a superhero movie just as much as our hero, if you have an impossible predecessor to measure up to, it needs more than what Nolan’s plot gave us to appreciate the madness.  In many ways, Bane felt like just another psychopath, albeit with more followers (especially since the Joker had a habit of killing his).

It takes a lot to set us up for the main action of the movie, and I think this is where he stumbles.  Nolan gets dragged down in the pieces of his plot, in creating the mythology for Bane and for what occurs on the screen in front of us. I am not saying there needed to be more action, but I think the plot lacked the immediacy that made The Dark Knight so enthralling, so engaging, and so completely spectacular.

There were many twists to this plot that I would love to discuss with you geeks once you have had a chance to see the movie.  So please come back and comment and let me know what you think about the many secrets.  As a life-long Batman fan (the early 90’s cartoon series got me hooked), not all of the twists were shocking, but they were still fantastic.

I find it difficult to give this movie a real rating.  It was excellent, but when the bar had been raised so high by the second installment, it fell just a bit short of where it could and should have been.  Still though, I’ll give it one anyway.

Rating: 9/10

Brave

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Main Cast:

Merida – Kelly Macdonald
Fergus – Billy Connolly
Elinor – Emma Thompson
The Witch – Julie Walters

*WARNING* – I am writing this early, early in the morning after picking the Scottish fiance up from the airport and then watching this movie.  Please excuse all typos in the post.

Brave centers on Scottish princess Merida, who in her mythical time wants nothing more than to avoid the life-ending fate of marriage (as she said this line, the Scottish fiance and I laughed out loud).  She wants most of all to choose her own journey in life and to not have her family – mostly her mother – decide for her.  When a cast spell goes terribly wrong, Merida must find a way to break the curse before it is too late.

Brave was, in essence, a beautiful movie.  Visually stunning especially in 3D, it lives up to the Pixar movies that came before it.  When you tell me that you are going to have an animated film set in Scotland, my first thought is that you had better get the scenery to be as striking as what the real thing is.  Pixar definitely achieved that.  Intricate animation brings the mystical land to life and sets the perfect backdrop for the story that unfolds.

The story line was also gorgeous.  I have yet to be disappointed by a Pixar film (which is why I avoid Cars 2, since I fully expect disappointment), and I had high hopes for Brave and its feisty heroine.  No worries here, folks.  While one review I read of Brave criticized its focus on the mother-daughter relationship, I thought it was so much more fulfilling than anything else Pixar could have done with the story.  You get magic and enchantments, but at the heart of it all you watch the frustrated mother and daughter learn more about each other and grow closer together.  How can you not love a movie that so accurately depicts the struggles of every parent, but also shows the rewards for the effort we put in to our relationships?  (As a personal side note, if I had a nickel for every time my mom wished I was more ladylike, I’d be rich.  So Merida is obviously my new favorite character).  Merida and Elinor are the heart ofBrave, and their interactions drive the story.  It may not have been the plot I was expecting, but it was the one that the characters deserved.

It is hard to go into much detail without revealing key plot points, but I will say that I loved the voice cast.  I was a bit nervous about Emma Thompson, but her dinnays were just as good as native Scots Kelly Macdonald and Billy Connolly, if not a bit more refined.  I also want to say that I am very relieved that Pixar did not go ahead with the original casting of Reese Witherspoon, because Macdonald’s voice melds so effortlessly with Merida’s character.  Plus, an obvious fake Scottish accent would have distracted from an otherwise perfect movie.

It was perfect, it really was.  I remember there being one little plot hole (other than the fact that bears haven’t resided in Scotland since the Romans came, and if that’s when this was set, they didn’t wear kilts then), but even that has slipped my mind.

Oh darn, guess I’ll have to go watch it again.

Rating: 10/10

*Kudos also go out to the short before the movie, “La Luna”, which was worth the 3D glasses alone.  Stunning.*

Hunger Games – Film

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Main Cast:

Jennifer Lawrence – Katniss
Josh Hutcherson – Peeta
Liam Hemsworth – Gale
Woody Harrelson – Haymitch
Elizabeth Banks – Effie
Lenny Kravitz – Cinna
Donald Sutherland – Pres. Snow
Stanley Tucci – Cesar Flickerman

I want to warn you readers right now that I will be talking about the movie here as if you have read the books or seen the movie.  If you don’t want spoilers on plot lines, steer away.  (For those that have read the book but not watched the movie, there’s nothing to spoil in the movie really.)

Jennifer Lawrence was superb.  Already an Oscar nominee at 20, Lawrence has a stellar reputation as an actress with an immense natural talent.  You might have seen her in last summer’s blockbuster “X-Men: First Class”.  Even as a young Mystique she was very good, though the role did not give her as much chance to showcase her talent as “Hunger Games”.  You are transfixed by Lawrence and you never see her act.  After the movie my friend pointed out that she simply embodies the part, she is Katniss, or at least she makes you believe that she is.  She makes you believe in Katniss’s fear so much that your heart cannot stop pounding.  There are intense scenes throughout the movie, but it is her performance that makes you feel the fear of this 16 year-old girl.

You don’t see much of Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother to “Thor” actor Chris Hemsworth) in this installment, but what we do see is ok.  His acting is fairly subtle and informs enough of things to come, but he cannot compete with Lawrence when they are on screen together. Actually, not even Stanley Tucci could compete with Lawrence and that’s saying something.  Josh Hutcherson was good as Peeta, and for his part you can tell how Peeta feels about the Girl on Fire.  I thought Hutcherson brought some good nuances to the part, and I’m interested to see how he’ll portray the problems coming his way.

For the mentors of the “kids”, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and even Lenny Kravitz were pretty amazing.  Banks particularly disappeared into Effie so much that you were struggling to believe it was really her.  While I love Haymitch as a character and thought Harrelson was good, it was really Kravitz that you are drawn to, probably because our heroine finds more comfort in his friendship.  Who knew the rocker could act?

Now, as to the movie itself – wow.  I have a friend, Joni, that will tell you until your ears bleed that books and movies are two different mediums.  She is absolutely right.  But when it comes to adaptations, this has probably been one of the best book-to-screen jobs I have ever seen.  Books like Harry Potter suffer partially because of the extensive source material, partially because of poor directorial choices (I’m looking at you, Chris Columbus).  Hunger Games is a relatively short, fast-paced novel, so it is much easier to get the important pieces into the film.  While we might miss out on some of the nuances, such as Katniss’s playing up the romance in the arena, you still get a pretty good picture of it.  Not only that, with the movie we were allowed outside of Katniss’s mind and that gave us a very interesting look at the Games behind the scenes.  I particularly loved the exchanges between Donald Sutherland’s President Snow and Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane.

I was glad that the violence was short and not graphic.  It would have to be to secure the PG-13 rating, especially since it is kids killing other kids.  If you could call violence tastefully done, “Hunger Games” certainly did it.  It was enough to bring out the outrage you should feel, but not enough to glorify the violence you are supposed to be hating.

After the movie last night, I was discussing it with a friend and she was questioning why Katniss becomes this symbol for hope.  I expressed to her that Katniss is the result of this horrific tradition – she is closed off and will not allow herself to have normal human emotions, besides her sisterly affection.  She is the type of person the Games creates, whether or not she would ever compete.  Her open affection and rescue of her sister coupled with the love story with Peeta allows the average watcher in the districts to feel there is hope for Katniss, hope for these children whose futures have been robbed by the Capitol.  That hope spreads like a fire, burning in these forsaken districts that things could be different.  Snow makes an interesting comment in the movie about how the tiny seed of hope is necessary, but too much hope causes problems.  When Rue dies, instead of sending bread we see District 11 break out into a riot.  Katniss and her determination has sparked outrage and a hope that if Katniss can prevail against the Gamemakers, they could against the Capitol.  She shows how bleak and terrible things really are, but she survives.  That is what lights that fire.

I am not sure the books really got that across as well as the movie was able.  That might be because we were always with Katniss in the books, and she does not understand why she must be the symbol.  But in the film, with an omniscient view, it is so much easier to gauge the emotions and reactions of Panem, and especially how they view this very interesting 16 year-old girl.

Now, for you critics of the film.  If you didn’t like Hunger Games because it was violent or because you thought it was only about kids killing kids, you have entirely missed the point.  While some critics thought the movie version downplayed the satire, I thought it did a very good job of holding a mirror to our current society.  We put a man on television and make him act like a jerk while he dates 25 women.  People are pitted against each other, showing their worst characteristics, in a remote location so one person can win money and fame.  For money, people will do degrading acts in front of millions of viewers.  We call this entertainment in our world.  Jennifer Lawrence made a very insightful comment a few weeks ago about watching the Kardashians (don’t pretend you don’t know who they are).  She was sitting there watching this woman’s short marriage crumble in front of cameras and it was all so we as a society could be entertained?  I am not saying that Hunger Games is solely an indictment of our so-called reality television, but even Suzanne Collins will tell you that it started that way.  Hunger Games is no different from any other piece of fiction that is meant to shock us out of a terrible behavior.  Books such as 1984 or Brave New World were not written to shock us for the sake of it – they were written to warn us of the reality that could be ours if we do not guard ourselves against it.

So, despite the fact that it was “kids killing kids”, I really enjoyed the “Hunger Games”.  Not because it was an action film or a love story, but because of how well done it truly was.  I loved it because it made me think about our motivations, about what we would do to survive for our families.  I loved it because it instills a hope that things can be better if we fight for that.  I loved it because the acting, story, characters, music, cinematography, everything, moved me.

Rating: 10/10

Jane Eyre – 2011 Film Adaptation

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Main Cast:

Mia Wasikowska – Jane Eyre
Michael Fassbender – Mr. Rochester
Judi Dench – Mrs. Fairfax
Sally Hawkins
– Mrs. Reed
Jamie Bell
– St. John Rivers

Rating: PG-13

If I have to describe the plot of Jane Eyre in great detail, I’m not entirely sure why we’re blog-friends.  Jane was raised in a home where she was loved by her uncle, but despised by her aunt.  Upon her uncle’s death, her aunt Mrs. Reed sends her off to a strict school.  There Jane grows up and trains to be a governess.  Her first position is with Mr. Rochester teaching his French ward.  Jane grows close to Adele and in turn, to Mr. Rochester.  But a secret hides in the dark corners of Thornfield Hall.

I came to this version with a lot of skepticism.  I was first introduced to Jane Eyre with the ’96 film version, which was very good.  It hit the main points of the novel, it flowed nicely, and the acting was good.  Having read the book a few times, I hold the story close to my heart.  The real version to beat, for me, is the 6 hour miniseries that aired in 2006.  It is beautifully done with fantastic acting and a palpable passion between the leads.

Wasikowska fell flat.  Jane is quiet and reserved, but underneath her kindness lay a fire that burns brightly, especially for Mr. Rochester.  Fassbender was working hard to draw it out, and he did a superb job at his character (definitely the most attractive Mr. Rochester to date), but his Jane was altogether too quiet, too timid.  There were moments in the movie that you could see Wasikowska might have had it in her, and I am not sure if the fault lay with the director or with the actress.  I have always loved Jane because she carried herself with quiet confidence.  She was kind and noble, but she was not willing to be put aside and forgotten.  There is a line in the book, and in the movie, where she mentions that she must and can be free.  But it is not delivered with any kind of passion.

As I said, Fassbender proved to be a good Rochester.  He really expresses the man’s inability to forget a mentally ill wife and his struggle to come to terms with what has been dealt to him by life.  He would have been better had there been more time to really get to know him.

That was probably the most irksome thing about this movie for me – there was no time.  Things moved quickly through parts I felt were important, and the flow felt disrupted because of it.  The framing device the filmmaker chose was especially unfortunate.  They open with Jane running away from Thornfield and being discovered by St. John and his sisters.  I have always disliked St. John anyway, and so the fact that they spent so much time dwelling on Jane’s time with him and the girls was frustrating.  Yes, we see how Jane copes without the passionate romance, but we also don’t get enough time to really believe in the romance because of it.  Make the movie a little longer and give it the time to prove to your audience why these two were really meant to be.

I did find the dark lighting of the scenes to be perfect.  I swear the movie is not that bad that I can only praise the lighting, but the lighting really does lend itself to the Gothic origins of the novel.  Realistic of the times?  Sure.  But what it really does is create that dark, brooding atmosphere and so well reflects Rochester’s character.

I know it is hard to compete with a miniseries, where each vital part of the story is allowed to be kept in.  And I understand why this version did away with some of the background information – including why Rochester cared for Adele.  However, I do believe that you can make a faithful adaptation in just a couple of hours.  Take Pride and Prejudice, for example.  While I enjoy the five hour miniseries, I actually feel the 2 hour Keira Knightley version was better done.  Maybe not to all the little plot points of the novel, but certainly to the spirit of it.  The miniseries plays much too seriously and without the jesting spirit that makes P&P one of the best novels in its genre.  With little time, the Knightley version does a much better job of understanding its source material and getting its point across.  It could have been that with this version of Jane Eyre, if only they had understood their main character a little bit more.

Rating: 6/10

Real Steel

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Real Steel posterMain Cast:

Hugh Jackman – Charlie Kenton
Dakota Goyo – Max Kenton
Evangeline Lilly – Bailey Tallet

MPAA: PG-13

If you asked me a few weeks ago if I would review a movie like “Real Steel” on my blog, I probably would have laughed at you.  But it was really, really good!  I was excited to see it (hello, Hugh Jackman is in it!), and I always love a good action film, but I never expected it to be as good as it was.

Set in the near future, the world still loves a good fight.  Though now they have turned to robot boxing; they can take harder, more devastating hits than a human ever could.  Charlie Kenton was one of the last boxers and now fights robots, except he’s not very good at keeping the odds in his favor.  When Charlie discovers his estranged son’s mother has died, he goes to sign away his kid to a wealthy aunt and uncle.  Charlie didn’t want the kid 11 years before, he doesn”t want him now.  But there’s a catch – he has to take Max for the summer.  It doesn’t take very long for Max to wiggle his way into his dad’s heart, all by taking a salvaged robot and getting him to fight the big leagues.

On the surface, this is a movie about fighting robots.  It’s also a movie about the underdog who can still win the hearts of the people.  But for me, the movie was about Charlie growing up and learning to let himself love.  Hugh Jackman has always been one of my favorite actors, and despite some flops (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “Australia”), he has a track record of making some really good films.  He’s terrific here as the reluctant dad.  He’s never cruel to Max, but he just didn’t want to care.  He wanted to score, get the next great bot to make the big money and the glory.  But when Max insists on going with his father, and then practically forces him to take up Atom and make him box, well, who couldn’t love that kid?

For comic film geeks out there, Dakota Goyo is probably best known as the younger Thor.  He was cute in his two minutes of film time, but he really owns this movie.  First, the kid can dance.  Second, he’s probably the smartest, most determined child you would ever meet.  Maybe he’s not so much of a child since he’s supposed to be eleven, but whatever you want to call Max, he certainly makes an impression.  I particularly love seeing this young kid get hyped up on caffeine (Dr. Pepper was his drug of choice), and excited to have these experiences with his dad.  He constantly tries to prove his worth to Charlie.  Like any kid, all he wants is for his father to fight for him.

I’m not saying “Real Steel” will be vying for any awards this season, but it was a solid movie with a lot to see.  And while there are a lot of unnecessary sequels out there, this movie leaves you wanting more.  I thought I heard something about a “Real Steel 2”, so I’m going to keep my hopes up.  Charlie and Max just barely gave us the start of their story, and I for one want to see more.

In a lot of ways, “Real Steel” reminds me of the Marvel movies.  Solid acting, solid action, heart all mixed with that little bit of cheese.  It played like a real boxing movie, just with robots instead of people.  If you’re in for a good IMAX film or one both genders can agree on, go see it.  Seriously.  You can hurl angry comments at me if you don’t agree, but I doubt you’ll walk away with anything other than satisfaction.

Rating: 8/10

Lion King 3D

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Lion KingI am not entirely sure if this is out anywhere other than the States at the moment, but I was so grateful to get a free evening to go watch it.  I have always loved “The Lion King”, especially since I saw it originally in theaters when I was little (I would have been seven-ish).  A lot of my friends raved about the movie now, and it has certainly made quite a bit of money in the US.  It was actually the #1 movie for two weeks in a row, beating out a Brad Pitt vehicle (“Moneyball”) for its second week in theaters.

The movie holds up, and even though I’m 17 years older, “Lion King” still makes me cry when Mufasa dies, and makes us cheer when Simba returns home to fight.  This is the mark of a good film.  If you can rerelease almost twenty years later and claim the top spot two weeks in a row, you know you’ve done something right.

Here is where a lot of people were a bit scared:  3D.  When “Avatar” came out, 3D was a marvel and transported us to a new world.  Even though the movie’s story didn’t hold up to multiple viewings, you could still appreciate the beauty of Pandora through your 3D glasses.  Then came the round of crappy post-production 3D conversions:  “Clash of the Titans”, “Green Hornet”, “Green Lantern”, “Step Up 3”, and others.  3D was seen as a way to drive up ticket prices, thus the studios earned more money.  Of course, the 3D overload alienated a lot of people.  Very few movies use it correctly (“Transformers 3” and “Tron Legacy” being a rare couple that did), and most have no payoff.

Disney has been known to make crappy sequels and I was worried that the 3D conversion process would sort of ruin “Lion King”.  It actually enhanced it.  Keep in mind that good 3D doesn’t mean that things should be popping out of you all of the time.  Sure, a little bit should for fun, but the main purpose of the extra dimension is to add depth.  It was pretty amazing to watch this previously flat animated movie come fully to life with the 3D conversion.  Suddenly, the African plains were more detailed and more real.  It was amazing.

Was the “Lion King 3D” worth the conversion?  Definitely.  Should Disney do this with all of their movies?  No.  I would love to see some of the late ’80s & ’90s Disney movies rereleased and there are a few that would work with a conversion.  “Aladdin”, “Beauty & the Beast”, & “Little Mermaid” would get a little something extra out of it.  I loved “Lion King” all over again and it provided something fun and new to see to a classic.  The only problem is that studios might make this a trend.

But “Lion King” itself was beautiful, funny, and charming all over again.  There is definitely a reason that it was the top movie 17 years after its initial release.

Rating: 10/10