The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, etc. Directed by Peter Jackson.
The first installment in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is my favorite; in fact it was my favorite film of 2012. I found the second chapter kind of scattered, with almost mind-numbing action sequences separated by not enough meaningful character development. It seemed the things I enjoyed most about the first film were minimized in the second, and the things I enjoyed least were maximized. This third episode’s title implied lots of action, as did Jackson’s record, but would it contain enough of the ponderousness, enough of the small moments I loved best about the first film, to satisfy me? That was the big question for me as I got comfortable for the very long marathon showing of all three films.
It was nice to experience those first two films again, and I discovered more to like about that second film. It was also really good just to review the story threads that were leading themselves to this final confrontation at the Lonely Mountain.
The film begins about fifteen minutes before the spot where the second film should have ended, with the dragon Smaug taking out his wrath on Laketown. We are then re-introduced to the other plot lines, with Gandalf confronting someone (you know who it is), the dwarfs reclaiming their mountain, the elves peeking in to see what everyone’s up to, the residents of Laketown seeking refuge, and Bilbo caught hopelessly and helplessly in the middle, seemingly little more than a companion now that his primary role as thief has been fulfilled.
The action is long, and only mildly interesting to me, ‘though I confess I enjoyed most of Smaug’s attack on Laketown, and there is an element to Thorin’s confrontation with Azog that I found tense, emotional, and quite rewarding. But the best parts are centered on our title character, the Hobbit who only wants to help out if he can. Bilbo Baggins spends one-on-one time with Thorin, Balin, and Gandalf, and these moments are laden with sentimentality, grace, sorrow, and love, those elements that make this series so much more than three-hour commercials for toys or mind-numbing showcases for computer technology. Fittingly it is Bilbo who brings everything into focus, who brings the gigantic, epic war down to its smallest, purest elements. To Bilbo, the magical ring stolen from Golem is little more than a useful curiosity; the return of the dwarfs to Erebor is a homecoming; Gandalf the Grey is a crafter of fireworks. And Bilbo, a hero to the core, is just a Hobbit helping his friends before returning to his garden.
There is a moment that is extremely easy to look past, a strange, quiet pause that seems laden with nothing. So often, the quiet moments in good films like this are there to make one think of something; the viewer pays attention to what is not said, and gleans some kind of insight into the characters and story. This moment, however, which Bilbo spends with Gandalf, is little more than what it is, just a quiet moment, a shared minute of companionship, and while a lot can be read into it, my own take is that six movies’ worth of beheadings, sword fights, and yelling is the noise that obscures the signal of six movies’ one meaning. One of the characters puts it into words later, but that seems extraneous to me, as wonderful a dialogue as it is. I’ve given it some thought, and it’s the best scene in the whole six-film body of work.
It’s so easy to take this trilogy for granted, to think of it as merely a three-film return to familiar, lucrative ground for a film-maker who has done little else worth commenting on. But this trilogy stands on its own as a remarkable accomplishment in playing big while staying small, something I feel I will always treasure as a lifelong lover of movies.
93/100 (but this film elevates the whole trilogy to 96)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland.
If you’ve seen and enjoyed the first two Hunger Games movies, you might as well see this, the third installment of series. Most of the good stuff from its predecessors is here, minus the actual games mentioned in the title. The revolution is taking hold, and Katniss Everdeen, such an inspiration to the oppressed districts in her role as champion from District 12, takes a new role as steam gathers for war against the government.
The one new character worth noting is Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin, who is very well cast, especially if you’ve read the novel and know what happens in what will be the fourth movie in the series. The others, minus the terrific Lenny Kravitz, are here again, as good or as bad as they’ve been so far. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is still outstanding, while Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Peeta and Gale are as stiff and uninteresting as they’ve ever been. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy is great and probably deserving of Oscar consideration, though it will never get it. And as I mention in my review of Catching Fire, Elizabeth Banks somehow manages to turn Effie Trinket into someone you actually like, developing her character in ways I never imagined.
It ends pretty much where you imagine it will. Looking forward to the final chapter.
I’m a little behind on my film reviews for 2014. Going to spend the next few days getting caught up.
Ender’s Game (2013)
Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld.
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is a heck of a novel, one of those rare science fiction stories able to take hold of fans and non-fans of the genre. I’ve never really understood why it’s as popular as it is. It has great characters, a great story, and great action sequences, but lots of science fiction does, and nothing I’ve read in either SF or fantasy is as universally beloved.
Which means that the film based upon it comes in with all the advantages and disadvantages of an expectant, rabid fandom. I’m usually the sort who’s willing to accept a film adaptation on its own terms, comparing it to its source but not holding against it its inability to be as good. I think this makes me an ideal audience for a movie like this, and I can forgive its leaving out some pretty neat things, but I find it a lot harder to forgive bad movie-making decisions.
For those unfamiliar, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a gifted boy in some future version of earth that has survived an attack by an alien race. Earth’s government is certain that the enemy is coming back for another shot, so it prepares by training smart young boys and girls for the impending war. Ender demonstrates early tactical and interpersonal brilliance, as his instructors put him through increasingly difficult training tasks.
There’s more to it than that, but most of what’s left is best left to the viewer to discover, and my best advice about that is to see the movie if you’ve enjoyed the novel. It just seems like something you should do, even knowing that it’s not very much of a film. The film cost more than a hundred million dollars to make, but except for the very good sequences in the battle room (an arena where combat simulations are contested), most of the movie looks and sounds very cheaply made. One friend compared its look and feel to a typical SyFy Channel film, and while that seems a bit harsh, I have to concede that it’s what I thought, too. All I’m going to say about the acting is that everyone tries, but it’s just not very good. Viola Davis is maybe the one exception.
Worse, the dialogue is painfully obvious, cliche, and cheap, something I did not observe in the novel, and I re-read the novel very recently in preparation for this movie. Emerging at a time when such recently successful and well-made adaptations as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Divergent (which was released a few months after), Ender’s Game suffers by comparison, and although it has a few things to recommend it, it has as many shortcomings. So if you haven’t read the novel, toss a coin.
My review of The Search for General Tso for 8Asians, which I have not cross-posted here yet, was quoted by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang in her Asian America blog for NBC News. I’m still nobody enough that a thing like that feels pretty good. Click the links for Wang’s overview and for my review. Click the image to enlarge it.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Cary Grant, Grace Kelly. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by John Michael Hayes.
John Robie (Cary Grant) is a retired jewel thief, nicknamed The Cat. He has apparently paid his debt to society and is living in a country house where he tends his vineyards. When a recent series of thefts (mostly at high-end hotels) mimic The Cat’s style, the Parisian police come after him for questioning. Robie is sure he won’t be treated justly, so he avoids the police and attempts to catch the thief himself, seeing this as the only way to keep himself out of prison.
He becomes acquainted with a wealthy American widow (Jessie Royce Landis) and her impossibly beautiful daughter (Grace Kelly). Robie thinks they may be the thief’s next target, so he keeps an eye on them while pretending to be a wealthy something-or-other from America.
This is the setup for To Catch a Thief, and it takes up about a third of the movie. The middle third involves Grant and Kelly getting to know one another, in a series of witty exchanges and flirty activity. There is one sexually-laden scene in the water where the entendres fly about like a slightly (but only slightly) less crude episode of Wayne’s World, kind of a shocking thing to hear out of the ultra-civilized mouths of Grant and Kelly. It is the movie’s best scene.
Pursuing the thief while avoiding being blamed for it makes up the remainder of the film, but it only really exists so that Grant and Kelly can continue to do their thing: something, after all, must present itself as an obstacle to their eventually getting together. But it is all really a distraction; who the the thief is and how the thief is either caught or not caught is only mildly interesting, and if you’re into the film for its plot, you’re likely not going to think a whole lot of this film. If you’re in it to see two Hollywood icons set the cellulose on fire, however, here is a rather rewarding hour and forty-six minutes. Each actor is at the peak of gorgeousness, cool and sexy each in his or her own way, and it is a lovely thing to witness. I have said on occasion that Lauren Bacall is my favorite actress only because she got to me first. If I had seen Grace Kelly first, it almost surely would have been her. See this movie and you’ll see why.
Shailene Woodley, Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, Theo James, Kate Winslett. Directed by Neil Berger.
In Divergent‘s post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided into five factions named Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Abnegation. Amity values happiness and peace; Candor values honesty and fairness, Dauntless values courage, Erudite values science and knowledge, and Abnegation values selflessness and service. Each faction operates a distinct part of life within the fenced-in city (the Amity, for example, growing the food for the whole city, but the Abnegation governing the food’s distribution), raising its children until they are old enough to be tested for competency and inclination.
The test results are recorded but kept secret, and when the young adults are faced with the Choosing ceremony, they may choose to stay with the faction they were raised by (the most common outcome), or they may choose any other faction, either in line with their test results or not, since the test results are known only to the chooser.
Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has always felt out of place in Abnegation, something that fills her with guilt. Her parents are leaders in the Abnegation community, models of selfless thought in service to others. Her brother, too, seems effortlessly to place the needs of others above his own desires. Beatrice thinks she’s too selfish for her community, although she certainly values what it stands for, and longs to be more like her family. But something strange happens at her testing, and she learns something about herself that she cannot tell anyone without risking death.
This truth about herself affects everything Beatrice does, and this first film in an anticipated four-movie series (based upon Veronica Roth’s trilogy) traces her experience as she carries her secret through her post-Choosing life. She forms precious new friendships, changes her name to Triss, gains a few enemies, and comes under fire for accusations aimed at her parents. Somehow, what really emerges is something of a survival tale with elements (too many for my tastes) of romance.
It’s pretty good. The cinematography is thoughtful and at times creative, the editing comfortable yet excellent at building tension. My lone complaint is that the supporting characters aren’t developed well, something that might have been sacrificed for better pacing (an understandable choice, if this is the case). Triss’s friendships are a critical element in the trilogy’s developing story, the kind of thing that makes us care as much about her as we should, and while it may have been impossible to flesh out all of the important relationships, some care should have been taken to define at least a few of them. This lack of connectedness serves to flatten the overall film, leaving the plot to do the driving.
The novels are wildly popular, and they’re at least interesting enough to keep me coming back for the next few films, but I suspect that if you don’t have that to motivate you, Divergent the film will only kind of make you want to see what happens next.