Category Archives: Books

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 7 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

the-movie-the-sorcerers-stone-31766174-1024-768

I first read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the latter days of 1999 after receiving it from my grandmother for Christmas that year. I was only 7 years old at the time, but I devoured it and was ready for more, so I was given Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban for my birthday just a few weeks later. When this movie adaptation was announced, I forced my grandmother to read the book so she could take me to the theater, and despite her initial reluctance, she loved it as well, and so we went to the theater together. While it will never capture the exact magic of the book series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen as well as one of the most important movies of my childhood.

10-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up believing that his parents died in a car crash, which is why he lives with his terrible aunt, uncle, and cousin; he’s forced to wear his large cousin’s too-big hand-me-down clothes and sleeps in the cupboard under the stairs. His life is far from happy, but all of that changes when mysterious letters start arriving in strange ways, all addressed to him. Harry soon finds out that not only did his parents not die in a car crash, but that they were wizards who died protecting him from the most evil wizard of all time – and that Harry himself is a wizard too. He’s whisked away into a world that is entirely new to him and to a new magical school called Hogwarts, filled with friends, teachers, and danger.

It should be said right off the bat that the production team absolutely nailed the casting decisions; every single actor is perfectly placed in their role, and as a result, I find it difficult to imagine others playing these characters. The child actors – Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione – aren’t all-stars here, but they visually fit the descriptions and perform their parts believably. Yes, they’re children and make typical children mistakes, but they’re still charming and make you feel for them when they are emotional and worry for them when they are in danger, which is what really matters – that they make you care.

And of course the adults in the film are outstanding as well! Richard Harris is pitch perfect as Professor Dumbledore, completely capturing the “twinkle in the eye” aspect of the character as described in the book series. Though I did enjoy Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in later films after Harris passed away prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, I think that Richard Harris more perfectly embodies the calm, wise old wizard demeanor. Maggie Smith as McGonagall is every bit as stern as her book counterpart, but at the same time she’s able to show the proper warmth and joy when she discovers Harry’s flying capabilities and concern while watching his first match against the rough-playing Slytherin team. Other admirable performances come from Alan Rickman as Snape – you can catch some subtle hints towards his characters’ eventual fate if you watch for it, but at the same time he appears just as loathsome and borderline evil as the children believe him to be – and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid – who, as Harry’s first real father figure is just as warm and gentle as you would expect him to be despite his size, and his constant refrain of “I shouldn’t have said that” shows both his loyalty to Dumbledore and his secrets as well as his dedication to the children and their safety.

The story, which is basically just a reiteration of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, isn’t overly complex, so the real focuses of this movie are the characters and world-building. Since Harry is just as new to the world of wizards and witches and magic as we are, we are able to witness everything through his eyes and experience things such as Platform 9 3/4, the magic feast in the Great Hall, and the moving staircases through his eyes. J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world is a wonder to behold in all of its details, but the addition of magic doesn’t take away the human lessons to be taken away here. In observing Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we learn about the importance of true friendship and sacrifice for the ones you love, as well as bravery in the face of danger and difficult choices. Additionally, Dumbledore teaches us the importance of living our lives rather than focusing on what could be (“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live”) and the power of true, pure love.

Though I won’t go on about it at length here, I have to at least mention John Williams absolutely incredible score for this movie (my review). It was the very first film soundtrack I ever owned, and it sparked a fascination with both film scores and John Williams that continues to this day. More than that, it taught me that instrumental music can still tell a story; when listening to “The Quidditch Match”, I can completely visualize every single action on screen based on the musical cues alone (and to this day, that is one of my top 5 favorite-scored scenes in all of moviedom). “Hedwig’s Theme” remains a classic to this day and is recognizable by those who have and haven’t seen the movies alike, and “Leaving Hogwarts” still causes me to shed a tear or two every time I hear it. This soundtrack is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t given it a listen before.

While this movie is definitely not the best in the series – or even second best, to be honest – it’s the one that means the most to me, and it’s the one that started it all; if Chris Columbus and company hadn’t gotten it right here, then Harry Potter may have continued on very differently and might not have become as successful as it ended up being. To that end, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is exactly the film that needed to be made at that time – it’s not only a great and accurate book-to-film adaptation, but it’s also full of the magic, wonder, and heart that inspired me as a child to seek true friendship, to be brave in the decisions I make, and to unselfishly love others.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: PG – for some scary moments and mild language


Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 6 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

gene-wilder-picture-9-1200x675

Most of the movies I remember from my childhood are animated and no longer worth my time. However, there are a few gems that withstand the test of time, and the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of those movies that is part of some of my earliest movie memories; it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this movie tells the story of young Charlie Buckett, a boy who lives in a rundown one-room shack with his mother and four bedridden grandparents. They are the very definition of poor, and Charlie himself has a paper route to help to provide for his family. One day, the mysterious Willy Wonka – a reclusive, highly successful candymaker – announces to the world a contest that will allow five lucky people access into his factory for a day, along with a lifetime supply of chocolate. When lucky Charlie finds a ticket, it’s off to the factory with four other children to see what awaits them.

*this movie is 45 years old; there are spoilers*

This movie is a classic for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the fabulous Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He captivates the viewer in every moment he appears onscreen, and his energy is occasionally menacing but more often charming. The twinkle in his eye will make you smile, and listening to him sing “Pure Imagination” will tug at your heartstrings. In the final scene when Wonka promises Charlie his factory and a “happily ever after”, the warmth felt is so incredibly genuine that you can’t help but smile – and maybe even shed a tear.

But Gene Wilder isn’t the only highlight here. All of the children are wonderfully despicable and spoiled, but believable to the point that children viewers can identify parts of themselves and therefore learn from the mistakes of their onscreen counterparts. Peter Ostrum as Charlie shines in his only film role to date: he portrays all of the character’s honesty, kindness, and pure intentions with such an earnestness that you feel for him when he longs for a Golden Ticket but realizes how low his chances are, you grin when he sprints home with the Ticket clutched in hand, and you cheer as he hugs Wonka, knowing that his family will hunger no more. Rarely do you get a child actor, especially one with so little other film experience, who is able to portray such a wide range of emotions believably. Jack Albertson as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe is also a standout role, featuring the love and care expected of a grandfather as well as the energy and zeal of a much younger man. His love for Charlie is obvious as he acts as the beacon of hope for Charlie during his search for the Golden Ticket and as he climbs out of bed for the first time in twenty years to accompany Charlie to the factory – and the first thing he does is participate in an entirely too fun dance number! Watching him sing and dance to “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is one of my two favorite scenes in the entire film.

Speaking of songs, I’ve already mentioned my two favorites – “Pure Imagination” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”, and “Candy Man” is a great show opener featuring the wonderful Aubrey Woods as the candy shop owner singing to a group of ecstatic children, a scene that also introduces us for the first time to the idea of Wonka and who he might be: a man born to make candy, apparently! The team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley composed both the songs and the film score, for which they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, and rightly so; the overture that plays over the montage of candy-making in the opening credits is a fantastic introduction to the musical landscape of the movie, and other fine musical moments include the instrumental versions of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination” that play in the scenes when Charlie runs home to show off his prize and when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe view the city from the Glass Elevator at the end of the film, respectively. And who could forget “Oompa, Loompa” (no one…the answer is “no one”).

I really don’t need to say all that much about this movie because no doubt you’ve already seen it. And if you haven’t? Shame on you. Go get yourself a copy, now, and bask in the magical, scrumdiddlyumptious world. Roald Dahl was always one of my favorite authors as a kid because he taught that childhood was something to relish rather than rush, and that creativity and imagination are our greatest gifts. Not only does Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory display these themes of childhood wonder and pure imagination, but it also serves as a visual and musical treat that stands the test of time and still dazzles to this day. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it’s a movie that’s as (or even more) important to me now as it was when I first watched it as a child.

Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.

-Chad

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: G


Blade Runner (1982)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 4 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!

blade-runner-eye

*very mild spoilers*

What is the appeal of the sci-fi genre? Certainly the potential of catching a possible glimpse of the future is a draw, and people are always glad to see the exciting action sequences that are typical in sci-fi works. But I would argue that what sci-fi does well, often better than other genre films, is ask questions, present new ideas, and generally give us life questions to ponder after the credits roll. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner accomplishes all of the above.

In 2019 Los Angeles, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought in by his former supervisor Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) and briefed on a new assignment: four Replicants – illegal androids – have escaped to Earth from off-planet human colonies, and they must now be killed. You see, Deckard used to be what they call a “Blade Runner”, a sort of bounty hunter tasked with tracking down these Replicants and “retiring” them. With Replicants being nearly indistinguishable from humans, Deckard has his work cut out for him, and he may just lose his humanity or even his life along the way.

The plot of the movie is relatively simple: good guy needs to hunt down robot bad guys and kill them before bad things happen. But, as I mentioned, the real highlights here are the questions…are the bad guys actually bad guys? Are the good guys actually good guys? What is right? What is wrong? What does it mean to be human? All of these questions carry quite a bit of heft and really drive the momentum of the film. I won’t attempt to answer any of these questions here – namely because my answers might be different than yours, as they’re meant to be.

Though the whole cast shines, there are three in particular that stand out in my mind when I watch this movie. The obvious choice is Harrison Ford as Deckard. As our primary human character, he brings us an interesting mix of the empathy we expect in a human but also the coldness and moral distance you would expect from a machine or, in this case, a Replicant. One of the biggest – if not the biggest – questions from this movie is whether Deckard is a human or a Replicant, and Ford masterfully plays along that fine line without definitively revealing anything either way. Another standout is Rutger Hauer as the Replicant Roy, who has perhaps the biggest character arc in the film, or at least the most interesting one. He possesses a strange energy that both endears and frightens, especially through the vibrancy of his bright blue eyes, but he also often shows more human traits than Deckard does: compassion, empathy, sadness, happiness, and he delivers one of the finest speeches to be found in any sci-fi film, or to be honest, in any film at all (and partially improvised, at that!). The last one I’ll mention here is Sean Young as the Replicant Rachael, who is particularly fascinating because her character initially believes herself to be a human thanks to implanted memories. Where Deckard is a human with many Replicant qualities, Rachael is just the opposite, and watching her cry as she learns that the memories of the life she thought she had were forgeries is heartbreaking. Throughout the rest of the movie, she expresses conflict between which faction she owes her allegiance to – the humans who created her or the Replicants who share her origin.

Vangelis, of Chariots of Fire fame, sets the tone of the film with another synth-based score that works extremely well in this futuristic dystopian setting; there’s a technological energy in the music as the film opens, but this eventually gives way to a strong feeling of melancholy and despair that matches the state of the world and the conflict going on within our characters’ minds.

The questions and the themes found in this movie could be talked about and written about for ages to come (and probably will be), but for now I’ll leave you to watch the film for yourself and ponder over everything on your own. If you do, I highly recommend checking out the basis for the film as well, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Reading the book really helped me to get into Deckard’s head and to understand some of his motivations and internal struggles. Once you have watched the movie and maybe read the book, talk about it with others! Blade Runner is a film that demands discussion because of the complex questions found within, but, for the more casual moviegoer, it still has a lot to offer in the way of good sci-fi worldbuilding and action. However you take it on, enjoy the ride and consider: what does it mean to live?

-Chad

(P.S. – Watch the Final Cut.)

RECOMMEND!

MPAA: R – for violence and brief nudity


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

jack-ryan

 

 

I must confess to something: before this film, I hadn’t seen any of the Jack Ryan-centric movies, meaning The Hunt for Red OctoberPatriot GamesClear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, which is apparently a big deal. I own Patriot Games but haven’t gotten around to watching it, and The Hunt for Red October has been on my list for a while as well. Anyway, the point is that I had no established expectation for this character; I just knew that it was a reboot, and that it was the first Jack Ryan film to not be based on one of Tom Clancy’s original novels. My expectations weren’t too high, which I suppose is a good thing because I walked away moderately pleased.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (re?)introduces us to Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), a CIA analyst who has a past as a Marine but left due to severe injury. He is engaged to Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a physician who helped him to recover following his accident. When Ryan discovers a discrepancy with bank accounts connected to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), a discrepancy that might endanger the economy of the United States, he flies to Moscow to get to the bottom of it, but he is nearly killed upon arrival, forcing him to resort to his military training and take care of business in a way atypical of his position as an analyst. Tensions rise as he comes into contact with Cherevin himself, is suspected of infidelity by his fiancé, and is joined by his supervisor, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) in a race to stop Cherevin and save the US.

Chris Pine as Ryan was the best part of this movie. The backstory provided at the start of the film showing how he joined the Marines as a response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center gives us an emotional reason to invest in his decision, and his subsequent injury resulting from trying to save another Marine further solidifies that investment. He has a likable personality and does well in the action film setting thanks to his charisma and confidence. Kenneth Branagh both directs the film and plays Cherevin, and though I liked parts of his portrayal, it also seemed to me that his attempts at what I can best describe as “Russian stoicism” often seemed flat and uninteresting. There isn’t really anything to say about Kevin Costner except that he did an acceptable job without being stellar, as did Knightley as Ryan’s fiancée, though her American accent was inconsistent and, frankly, laughable.

My biggest complaint about the film – aside from the fact that the villain’s evil scheme was actually pretty confusing – is the abundance of overreactions from multiple characters throughout. At one point, Knightley’s character suspects Ryan of cheating on her with another woman because she finds a movie ticket stub in his pocket…sounds like cheating to me! She then flies to Russia like it’s not a big deal just to confront him on what she thinks is a business trip. This is most obvious example of what I’m talking about, but Cherevin and a couple of other minor characters have similar reactions for no reason at later points in the film.

Patrick Doyle’s score was actually pretty decent. I haven’t listened to it outside of the film itself, but what I heard in the film did an excellent job at propelling the action forward and building the tension/anxiety of the plot up. Doyle’s scores have been hit and miss for me in the past (well, more accurately, his score to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a HUGE miss), but I was relatively pleased here.

Though I was a bit confused at time and irritated at others, this movie did a fairly decent job at keeping me interested and on the edge of my seat throughout. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit may have been my first venture into the world of Jack Ryan, and it may not have been an overwhelmingly positive one, but, to the film’s credit, it has piqued my interest in the character himself, so I am looking forward to looking backward at the previous films in this character’s history.

-Chad

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language


Divergent Trilogy (2011-2013) – Veronica Roth

divergent-trilogy

 

 

Note: This is going to be a completely spoiler-free review. 

As most of you probably know by now, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy is the hottest series off the Young Adult press to be adapted into a film, with the first installment set for release in just a couple of weeks. Watching the initial film trailer did absolutely nothing for me. What is this film about? Why am I supposed to care? Am I supposed to be excited? Whether the trailer made me feel it or not (it didn’t), I felt like I should be excited for this movie, so I decided to read the books to see if that built my anticipation more. And it did. Quite a bit, actually.

I initially planned to give a brief sum-up of my opinion on each book, but the fact of the matter is that I loved all three. Beatrice “Tris” Prior is a fantastic character who grows in so many ways over the course of the trilogy, and Four has fascinating complexities that keep him interesting as well. There are definitely similarities to Suzanne Collins The Hunger Gamges trilogy especially, but none of these bother me; one work of art inspires another, and I think I actually enjoyed the Divergent trilogy more anyway. (I also particularly enjoyed her reference to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game with Peter, who is obviously inspired by Ender’s violent older brother with the same name.) Questions that I had in the first book – Where is the rest of the world? Who started the faction system and why? What is outside the walls of the city that needs guarding? – were all answered in time, even if it took Roth until the third book to do it.

I only have a couple of small complaints. In the first book more so than in the other two, it often seems like Tris is turning toward the metaphorical camera and saying something dramatic directly to the audience at the end of a chapter. For example, the following two sentences are the last of chapter 14 of Divergent:

I wish I could say I felt guilty for what I did.

[dramatic turn to camera] I don’t.

Obviously, the bracketed part is my addition, but you get the idea. It’s not a huge issue, but I did get the feeling that it happened a lot, like Tris needs to say something dramatic to say something about her character, but I don’t think it is necessary; Tris’ actions very clearly define her character, especially the further we advance in the books, so these dramatic moments just feel overdone. My other minor complaint is that I have no real sense of how much time has passed from the beginning to the end of the trilogy. Roth uses both “weeks ago” and “months ago” at multiple points in the series in random orders, so it is difficult for me to tell how much time is spent at each moment or location in the book. I mean, it obviously has to be long enough for certain characters to heal from injuries sustained in action, but the passage of time is not clear enough for me to follow. Again, though, this is minor – the story and character development means more than the passage of time, and, in any case, we can agree that time passes, which is all that you really need to know.

But complaints don’t really matter when everything else is top-notch. Roth absorbed me into her world from page one, so much so that I read the entire trilogy in less than a week…with the second two being read within a 48-hour time period. I suppose I should say something in regard to the huge spoiler in Allegiant that I’m sure you’ve all heard about, whether you know what it is or not; it doesn’t bother me. Maybe because I was (unfortunately) exposed to the spoiler by someone who was careless online, or maybe because I knew that many people didn’t like the ending because of this giant spoiler, I don’t know, but I thought that this particular spoiler brought something full-circle in a bold way. Like I said, no spoilers here, but if you’ve read the books and are curious to read the author’s reasoning, check out this super-spoilery blog post on her website (you’ve been warned).

Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy continues to prove that the world of Young Adult fiction has quite a bit to offer – and that it isn’t strictly for young adults to read. These are young characters, yes, but they go through very adult situations, and the way they react to these situations and how they grow from them can teach us a lot about ourselves no matter our age. I haven’t read something entertaining and engaging in this way in quite a while; I’m looking forward both to reading it again in the future and to seeing the movie soon.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

-Chad

“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

 


Top Ten Films of 2013

The delay in me typing this up comes from the fact that there are still a few major films from 2013 that I have yet to see – American HustleHerInside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street (though I’m thinking I won’t see the latter due to excessive sexual content). That being said, I wanted to go ahead and tackle what I have seen before too much of 2014 passes, so just know that, if I see these films and find them worthy of this list, I will update it and let you all know.

2013 was a pretty great year for me. I saw more films than ever before, largely due to my involvement in The MovieByte Podcast with my friend TJ. If I totaled everything correctly, I saw 40 new films this year in theaters, so this list is drawing from a pretty wide selection.

An important note: this is a list of favorite films, which may conflict with my ratings. My ratings are usually based on a combination of both quality and enjoyment, whereas this list will mostly be based on enjoyment with quality mixed in just a bit. Click on the titles to see my reviews for each film. With that said, let’s get started with number 10:

thor the dark world

Honorable Mention – Thor: The Dark World

After the mediocre first Thor film, I was hoping for a much better second film, which we thankfully got in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth is an excellent Thor, made better by the fact that we’re not establishing an origin anymore. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to impress as well, this time as an ally, bringing an interesting twist to the character and allowing for a fun and occasionally potent brother-to-brother relationship. Brian Tyler’s score is just as fun as the movie itself, and Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is appropriately menacing, if a bit vague in intention.

frozen

10. Frozen

I love Disney films, especially musical ones, because they remind me of my childhood, when The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast (my review), and Aladdin were supreme. Frozen reminds me of those 1990s Disney movies, but this time with a nice twist at the end – which I won’t spoil for you. The voice cast is incredible here, namely Kristen Bell as Anna and Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman, with Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” set to be a surefire nominee for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards – and, I’ll call it now, it’ll win too. The animation is beautiful, the story is touching, and you’ll walk out whistling the songs, wanting to watch it again and again.

12-years-a-slave

9. 12 Years a Slave

This film is difficult to rank because, while it’s certainly a 5-star film, it’s also difficult to watch. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve long years. The film covers his incredibly painful time spent on a plantation in Louisiana, where he meets good people, bad people, and fellow slaves who are also struggling for their lives. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of slavery and how brutal the slave owners often were, making this film exceptionally powerful and a must-watch – if you can stomach it.

Enders-Game

8. Ender’s Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s classic book in anticipation of this film, so it was fresh on my mind when I walked into the theater. As expected, the book is much better and much of the content in the film is watered down, but that doesn’t stop the film from being pretty excellent on its own. For the most part, it keeps the themes of morality and unnecessary violence intact, and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender does a fantastic job of capturing the character, from his calm control in stressful situations to his intense emotional outbursts upon the realizations of what has happened to him. The visuals in this movie are gorgeous, with scenes from the book, such as the armies in the Battle Room, flying right off the page in a great way.

book-thief

7. The Book Thief

I also read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief before seeing the film based on it, and many of my criticisms are the same as for Ender’s Game in regards to the watering down of content and such, but that doesn’t stop this film from being an emotional punch to the gut. Sophie Nélisse is outstanding as Liesel Meminger, as are her parents, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The period setting of the film is well-done, and John Williams delivers as intimate and beautiful a score as ever. Bring a box of tissues for this one…maybe two.

Tom Hanks

6. Captain Phillips

In this film, Tom Hanks has the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Man, he continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors out there. Captain Phillips tells the true story of how Somalian pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama but were thwarted by Captain Richard Phillips, who not only protected everyone on board with his actions but also offered himself as hostage to continue that protection. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate, who isn’t portrayed as a bad guy but rather as a guy forced to do bad things due to unfortunate social circumstances. There isn’t a bad guy here, not really – at least, that’s not how the film portrays the pirates – but there is simply reality and suspense that rises from it. The long run-time never feels too long as you are caught up in the action from start to finish, and if Tom Hanks doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’ll only be because he lost it to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

SAVING MR. BANKS

5. Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson shines in this historical film about the making of the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers. Thompson’s portrayal of the stubborn author is both quirky and humorous, but it’s also heartbreaking in her remembrance of moments in her childhood that inspired her books. Colin Farrell plays her father in these flashbacks, juxtaposing a happy-go-lucky father with a down-on-his-luck drunkard, giving us insight into Mary Poppins and the Banks family that I was not previously familiar with. Tom Hanks plays an admirable Walt Disney, even if his performance doesn’t convince me enough that I am watching Walt himself rather than Hanks playing him. Still, the charm of the movie as a whole as well as Thompson’s performance knock this film out of the park. (You should probably bring tissues to this one as well.)

oblivionstarringtomcruise

4. Oblivion

I had a self-imposed boycott on Tom Cruise’s films for quite a long time, but since lifting it for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) he has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His performance here is great, as is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as his partner, but it’s the themes and questions raised by the film that bring Oblivion so far to the top of my list. Themes of asking questions, seeking answers, and the thirst for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are brought to the forefront, and, for some reason, it really resonated with me. The script is smart, Tom Cruise is as great as ever, and the score by M83 is energetic and fun, in the same vein as Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (my review), which was directed by the same man, Joseph Kosinski. This film not only shows off Tom Cruise’s continuing capabilities as an action star, but his talents as a dramatic actor as well.

the hunger games catching fire

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As far as book-to-film adaptations go, 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review) was one of the best I’d seen, but it still had problems. Director Gary Ross’ replacement by Francis Lawrence for the second film seemed worrying at first, but it seemed to pay off. Not only is Catching Fire a better film than the first one, but it’s also a better adaptation of its book counterpart, which is hard to believe. In fact, if I may be so bold, I think that I enjoyed the film more than the book, at least as far as the opening scenes involving the Victory Tour go, which I know is probably blasphemy. Jennifer Lawrence is surely one of the best actresses out there today as evidenced by her continued terrific performance as Katniss Everdeen. The stakes of this film are higher than in the first, and the character development is even better than the already-good character development of the first film. The shaky-cam is gone in favor of better choreographed action scenes, and, in fact, nearly every aspect of the first film is improved upon this time around. This is an excellent film whether you’ve read the books or not.

gravity

2. Gravity

If you didn’t catch this film in theaters, I’m sorry. You missed out. Maybe they’ll bring it back for a few extra showings before the Academy Awards, in which case you should buy a ticket as soon as they’re available. Though this film is great all-around, from the performance of Sandra Bullock to the music by Steven Price to the brilliant visuals of space, the real thrill comes from the thrill of total immersion. You seem to experience everything that Bullock’s character experiences, from spinning around in the vacuum of space to the rush of being trapped in a shower of incoming deadly space debris. The theater experience makes an already-great film even better by involving the audience fully in the action and atmosphere – or lack thereof – of space.

The Way Way Back

1. The Way, Way Back

I love, love, love this film. Love it. I caught an early screening about a month before it reached theaters and subsequently paid to see it twice more. I purchased it on Blu-Ray the day it became available and have watched it three times more since then, and I have yet to tire of it. The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age film about Duncan, played by Liam James, who is the most perfectly, believably awkward person I’ve ever seen onscreen, which is exactly how his character should be. The growth of his character throughout the film is equally fun and touching, contrasted by Steve Carell’s portrayal of Duncan’s awful stepfather, a role refreshingly atypical of Carell’s usual fare. However, the standout performance in this film is that of Sam Rockwell as Owen, a local waterpark owner who befriends Duncan and helps him to make his summer one of the best of his life. Rockwell brings many laugh-out-loud moments, but he also brings the most poignant moments of the film. The moral is great, and the ride is a great one. I don’t think I could possibly over-recommend this movie.

Well, there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with my list? What were your favorite films of 2013? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Here’s to 2014 – another great year for movies!

-Chad


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug

I don’t think that anyone would argue with you if you were to suggest that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece, but his recent adaptations of Tolkien’s predecessor to LOTRThe Hobbit, is a bit more controversial. The main argument against Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films is just that – it’s a trilogy, three films based on one 300-page book in contrast to the three films based on three 400-600-page books. Regardless of your opinions on this new trilogy, it’s happening, and though the first film, An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t anything spectacular (my review), The Desolation of Smaug certainly steps up the game and brings to the table a better film.

The second film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the dwarves of Erebor, Gandalf the Grey, and the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, rapidly approaching the dark forest Mirkwood, with the orc company led by Azog the Defiler hot on their tail. They seek solace with Beorn, a skin-changer with the ability to transform into a large bear, who houses them and sends them off into Mirkwood. Along the way, the company of Thorin Oakenshield comes across terrifying giant spiders, the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood (including a certain familiar face from the LOTR…), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Lake-Town, and, finally, the dragon of Erebor itself – Smaug.

Martin Freeman continues to be the perfect Bilbo Baggins, from the way he reacts under stress to the way he communicates with the rest of the company. His energy on-screen surpasses that of any other actor in the film, though Richard Armitage as Thorin is also pretty great here. The character of Thorin is developed better than it was in the first film, with his conflict between his desire for gold and his dedication to his friends being brought into question. The other truly noteworthy performance here is Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Smaug. Cumberbatch provided both voice and motion capture for the dragon, and his work is nothing short of amazing. Aside from the fact that the CGI is beautiful and as realistic as it could possibly be for a giant dragon, his voice is an excellent mix of both creepy and charming, and his whole conversation with Bilbo in the hall of gold is every bit as clever and entertaining as the “Riddles in the Dark” scene with Gollum in the first film.

Other characters were not so great. While it was admittedly nice having a familiar face pop up, Orlando Bloom’s return as the elf Legolas feels shoe-horned in, as his character serves no real purpose other than for some cool action scenes and to be a member of the poorly setup (and thoroughly awkward) love triangle between him, Tauriel (an elf character created for the film, played by actress Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s nephews. The explanation behind the inclusion of Tauriel is to provide a strong female character for audiences to look up to, and, yes, she does have a couple of good action scenes, but the insistence of the filmmakers to create this romantic side-plot makes my feelings toward her and Legolas to be ambivalent at best. I’m also sick of the side-plots involving the orcs hunting down Thorin for his head – more stuff made up for the films that weren’t present in the book. I’m not a book purist, meaning that I don’t think that filmmakers have to follow the book exactly, and, hey, if the filmmakers come up with something that adds to the book’s story in a good way, cool for them, but that is not the case here, at least not in regards to the elf characters.

An addition that I did enjoy this time around is Gandalf’s (Sir Ian McKellen) quest to find out more about this “Necromancer” that we only briefly glimpse in the first film. In the book, Gandalf leaves for chapters at a time, but Tolkien doesn’t expound on what he might be off doing…at least, not in The Hobbit. Jackson has graciously given us a glimpse into those adventures, which are quite entertaining. The Hobbit as written by Tolkien is not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so much as it is simply a predecessor that takes place in the same universe; you don’t have to read one to understand the other. However, Jackson is turning his trilogy into a prequel for his earlier trilogy, and it’s scenes like Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur and the impending rise of Sauron that fulfill this purpose nicely. Also worth noting is the expansion of the role of the Ring in this film; in the book, it is simply a magic ring that turns the wearer invisible, but, as we learn in LOTR, it is actually much more than that. We start to see Bilbo’s fascination and obsession with the ring in this film, watching him slash something to bits to protect his possession of it – or, rather, its possession of him.

I enjoyed the first film in this trilogy well enough, but I can’t deny that our second outing with Thorin and company is much better overall. The feel of The Desolation of Smaug is more natural and (thankfully) less expository, and the higher stakes of this part of the journey bring more action to the table and make the film more enjoyable as a whole. The run-time is about the same as the first film, but it doesn’t feel that way because it does a better job of keeping you on your toes and engaged throughout. Sure, it has its problems – the HFR is still a bit cartoon-y at times – but it’s on-the-whole a superior film, with an ending that will leave you thirsting for more. Howard Shore has composed another great, although more forgettable, score for the film, and Ed Sheeran’s outstanding song “I See Fire” is worth sitting through the credits for. I can only hope that Jackson doesn’t disappoint with the third and final film later this year.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images