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 LOTR, The 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.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Leave a comment | tags: aidan turner, an unexpected journey, andy serkis, azog, azog the defiler, bard the bowman, Benedict Cumberbatch, bilbo baggins, cgi, erebor, evangeline lilly, gandalf, gandalf the grey, gollum, hfr, Howard Shore, ian mckellen, j. r. r. tolkien, jrr tolkien, kili, lake-town, lee pace, legolas, lotr, love triangle, luke evans, martin freeman, mirkwood, necromancer, orc, orlando bloom, pale orc, peter jackson, richard armitage, riddles in the dark, sauron, the desolation of smaug, the hobbit, the hobbit: an unexpected journey, the hobbit: the desolation of smaug, the lord of the rings, thorin oakenshield, thranduil, tuariel, wood-elves | posted in 4, Books, Entertainment, Film, Film Reviews, Movies, Music, Scores
The purpose of cinema is often to entertain, but that is not always the case; sometimes, its purpose is to inform, to educate, or to enlighten. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Though it’s certainly not comfortable viewing, it is powerful, emotional, and heart-breaking film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his family in 1840s New York. A true story based on Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave follows him as he is captured and sold into slavery, with him remaining in captivity as a slave in Louisiana for twelve years before being released. We are given a glimpse into the cruelty of the slave trade and the struggles that Northup faces during his time in captivity.
In a film full of excellent performances – with “excellent” here meaning “painfully believable” – from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, among others, it’s hard to imagine that one person would stand out – but stand out he does. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a performance that can be described with nothing less than the word “incredible;” the emotions he brings to the story, from joy to fear to anger to depression, are each powerful in their own way, and I found myself captivated every time he was onscreen. Another standout performance comes from Lupita Nyong’o as another slave named Patsey. She goes through quite a lot throughout the course of this film as well, from being the apple of the slaveowner’s eye to begging for death to being flogged for wanting to take a bath. Her performance is also an extremely emotional one – one that will likely bring you to tears more than once.
Often in the film, we are treated to long, still camera shots that linger on Solomon’s face as he stares into the distance, contemplating his current situation. These shots are interesting in that they allow us to see the subtleties in Ejiofor’s acting skills; we can see his emotions develop in real time, like a glimpse into his soul, and it is an unusually compelling technique that works astonishingly well. During these scenes, and during other scenes in which the focus is mostly silence, we are also treated to Hans Zimmer’s minimal but profoundly touching musical score. He utilizes a single theme throughout the film, but each time we hear it, it seems to adapt a new meaning – hope, despair, hopelessness, joy, reunion, thankfulness, tension, and others are all heard in the repetition of this simple theme. Zimmer has been improving with each new score he releases, and it certainly shows here as he deviates from his typically exciting, driving scores to something much more intimate.
This film is difficult to watch in many scenes as we are shown cruelties that no person should have to endure, but it is a sobering and important glimpse into our nation’s past. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of this film is not to entertain, a statement which may draw comparisons to my review of the 2012 Michael Haneke film Amour, which I only awarded 2.5 out of 5 stars because it was such an incredibly depressing film, no matter how artful or masterful it was in execution. Precedent might dictate that I rate this film similarly, but the fact here is that the two films are entirely different in nature. 12 Years a Slave is an often depressing film, yes, but it also has one of the most satisfying endings of any film I’ve seen (you’ll cry if you have a heart), and the historical significance of the story and of the depictions of slavery in the film make this film one that I would entirely recommend…if you can stomach it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a definite contender (and likely the winner) for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film itself and Steve McQueen as director just might walk away with Best Picture/Director.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
MPAA: R – for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
3 Comments | tags: 12 years a slave, Academy Award, amour, Benedict Cumberbatch, best actor, best director, best picture, brad pitt, chiwetel ejiofor, Hans Zimmer, Lupita Nyong'o, michael fassbender, michael haneke, paul dano, solomon northup, steve mcqueen, twelve years a slave | posted in 5, Entertainment, Film, Film Reviews, Movies, Music, Scores
I’m not a Trekkie. I’ve only seen maybe three or four episodes of the original series – something I will hopefully amend in the near future – but I enjoyed J.J. Abram’s first venture into the Star Trek universe in the 2009 film quite a bit, so I was anxious to see the sequel, and I liked it. A lot.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a scene in which Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise, played by Chris Pine, breaks several Starfleet rules and then lies about it, leading to a lecture from Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) about how Kirk is careless, selfish, and over-confident. In the wake of his punishment, Starfleet is attacked by a mysterious man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), leaving Kirk with no choice but to join his crew and track down this criminal. Along the way, Kirk struggles with making the right decisions and with protecting his crew from harm…and he can’t always do both.
The advantage that this film has over its predecessor is that it’s not an origin story, meaning that here we are dealing with the characters, their struggles, and their growth; the filmmakers didn’t have to establish their characters again because we as an audience are already familiar with them. That being said, Chris Pine does a fine job with communicating all of the conflict of his character to us, humanizing Kirk and showing that he is still a young man who can make mistakes – and makes plenty of them. Zachary Quinto as Spock also brings more to the table in this film; since Kirk and Spock are friends now, we see their relationship build and Spock make decisions based on that friendship rather than on logic. All of the familiar faces – Zoë Saldaña as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and John Cho as Sulu – do great jobs with their characters as well, with everyone building more on what was established in the first film. The newcomer, Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain John Harrison, brings all of the appropriate menace to the role, making him a formidable foe, and his acting chops are much, much better than Eric Bana’s were as Nero in the first film. I had seen Cumberbatch in Spielberg’s War Horse (my review) and in his BBC television series Sherlock (which is fantastic, by the way), but this was my first experience with him in a major film role, and it was definitely a positive one. His villain is very much multi-dimensional, and I even wondered at one point in the film if he was really the “bad guy” because of the incredible conviction that Cumberbatch plays him with.
The visual effects, as expected, are amazing, with the new worlds introduced to us ranging from bright and colorful to bleak and miserable, but all believable. While I’m normally indifferent to 3D, there was one moment while watching when it bothered me, which was in the very first scene when spears are being thrown in our faces…I think I actually tried to dodge one of them in my seat. However, the 3D is worth suffering through if you get the chance to see it in IMAX 3D – IMAX is always worth it, for any film. Seeing movies like this in IMAX, where everything is done on such a grand scale, only makes it even grander, which is wonderful. The music by Michael Giacchino, like his score to the first one (my review), and like any of his scores, is as expected – magnificent, intimate, and just awesome overall. But more on that later!
I must admit that, after walking out of the theater, I tried to figure out what the story was – how the villain became the villain, how this led to that, why this character did that, etc. I couldn’t tie the plot together…but I decided that I didn’t care. I walked out of that theater having had a blast, and that’s all that really matters to me in the long run…as long as there aren’t any huge problems with the movie elsewhere, and there weren’t. This movie, in my opinion at least, certainly improves upon its predecessor by giving us more – more character development, more destinations, more everything, and it’s entirely in a good way. I know there are lots of people out there who have concerns with J.J. Abrams directing the next Star Wars film, but, really, I think that if he can make such a fine science fiction space adventure film as Star Trek Into Darkness, it can’t turn out so bad. And with a cast that wants so badly to be better than they were in their previous film, succeeding in this attempt, I have high hopes for a Star Trek 3 in the future.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
2 Comments | tags: 3D, admiral pike, anton yelchin, bbc, Benedict Cumberbatch, bones mccoy, bruce greenwood, captain kirk, chekov, christopher pike, eric bana, hikaru sulu, IMAX, imax 3d, j. j. abrams, james kirk, james t. kirk, jim kirk, jj abrams, john harrison, karl urban, khan, leonard bones mccoy, leonard mccoy, leonard nimoy, Michael Giacchino, mister spock, montgomery scott, mr. spock, nero, nyota uhura, pavel chekov, sherlock, spock, Star Trek, star trek into darkness, starfleet, Steven Spielberg, trekkie, uhura, uss enterprise, War Horse, zachary quinto, zoë saldana | posted in 4.5, Entertainment, Film, Film Reviews, Movies, Music, Scores
Steven Spielberg brings movie magic to the big screen yet again with his adaptation of the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.
One way to think of this film is as a modern-day – well, World War I-era – version of Homer’s The Odyssey, with war obstacles instead of mythical beasts. Joey/Odysseus, the horse, is just trying to find his way back home to Albert/Penelope, but to get there he first wanders through Europe/the Mediterranean Sea, coming into contact with various war scenarios/mythical creatures. Looking at it from that perspective, I enjoyed it even more since I was a big fan of The Odyssey. It’s an epic adventure with a war hero, except this time around he’s a horse, making it all the more touching.
Everything in this film was superbly well-done. Each of the actors and actresses held themselves to a high standard, presenting the audience with genuine, heartfelt emotion: despair that makes us cringe with worry, joy that makes us grin from ear to ear, and love that brings tears to our eyes. One standout performance comes from Jeremy Irvine, who portrays the lead character of Albert. His apparent connection with Joey is believable and warm, making their separation all the more upsetting and their eventual reunion incredibly satisfying.
Another great, albeit short, performance comes from Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls, a man who resolves to look after a horse with as much love and care as was given by the boy he was taken from. Hiddleston, whether as Nicholls or Loki, has an uncanny likability that draws you into caring for him. Benedict Cumberbatch, another rising British star, also makes a brief appearance in the film as Major Stewart. This was the first time I’d ever seen Cumberbatch in anything; what strikes me as remarkable about him is that he seems to almost ooze authority with apparent ease. His stint as a major in the British army is impressive and powerful. Other notable appearances in the film are by Celine Buckens as Emilie, who is a perfect example of innocence, and Niels Arestrup as her grandfather, who delivers a brilliant monologue about how sometimes bravery is never looking down and always looking forward.
Spielberg’s talent for setting scenes in huge ways is very apparent here; the beauty of Europe as a backdrop is made exceptionally clear, contrasting deeply with the images of war and violence seen in the forefront. All of this makes the film feel large but in an intimate way, as if the war is simply the backdrop for the more personal relationship between a young man and his horse.
War Horse is a fantastic film that feels old-fashioned in a marvelous way. Spielberg has combined his natural talent for making dazzling films with an outstanding cast, a heartwarming story of friendship and loyalty, and an extremely beautiful film score by longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams to make the film his best in years.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of war violence
5 Comments | tags: Benedict Cumberbatch, chad hopkins, chadadada, chadlikesmovies, Homer, Michael Morpurgo, Odysseus, Steven Spielberg, The Odyssey, tom hiddleston, War Horse | posted in 4.5, Books, Entertainment, Film, Film Reviews, Movies