Friday, September 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Directed by Peter Jackson.
2013. Rated PG-13, 161 minutes.
Martin Freeman
Ian McKellen
Evangeline Lilly
Richard Armitage
Luke Evans
Benedict Cumberbatch
Lee Pace
Stephen Fry
Orlando Bloom
Graham McTavish
Ken Stott

Like most of our trips to Middle Earth, The Desolation of Smaug begins in media res. Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is still tagging along with a band of dwarves on their quest to reclaim land and treasure from the slumbering dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch). He's also still hiding the one ring to rule them all in his pocket and using it whenever the need arises. Along the way, our heroes encounter many setbacks and roadblocks. Our favorite wizard, Gandalf (McKellen) wanders off to tend to some business pertaining to the quest, but separate from it. Peter Jackson doing Tolkien stuff ensues.

The bulk of the movie is essentially the same as its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. There are some key differences, of course. The first, and most obvious one is that there is no setup. Like Jackson's most famous set of films, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is shaping up to be a trilogy in raw form, meant to be viewed as one long continuous film. It is assumed, and rightfully so, that almost no one would watch this without having seen the prior installation. Another difference is the addition of a few new characters whose motivations are of significance. The main one is Bard the Bowman (Evans) who lives in the village that the dwarves hope to reclaim. He's the one guy who doesn't think waking up Smaug is a good idea. Early on, before he really understands what's going on, he helps the dwarves in inventive ways.

Where The Hobbit differs from The Lord of the Rings as a series is that the protagonist is really a day-saving sidekick. There are some asides developing Bilbo's relationship with the magical ring. However, this is really about the quest of the dwarves. Bilbo is just along for the ride. What happens is the dwarves trek, trek, trek until they get into a precarious situation which they invariably can't get themselves out of. During all of this, Bilbo has gotten separated from the pack and returns to save his travel-mates. Rinse. Repeat.

My implication that this is a movie that plays on a loop for two and a half hours might sound like damning criticism. Quite to the contrary, it works, marvelously in this case. Peter Jackson keeps his episodes concise, therefore getting us to the action scenes much quicker than in An Unexpected Journey. The run-time is also shorter. If you're not familiar with Jackson, two and a half hours is downright brief. It actually feels a bit shorter than that because things are actually happening. Part of this is because he has to find ways to stretch a fairly short book into three movies. Pumping up the action was a nice choice. The endless exposition of the first movie made three hours feel like four. the situation wasn't helped by the fact that it was also repetitive. For this chapter, that problem has been largely eradicated.

Other standards for our journeys into and through Middle Earth are upheld nicely. Though most of the characters are one note, they are all played very well. Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, the one "she-elf" of note, stands out and not just because of her gender. Sir Ian McKellen continues to fully inhabit the wizard Gandalf while a number of the dwarves get their moment in the sun. Benedict Cumberbatch is also fun as our dragon. Speaking of Smaug, he is representative of the other major asset of Jackson's movies - the visuals. Once again, the director has given us a splendid looking piece of cinema. the world he depicts is expansive and diverse. Combine the sheer physical beauty of the film with a story that moves with purpose and we get a very enjoyable experience that easily outdoes its predecessor.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies About Young Love

Happy Thursday, all! On this week's edition of Thursday Movie Picks...

oh, wait. There might be some new folks here. Let's give them a quick rundown. Every Thursday, I make suggestions based on a theme selected by Wanderer at Wandering Through the Shelves as part of her Thursday Movie Picks meme. Check out her place and the list of upcoming topics and feel free to join in with your own picks.

This week, the theme is childhood, or young love. Wanderer defines "childhood" as being before high school. This left me in a little bit of a bind. I literally had no idea what to do. After combing the recesses of my mind for hours...okay, seconds because my recesses don't run that deep...I finally decided on three I'm calling my favorites. Chronologically, they are...

My Girl
Has there ever been a more heart-breaking movie than this? In it, we follow Vada (Anna Chlumsky) and Thomas (Macaulay Culkin). Vada is a girl who has a ton of health problems. Similarly, Thomas is seemingly allergic to everything. The two form a bond throughout the movie and then...well, I won't say anymore.

Let the Right One In 

Let Me In 
Okay, so I'm cheating just a bit. We'll actually have four movies, instead of three to choose from this week. Let the Right One In is a wonderful Swedish film featuring two kids that develop an amazing relationship. The boy is a target for bullies while the girl keeps to herself. It just so happens that she's a vampire. In case subtitles are a bit much for you, Let Me In is the American remake. There are some differences along the way, but I enjoyed both very much. In fact, they both made my list of The Best Vampire Movies Since 2000.

Moonrise Kingdom
In this one, a boy scout named Sam (Jared Gilman) runs away from camp and convinces a girl from town, Suzy (Kara Hayward) to go with him. While they're off on their little adventure, everyone on the island they live on, including his scout master and her parents are looking for them. Everyone involved gets into some rather interesting situations. Be forewarned that this is a Wes Anderson flick, whom I know some people aren't that fond of. Still, I had a great time watching this. Click here for my full review.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Directed by Prachya Pinkaew.
2008. Rated R, 110 minutes.
Yanin "Jeeja" Vismitananda
Hiroshi Abe
Ammara Siripong
Taphon Phopwandee
Pongpat Wachirabunjong
Dechawut Chuntakaro
Hirokazu Sano

Zen (Yanin), an autistic girl (Vismitananda) who becomes an expert fighter by constantly watching martial arts movies, sets out to collect money owed to her cancer-stricken mother Zin (Siripong).

It's damn fun. Let's dispense with all notions of logic and just enjoy watching this teenage girl beat up hordes of grown men. The movies of Tony Jaa are obviously her biggest influence as clips of Ong-Bak are sprinkled throughout and she uses a number of moves he's known for. Why wouldn't she? After all, director Prachya Pinkaew also directed that martial arts classic. Older and/or more seasoned kung fu flick viewers will also recognize a few iconic moments from Bruce Lee movies and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (see pic below). It's an insane experience. And you haven't lived until you've seen her fight a kid who apparently has Tourette Syndrome AND incorporates breakdancing and capoeira into his fighting style.

Hello!!! I said one of the highlights is an autistic girl fighting a boy with Tourette Syndrome!!!

I'm so bad.

If there is a hell, I might find myself there simply based on enjoying that aspect of it.

Let's get through this. Deep breaths. I can do this.

You cannot analyze this movie for even one second. Once you do, it instantly makes no sense whatsoever and might be construed as offensive, to boot. The script is barely coherent enough to drag you through, don't try to ruin it with common sense. Now that we've established that there's one other troubling element. Too often, the fight choreography shows its seams. From time to time you can plainly see some random bad guy run quickly up to her, only to stand there and wait to be hit. This subtracts from what otherwise are fairly spectacular sequences. Oh, and no, I've no clue why the movie is titled Chocolate. By the way, it is a Thai movie but when you pop in the DVD the English-dubbed version comes on, so subtitleophobes can breathe easy.

This is strictly for martial arts fans. For anyone else, its just too ridiculous. The term "suspension of disbelief" was made for this movie. That said, it still falls into the must-see category for people who love kung fu flicks because of, AND in spite of, its massive shortcomings. So yeah, I love this crap. It's the very definition of 'so bad its awesome!'

MY SCORE: -10/10 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Directed by Marc Webb.
2014. Rated PG-13, 142 minutes.
Andrew Garfield
Emma Stone
Jamie Foxx
Dane DeHaan
Sally Field
Felicity Jones
Colm Feore
Paul Giamatti
Campbell Scott
Embeth Davidtz

To begin our second go-round with the web slinger, we meet up with Spider-Man (Garfield) on the day of his high school graduation. As usual, he's running late because he's busy saving the day. This includes rescuing Max (Foxx), an Oscorp employee. Later that night, he decides to break up with Gwen Stacy (Stone) in order to keep a promise he made to her now deceased father. He also obsesses over what has happened to his own dad. Soon, Harry Osborne (DeHaan) comes into the picture. As his father Norman passes away, he finds out that he is also dying. After finding out a few things about the company he inherited, the aforementioned Oscorp, he comes to the conclusion that the only thing that will save his life is Spider-Man's blood. Bad guy. In the midst of all this, Max has an accident at work and can suddenly control and conduct electricity within his body. Yada, yada, another bad guy. Oscorp execs not named Harry, more bad guys, trying to cover everything up ensues.

Since I like to start things off on a positive note, let's look at some of the good stuff. One place where the movie succeeds in bringing the comic books to life, is in our hero's persona during the heat of battle. In print, he is always making wisecracks, giving off the impression that he is having a great time. He loves what he does. The movie does this perfectly and injects plenty of life into the proceedings. Of more importance to how things plays out, though, is the performance of Andrew Garfield in the titular role. In the first movie, the air of confidence he has belies the type of person Peter is supposed to be at that point in his life. Here, it works perfectly. He's been Spider-Man for awhile, he knows what he's doing and has been highly successful. Garfield is also able to convey all of the various emotions this young man is still going through.  Another performance that is really good is Sally Field's in the role of Aunt May. She's not given much to do, but makes the most of it. The most heartwarming parts of the movie belong to her. The majority of the rest of the cast delivers every line they have with both fists full of ham. However, that fits in with the overall tone of the movie so I won't knock it.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise ends. The biggest issue is one that plagued Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3 in the original trilogy. There's far too much going on. There are so many different strands to the story, none of them are sufficiently explored. They come off half baked and slapped into place. When Harry pops up, we're just supposed to accept that he and Peter are old pals. Was he even in the first movie? I don't think so. He doesn't have to be, but nothing that happens between them suggests strongly enough that they ever even liked each other, much less were bestest buds. This means when Harry inevitably turns heel, we don't really care about him. We see him as just another bad guy. It's all rather empty. To compare it to Raimi's movies, when this same event happened there, that relationship had been been cultivated for two and a half movies. There was some emotional depth to what was going on.

Whatever time is devoted to Harry and Peter's (non) relationship, takes away from the development of Max, aka Electro. His loneliness and social awkwardness is something that could be examined and used to create a great villain similar to the way it was in Chronicle, ironically starring Dane DeHaan in that role. Instead, he's reduced to being a simpleton and a henchman even though, from a physical standpoint, he's the most formidable villain in the movie by a long shot. It doesn't help that the special fx portraying him are shoddy. Hmmm...fx. More on those, later. That both Harry's and Max's story lines are wrapped up in a generic one about corporate greed and cover-ups is also a hindrance. None of the OsCorp execs trying to keep things under wraps is the least bit interesting. I couldn't even be bothered to figure out what any of their names are. Why should I? Who needs the name of someone with no personality? This might be forgivable if this plot line included some insight or poignancy. Instead, it's all faceless suits doing generic things and just gets in the way of everything else.

While not the biggest problem, the one that might be most troubling is the way our love story is handled. As in the first movie, no sparks fly between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. We're told that they're passionately in love with and can't stay away from one another. Garfield's performance even lends to the idea. However, we never feel it when the two of them are together. They feel more like colleagues than lovers. Truth told, I like Emma Stone as an actress, and I don't really think she did anything wrong here, necessarily. I think the combination of the way her scenes with Garfield are written and how much other stuff is going on conspired against her and her co-star creating something we can latch onto. The real shame of it is that we've already seen it done. As good or bad as you think the Sam Raimi Spider-Man flicks were, it's hard to deny that the one thing it did better than anything else was give us a whirlwind romance that we really believed in. What Peter and MJ had sizzled through all three movies, even when whatever else was happening did not. This helped ensure that we always felt something real was on the line even beyond the bad guy destroying the city. Here, the love of the couple in question miserably fails to transcend the screen.

With very little else going right, we're left with focusing on the look of the film. This is the part when I get back to the special fx, by the way. The biggest brightest of them all surround Electro. First off, he's a glowing blue being reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. I'm not a big fan of the look because it's a constant reminder we're seeing something manufactured. It doesn't help when a being made of electricity suddenly puts on a leather suit, either. How his powers are shown are a bit of an issue, too. It's all lightning bolts and explosions that would've been right at home in 1931's Frankenstein. To be fair, it's probably impossible to show them any other way. For that reason, I won't dock the movie too much other than to say that combined with the way the character is written, it hampers Jamie Foxx's performance. Sure, he's a bit goofy in the role, but he's not afforded the chance to create a worthwhile villain. The same goes for Paul Giamatti as Rhino. Sort of. His appearances bookend the film and only the latter shows him as Rhino. The costume he's stuck with a gigantic, metallic, weaponized monstrosity that's been cgi'd around his face. It's just awful. Never mind the fact that you have a high caliber actor and use him like an extra. His second appearance could be seen as a setup for another installment, probablor it could be completely discarded.

Regardless of what happens with the bad guys. Whether or not the fx are successful really hinge on how the hero is depicted. From a practical effects viewpoint, Spider-Man looks great when standing still. Through Raimi's flicks and the first movie in the rebooted series, there's never been a bad costume for the character, but this one feels spot on with what it should be. Unfortunately, Spidey has to move. When he does, the same issues that kept the first Raimi movie, as well as the first reboot, from being all it could be rears its ugly head, here. When our hero is swinging through the city and bouncing off things, he often looks like a weightless being. It is too obvious that we're looking at computer animation and not at Andrew Garfield. Truth told, had the movie been better I probably wouldn't have minded this so much. It's not. Therefore, while watching I was basically sitting there picking out every little thing that was wrong for two hours. This was the most egregious from a visual standpoint because it's the one thing they have to get right. The audience cannot be left feeling like we switch into cartoon mode every time our hero uses his powers.

If you couldn't already tell, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did not sit well with me. While trying to cram in as many bad guys and plot lines as it possibly can, it makes a mess of itself. None of it is worth caring about. That said, the same people who liked Raimi's Spider-Man 3 will likely enjoy this one. It has lots of action and lots of things going on. Therefore, it manages to avoid being dull no matter how good or bad it is. That's certainly a plus. For me, it's that odd dish created by that person just experimenting in their kitchen with as many ingredients as they can find in their refrigerator and cabinets. After they've dumped everything in it, they just stir it all together and come up with a strange colored goop they try to tell you tastes good. Yeah, that's this movie.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Monday, September 15, 2014

Back to School Blogathon: Class One

A couple weeks ago, I decided to start the Back to School Blogathon in honor of the kids saying goodbye to summer and hitting the books once again. The basic task is for bloggers to create a class using movie characters and certain cinematic archetypes. My actual rules are as follows:

1. Choose at least 1 character to fit into each of the following roles:

Administrator (either a dean, principal, head master, or some other equivalent)
Star Student/Nerd
Jock/Class Bully
Popular Girl/Diva
Invisible Girl (aka not popular girl)
Class Clown
Troubled Youth

Of course, include a few words on why each character was chosen.

Some of the categories have slashes because there is a lot of overlap within. However, feel free to break those up to make your class even larger. For instance if you use a jock who is a nice guy, you can also include a bully. As long as you have the minimum number of students and others, your class can be as large as you like.

2. There are NO RESTRICTIONS on age. Theoretically, you can have Zach fromKindegarten Cop in the same class as Rodney Dangerfield's character to School

3. You can use multiple characters from a single movie, but a class must be made up of characters from at least three separate movies.

4. Use movies in which school is an important part of the plot or are largely set in a school.

5. Finally, use my banner somewhere in your entry and link back to this post.


If you noticed, the title of this post includes the phrase "Class One." It's simple. There are so many great characters out there to use, I'm going to do more than one class. I'm not sure if I'll stop at two, but we'll see how it goes. Today, we'll start with this one...

Joe Clark
Lean on Me
This class is certainly not going to be a walk in the park. We need someone tough, who is not afraid to put students in their place. Crazy (see the movie, get the joke), is just the guy. After all, if he can whip Eastside High into shape, there's no limits to what he can do. Not only am I confident he can handle the group of miscreants I've assembled, he'll make sure  that whatever they do, they'll do it expeditiously!

Jonathan Shale, aka Mr. James Smith
The Substitute
As the title of his movie suggests, Shale is actually just a substitute. Sorta. He's really a Vietnam Vet who works as a mercenary. When his girlfriend gets her knee busted up by one of the local riff raff, guess who springs into action by going undercover and kicking ass. Yup, this guy. If you can't tell, we're going for strict discipline here, folks.

Star Student
Derek Reynolds
Save the Last Dance
Here's a guy who seems to have it all together. Despite growing up in a rough neighborhood with trying circumstances, he hits the books hard and hopes to be a doctor someday. He's also a helluva dancer. Nice kid, right? For the most part, he is, but even our star student has a little thug in him. You see, he has a tendency to hang with the wrong crowd and even dabbled in petty crime once upon a time. Don't worry, though. All that is behind him.

School Daze
Poor guy. All he wants to do is belong to the in-crowd. He wants it so bad, he is willing to be abused for the privilege. This is evidenced by his trying to join the most popular frat on campus even though they clearly don't want him. Hazing comes as part of the deal just to get in for the guys they do want. Imagine what they have in store for him. His lack of physical stature isn't helping matters, hence the nickname Half Pint.

Half Nelson
This basketball player may not be the star of her team, and truthfully she could probably qualify for another role in this class. What she brings to the table is that she is highly observant. This attribute just might help keep the class safe from a certain student. She also seeks out adult companionship (not like that). This will give our teacher and principal a valuable ally in the classroom.

Popular Girl/Diva
Bring it On
Okay, it might be cliche to go with the head cheerleader for the popular girl. However, there's no denying the girl has got all the needed qualities. She's beautiful, a leader, resourceful and fiercely competitive. However, despite a bit of a standoffish attitude with those outside of her circle she's a diva, but not a bully. She's just someone who will stand up for herself, no matter what.

Invisible Girl
Lilly Moscovitz
The Princess Diaries
Here's a girl who defines what it means to be invisible. She only has two people in school who even know she exists. One of them is her own brother. The other one was a similarly invisible girl. Of course, that girl found she was actually the princess of a small European empire. So where does that leave poor Lilly? Still invisible and, now, with only her brother for a friend as the princess is off to await her turn to rule. My heart weeps for her.

Class Clown
Fat Amy
Pitch Perfect
I could've gone a lot of ways with this pick, but none seemed to be as good a pick as Fat Amy. Just start with her moniker. Who decided that the decidedly insulting "Fat" should precede her given name? She did, of course, "so twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back." Yeah, self-deprecating humor is definitely part of her repertoire. She can also give it to you if you insist on giving her a hard time. To top it all off, she's proof positive that confidence is sexy because despite her lack of "traditional" beauty she's going to give the other ladies in class stiff competition for the boys' attention.

Class Bullies
Stab, Pee Wee, and Zilla
House Party
These three musclebound freaks aren't the sharpest No. 2 pencils in class, but they are relentless. And loud. And ruthless. Sure, they behave like bumbling idiots, but I promise you don't want to let them get their collective hands on you. And yes, since they are actually brothers, they come as a package deal.

Troubled Youth
Kevin Khatchadourian
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Talk about troubled. Even his own mother has thought he was the devil incarnate since the day he was born. If his mom thinks that, what are the rest of us to make of him? It doesn't help that he's very fond of, and very skilled with, a bow and arrow. If, by chance, you catch wind of him making any diabolical plans I highly suggest you take it seriously. In other words, be absent whatever day he has marked on his calendar.

Well, there's my first class. If you'd like to participate, there's still time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mulholland Drive

Directed by David Lynch. 
2001. Rated R, 147 minutes.
Naomi Watts 
Laura Harring 
Justin Theroux 
Dan Hedaya
Brent Briscoe
Robert Forster
Katharine Towne
Billy Ray Cyrus
Chad Everett

After a horrendous car accident, a young woman suffers from amnesia. She stumbles into a nearby apartment and forms a friendship with Betty, the actual occupant's niece. Together, they try to figure out who she is.

It's a movie with so many metaphors and symbols it's near impossible to figure them all out, especially when some of them seem to change in meaning. The film-making technique is masterful and helps pull you along for a strange ride. However, the writing of this tale, also handled by director David Lynch, is cryptic at best. The dialogue purposely vacillates between pretty good and pretty awful. After it finishes winding itself into a knot, we find it's essentially plotless. To top it all off, it ends in a baffling manner, complete with an homage to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, no less.

When the credits started rolling, my general feeling can be summed up by the question "What the hell did I just watch?" However, I was prepared for this by the warnings that many fans of the movie and its director gave me. So I said to myself "I'll bite." I waited a day or two and sat through it again. Some things became clearer upon second viewing. In particular, the ending became transparent. This time, when the credits rolled, so did my eyes.

Lynch fans and their warnings came to mind again: "You might not get it the first few times you watch." That's troublesome for me. It's like foods that people say are "an acquired taste." When someone says that, I hear "it doesn't really taste that good but since we're convinced it's a delicacy I just kept eating it until I convinced myself I like it." Maybe by my fifth or sixth viewing I'll swear by this movie like lots of other folks. However, I must apologize to all David Lynch fans out there. The fact is, I just don't want to keep watching it until I like it. And I'm not going to be one of those people who says it's great just because everyone else does.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday Movie Picks: Sports Movies

Hello Thursday. I'm back. As usual I'm armed with some suggestions based on a theme selected by Wanderer at Wandering Through the Shelves as part of her weekly meme. I've had a great time participating in this. If not, I wouldn't still be doing it, silly. She's always open to having more bloggers take part, so check it out and join in.

This week's theme might be my favorite - sports movies. I'm a sports fan and yes, I do like sports movies. But what should I suggest? Just last Thursday, I suggested Bull Durham as part of "Movies Set Locally." On Sunday, I shared some of my favorite scenes from football movies. Rattling around in my head as I type this are titles like Raging Bull, Major League, Rocky, Rudy, Friday Night Lights, Hoop Dreams, He Got Game, The Fighter, Million Dollar Baby, The Bad News Bears, Little Giants, Hoosiers, Moneyball...and on and on. But you know all of these movies. Even if you haven't seen them, they are at least on your radar. When someone mentions them, you have an idea of what they're talking about. In other words, you know my style, let's journey a bit off the beaten path. Let's go with three movies that you may or may not have heard of.

One thing to know about me right off the bat is that, while I don't hate hockey, I'm not really a fan. Another thing you should know is that, while I don't hate Seann William Scott, I'm not really a fan. So here I am recommending a hockey movie starring Seann William Scott. Well, it's that good. Scott stars as a guy with no ability to actually play hockey, or do much of anything else, but man can he fight. A minor league coach takes note of this due to an incident between the protagonist and one of his players. Next thing you know, our hero is suited up, thrown onto the ice and basically sent to fight whoever gets near the team's star player. However, despite the fact that there's plenty of fisticuffs with blood splattering all over the ice, it's a comedy. Scott plays against type, very well I might add, and we get an excellent turn from Liev Schreiber. (My full review)

The Heart of the Game
When I say basketball documentary, most people automatically think Hoop Dreams. Believe it or not, there are others out there. A number of them are pretty good, too. That includes this one. In it, we follow the Roosevelt Rough Riders, a Seattle area high school girls’ basketball team. Their eccentric coach Bill Resler is infectious. He keeps things as loose as possible. However, the real heart of this documentary is star player Darnellia Russell and the trials and tribulations she goes through.

Rudo y Cursi
I've already mentioned that I'm not much of a hockey fan. Well, I have no use for soccer other than games my own daughter is involved in. Even that's reluctantly. Okay, I'll occasionally watch the Women's World Cup whenever that rolls around because the US is actually good at that. Such an ugly American thing for me to say, but it is what it is. That said, I really am going with a soccer flick for my third sports movie. Though soccer is the vehicle through which it all plays out, this is really a movie about sibling rivalry. It's an entertaining ride with plenty of ups and downs as two brothers battle their demons, each other and themselves. However, as harsh as that sounds, this is no dark, brooding affair. It's light but builds nicely until we get to the appropriately heavy finale. It also includes a wonderful performance by fabulous Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Subtitleophobes beware: we're speaking Spanish.