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Entries in hugo weaving (3)

Friday
Dec142012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Full disclosure: I’m not a Lord of the Rings fan. It’s not that I think they’re bad movies or anything—I completely acknowledge the skill put behind their creation—they’re just not my thing. Although a critic should be as neutral as possible going into a film, you can chalk my opinion of those up to personal taste. My reaction to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is largely the same: I admire it more than I actually enjoy it, but one thing is clear. This is not on the same level of Lord of the Rings. Revisiting Middle Earth here is like going to Disney World when you’re an adult. It’s still enjoyable, but you’re probably better off reminiscing over your beloved memories than taking a return trip.

It’s sixty years prior to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is a young man. He lives a comfortable life in his familiar home and doesn’t think much about the outside world, that is until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) makes an appearance, asking him if he wants to go on an adventure. Initially, he refuses, but as Dwarves begin piling in his house, he finds he has no choice and sets off to Lonely Mountain to help the Dwarves reclaim a stolen treasure from a dragon named Smaug.

If The Lord of the Rings is the popular kid in high school that was respected and loved by everyone around him, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is its wanna-be little brother. It aspires to reach the heights of its predecessors, doing its very best to mimic them, but never fully captures their true spirit. Comparatively, it’s a lot less epic and way goofier, though it hides under the guise of an epic. Every other minute, played out jokes, like smoke billowing out of someone’s ears, rear their ugly head. Characters actually go from telling cheap jokes to telling sad, dramatic stories all within the same sentences, occasionally even breaking in the middle of one of those stories to toss out another lazy gag. Even when they’re facing death, they’re joking around. I don’t want to say The Hobbit doesn’t know what it wants to be because it does. It just wants to be all things at once and never finds a solid footing because of it.

Those jokes even make their way into segues between scenes. Rather than finding a proper way to make that transition, the film uses random comedic interjections, very few of which are funny, though to be totally fair, it would be difficult to tie together what sometimes seem like unconnected sequences that are irrelevant to the greater story at hand, like when Bilbo and his gang of Dwarves find themselves in the middle of a battle between two stone giants. No context is put behind this moment. It exists only as a lazy way to add peril to what would otherwise have been a boring trek.

Frankly, that’s been the problem for the entire series as a whole. Its visual and creative ingenuity sometimes feel like they exist in the picture just to show off rather than to progress the already bloated stories (The Hobbit runs nearly three hours long). Luckily for this movie, the visuals are so mind blowing that such narrative inconsistencies are easier to forgive. At least in terms of art direction, cinematography and CGI, The Hobbit is utter eye candy, some of the prettiest you’ve probably ever seen, to the point where the computer animated characters would be indistinguishable from the actors onscreen if not for the fact that we know they don’t exist.

The big issue on movie fans’ minds, however, has to do with the much talked about 48 frames per second the film is being shown in. Some have claimed to get migraines watching it, others nausea. Although I suppose such reactions are dependent on the person watching it, it wasn’t a big deal for me or the others at my screening. It takes some time to get used to, roughly 30-45 minutes, but it shouldn’t detract much, if at all, from your enjoyment of the film. Only when the film gets really hectic does it become a bother; our eyes and brains aren’t used to the frame rate, so it’s occasionally difficult to keep up with the action onscreen. When it’s calm, though, it’s one of the clearest, crispest, most realistic things I’ve ever seen, to the point where it felt like I was peering through a spotless window into an alternate reality.

Critical reactions of the film have varied, mainly due to the wildly different viewpoints on the frame rate, and I suspect fan reaction will be the same. Those hoping for epic battles and sweeping adventure akin to its bigger and more successful brethren will be disappointed. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is no Lord of the Rings, but with any luck, its shortcomings will be rectified in the upcoming sequels. If nothing else, it does an admirable job of setting up the story and fluidly reintroducing familiar characters we’ve all come to know and love and it ends on a cliffhanger that promises better things to come. This may not be what many will hope and expect, but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad movie; just an underwhelming one that is nevertheless worth seeing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey receives 3/5

Friday
Oct262012

Cloud Atlas

I can’t say I’ve read the book that Cloud Atlas is based on, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a thematically complex novel that most people think would be very difficult to adapt to the screen. After having seen the film, I understand why. There are six stories in this one movie that span across multiple time periods and locations involving characters who seem to have some type of connection to each other. It cuts back and forth between all six stories throughout its nearly three hour runtime and leaves it up to the viewer to connect the thematic dots. It’s an intriguing movie with narrative ambition akin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and it suffers from the same problems. Its ideas don’t always fully come together, certain narrative threads aren’t entirely finished and it thinks it’s more spiritual than it really is. Indeed, the transition from book to movie must have been a tough one, but that in no way means it is bad. When those ideas do come together and meaning manages to sneak through its sometimes pretentious demeanor, Cloud Atlas is quite fascinating and thought provoking.

Cloud Atlas is at its best when it explores the meaning of life and death and the idea that we are all bound to each other, when it explores the idea that our actions, both good and bad, affect the world around us in ways we can’t even imagine. The film explores the idea of reincarnation and karma, that the choices we make now ripple throughout time. It’s about the spiritual connection we have to each other and the world, which dictate our behavior, our actions and who we ultimately fall in love with. It’s all that and more and when these ideas aren’t shrouded behind thick ambiguity or too obviously spelled out through sometimes unnecessary narration, the film is magical.

The problem is it rarely hits that middle ground and I sometimes felt like I was putting more effort into trying to make sense of the movie than it was itself. Keeping something intentionally vague does not make it profound, which is something that the directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, must not have realized. Too often, particularly in the first 45 minutes or so, the film doesn’t bring its themes together. It takes so long to figure out what the hell is actually happening (unless you’ve read the book, I assume), that much of the meaning is lost. While there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to discover the depth of the film they’re watching, there must be something that leads them in that direction. Cloud Atlas is too opaque for that to happen and it’s guaranteed to bring about wildly different analyses. It’s the type of film that film snobs will claim to love and pretend to understand.

The film further confuses its already convoluted narrative with actors playing multiple roles (most of them play six, if you didn’t guess), but each actor’s prominence differs depending on what story they’re in. One can’t help but wonder, if these characters in these different time periods are somehow connected in some way and may actually be the same people reincarnate, wouldn’t their importance to the story remain the same? Switching up which actor plays the larger role from story to story only brings about unnecessary confusion. When we learn that one character from each timeline has a shooting star in the shape of a birthmark, thus connecting their spirits on their journey through multiple lives, things begin to make more sense, but by then it’s a case of too little, too late (and too long). We’ve stopped caring, so although the narrative connection is made, the emotional connection remains missing.

Not all of its problem stem from its occasionally incoherent plot and sporadically explored themes, though. Questionable decisions continue to appear and reappear throughout the film, most notably in the timeline that takes place in what appears to be a mixture of the distant future and a long forgotten past. In this time, there is an interstellar being called a prescient who visits a primitive group of scavengers in the hopes of finding her way home. They talk in some strange half broken English dialect where they repeat certain words and phrases for no real apparent reason. Because of its assumedly futuristic setting, this was no doubt done to differentiate it from the past and present, but it simply doesn’t work. I’m sure it played better on the page, where readers could create their own appropriate context, but here, it’s ridiculous.

I’ve mostly avoided describing the story in Cloud Atlas because to do so would be a fruitless endeavor. There’s far too much going on and far too little space to discuss it, which makes me fear that my review may come off as too negative. Make no mistake, I am recommending this movie. It doesn’t suffer so much from a lack of focus as it does simply an overload of ambition, which isn’t always a bad thing. Cloud Atlas has many flaws that are all too apparent, but when it works, it’s beautiful, meditative and unique.

Cloud Atlas receives 3/5

Friday
Jul222011

Captain America: The First Avenger

In a year where superhero movies have been hitting us over the head, the results have been subpar at best. Only X-Men: First Class has managed to impress while The Green Hornet, Thor and Green Lantern have failed to live up to expectations. So I suppose it’s a good thing we have Captain America: The First Avenger bookending our year of men in silly costumes because it’s the best of all. It's a summer popcorn film of the highest caliber and it delivers all the thrills one would expect while also laying the groundwork for future installments.

As with most first entries in a superhero franchise, Captain America is an origin story that chronicles the rise of its titular character. This time, we have Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a short and scrawny kid living in Brooklyn during World War II. He wants nothing more than to enlist in the armed forces so he can help bring down Hitler, but because of his stature (and laundry list of health problems), he is denied. When Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working for the American government, overhears Rogers’ desire, he allows him to enlist so he can be the subject of an experimental operation that makes bad men more evil, but good men great. The operation has only been done once before on Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi officer, and it turned him into a tyrannical miscreant. Rogers, on the other hand, receives healing powers and strength beyond imagination that he plans to use for good, so he sets out to single-handedly put an end to the war.

There are plenty of reasons why Captain America is better than the other superhero movies released this year, but all the proof you need is in the character. Thor, for instance, lacked reasoning behind his actions. He didn’t fight for any noble cause. He simply fought because that’s what he was supposed to do. His thin personality made him a character that was hard to care about, but there’s more to Captain America. There isn’t a more noble cause than fighting Nazism, but his motivations go beyond that. He is willing to, and does, lay his life on the line to protect the greater good, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against him. He is courageous and noble, even going so far as to jump on a grenade to save his platoon, which, luckily for him, ends up being a dummy.

Director Joe Johnston, the man behind the magnificent October Sky, does an excellent job of validating this character, allowing us to see his big heart and selfless desires, which allows the drama to surface naturally. There are a number of emotional scenes and, though I doubt they will make anybody shed a tear, they work. Its real strength, however, is its seamless blend of the heartfelt moments with comedy. Tonally, Captain America is perfect, never lacking or overdoing itself in either area. Where Johnston stumbles is in his obvious camerawork that frames the bad guys in ominous low-angle shots, as if a man with a blood red face and a Nazi uniform wasn’t enough. Similarly, he overdoes it with typical “heroic” shots, like slow zooms, tracking shots and slow motion shots as the character rides away from, or even jumps through, a fiery explosion. All of this is usually accompanied by a swelling up of patriotic music, which is a bit overbearing, even if it does fit the idea of the character himself.

Captain America: The First Avenger also suffers from the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity and spotty CGI, especially just before the final battle, but it’s so much fun you’ll hardly notice. Too many origin stories spend too much time setting up the mythology of the character and forget about the fun, but not this one. It ensures future adventures without neglecting itself, which makes it one of the most entertaining and exciting movies to be released this year.

Captain America: The First Avenger receives 4.5/5