Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG - he's not even the centre of his own poster, goddamit!

So, I'm a great fan of Tolkien, going so far as to podcast in great detail on Lord of the Rings (links here) and despite the changes, I really loved Peter Jackson's movies.  By contrast, I found the first HOBBIT film dull and tonally uneven - never quite knowing whether it wanted to be the whimsical children's book or an altogether darker, more complex prequel to LOTR, using material from the Silmarillion and Appendices.  The result was a movie that alternated between troll-ish buffoonery and deep dark elvish foreboding, and never quite sat right with me. So I went into its sequel, the middle film of the trilogy, with low expectations.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself? And I'm sure there are lots of people who will watch these films without having read the book - and, indeed, if you didn't see the first HOBBIT film, Jackson has provided a handy little catch-up prologue at the start of this one.  

Bilbo Baggins is a small hobbit living in a high fantasy world of trolls, elves, dwarves and dragons.  He's taken along on an adventure by thirteen dwarves, led by the mighty Thorin Oakenshield, to find a dragon called Smaug and to trick him into giving up the Arkenstone - a jewel which will allow Thorin to reclaim the kingdom that Smaug pillaged.  When we meet the band of travellers in this instalment, they run into a giant wolf-warg called Beorn, as well as some giant spiders, before finding themselves imprisoned by the elf-king Thranduil, his son Legolas, and a comely female Elf called Tauriel. They escape though, and find themselves in a desolate Laketown, hiding with a smuggler called Bard, before entering the Lonely Mountain itself, to face off with the dragon, Smaug.  

As movies go, this one has its fare share of CGI heavy adventure sequences - some of which will surely delight children.  But I found it hard to care about any of the characters. If the hero is Bilbo, as the title suggests, why does he sort of disappear from view for the middle section of the film? (I mean, he doesn't even get centre stage in his own poster!) Are we meant to care about Thorin - he's heroic but also arrogant and cold.  And what are we meant to make of Tauriel, a newly invented character meant to redress Tolkien's lack of women?  Well, maybe I'd be able to take this more seriously if the writers had made her a genuinely independent kick-ass warrior, rather than foisting her into the middle of an awkward love triangle between Legolas and Kili, a dwarf! And are the actors meant to be playing it straight - angst-ridden men on the verge of war (Thorin, Bard) - or camping it up (Thranduil, the Master of Laketown)? Lee Pace's Thranduil is camper than Alan Cumming as Emcee.  And if the pacing is less stretched than the first film, there are still twenty minute sections of this one that left me bored.

That said, when this second movie works, it really works!  I loved everything to do with Martin Freeman's Hobbit and Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug, even if Smaug does commit that fatal Bond villain error of not killing his enemy immediately. I loved Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel when she was arguing with Lee Pace's Thranduil about taking a less insular stance toward the evil in the forest.  And I loved the idea of building out Bard's character so that we actually care about him when we get to the fateful events of the next instalment.

Still, I can't help but think that this flick would've been better of as two films at most, or at best, as a miniseries.  Or perhaps it's a question of expectations? Instead of calling these films "The Hobbit" maybe Jackson should've called them genuine prequels to Lord of the Rings. That way, he wouldn't have been hamstrung by the more childish elements - tricking trolls and escaping in wine barrels - and could've steeped himself in the rise of Sauron to his heart's delight? 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG has a running time of 161 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for moderate violence and threat. 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is on release pretty much everywhere except Vietnam, where it opens on January 3rd; China, where it opens on February 8th; and Japan, where it opens on February 28th.


Conventional to the point of death by boredom, this harmful holiday-themed rom-com should be avoided at all costs. Candace Cameron Bure (FULL HOUSE) plays a workaholic businesswoman sent to audit a ski lodge for her father during Christmas. Naturally she forms an instant antipathy to the lodge-owners’ son played by Jesse Hutch (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT). She is the Grinch - they are the spirit of Christmas. Cue lots of oh-so-funny scenes of her falling over trying to ski, and kicking up a fuss wearing unflattering winter clothes. And all so predictably, we soon find out that the two star-crossed lovers have more in common than they think. They’re both less than happy with how their families handle Christmas - she doesn’t really get it, and he gets it for 7 weeks of the year. She learns to love some of the traditions of the ski lodge and he likes her idea to partly modernise its activities. You can join the dots and fill in the rest of the film. There’s nothing really objectionable here, but neither is their anything new, unique, truly funny or worth watching.

LET IT SNOW has a running time of 82 minutes.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

FROZEN - Disney Passes Bechdel

FROZEN is as delightful as it is intelligent - the best Disney film since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the only Disney film that passes the Bechdel test. Finally we get a film about Princesses where being a Princess isn't really the key point - a film about women who learn to be confident in themselves and protect each other - a movie that thoroughly de-constructs the Disney mythos.

Of course, I didn't know all that when I walked into the cinema, depressed by the cricket and searching for some light entertainment. In fact, I pretty much hated this movie for the first twenty minutes of its runtime.  It seemed to conform to every Disney stereotype about beautiful but isolated orphaned princesses, defined entirely by their relationships with their absent fathers and handsome lovers.  The kingdom of Arendelle seemed like a place created by the Disney of the 1940s and 1950s - it felt like SHREK had never happened.  

Or so I thought.  That was before FROZEN broke every cliché it had so skillfully set up - to create a movie that's better than a lampoon, because it actually has positive values that it espouses. 

So here's the deal. Princess Elsa is the snow queen of fairytale legend.  When she was a little girl her powers almost killed her little sister Anna, so her parents locked her up until she could control her powers.  Her life is one of suppression and repression until her coronation day when a furious argument with her un-comprehending sister sparks an angry icestorm of epic proportions. Elsa flees to the mountains, content to finally express her powers without fear, but wilfully optimistic Anna pursues her, sure that sisterly love can conquer all, and lift the icestorm that has frozen the kingdom. What follows is a struggle but not a classic Disney fight with an external evil.  Elsa needs to decide whether she wants to be a classic villain or whether she really does care.  While Anna needs to decide who she loves more - her sister, her fiance - the handsome Prince Hans, or the charming peasant Kristoff who has helped her up the mountain.

What follows is a movie of unsurpassed delight. Anna's aw-shucks goofy loveliness is grating right up until we realise what this movie is trying to say, at which point Kristen Bell's portrayal becomes utterly endearing.  Elsa is truly the most complex Disney character yet seen (not a high benchmark, I grant you) and her song "Let it go" is an empowering anthem with relevance beyond fairytale kingdoms. Idina Menzel gives a voice performance of nuance and strength and deserves an Oscar for Best Song.  Josh Gad (JOBS) is utterly adorable as the huggable snowman Olaf - the most charming animated sidekick since Donkey.  As for the men, well what a surprise to see that it's the male characters who are the least developed - and there's a cognitive dissonance when you realise that Prince Hans, whose face is clearly modelled on Paul Rudd, is in fact voiced by Santino Fontana, and that Kristoff, clearly modelled on Owen Wilson, is voiced by  Jonathan Groff. That's not to say that the actors do a bad job - it's just that the voice/face dissonance is so extreme that it was a bit distracting.

Still for all that, FROZEN had be captivated. The medieval folk architecture was beautiful - the stunning ice palace a marvel - the animation of racing through snow exhilerating.  Even better, the humour wasn't grounded in cheap pop-culture references (SHREK, I'm looking at you) but in real characters - those characters had emotional growth and development - and the surprises were genuinely shocking. I even loved the elegance with which small events and scenes were handled. The way in which it is delicately suggested that the King and Queen have died - when a black veil is hung over a portrait - is a great example here.

So kudos to all involved, but particularly to Jennifer Lee, who co-directed and wrote the movie.  She's the woman who wrote WRECK-IT RALPH - one of the best films of 2013 and is clearly a star to watch.  Particular mention also to Robert Lopez (co-creator of THE BOOK OF MORMON) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez who wrote the original songs for the film.  They're all strong, but "Fixer Upper" and "Let It Go" are instant classics.  I predict many, many awards, and rightfully so, this season. 

FROZEN is on release pretty much everywhere except South Korea, Estonia and Turkey, where it opens on January 17th; Sweden, where it opens on January 31st; and Japan, where it opens on March 14th.

FROZEN has a running time of 102 minutes and is rated PG for mild threat. 

Friday, December 13, 2013


AMERICAN HUSTLE has swagger and style and enough hairspray to raise the Titanic. It has whizz bang energy and crazy characters high on their own con. There are times when it's outlandish hype slips into self-conscious kitsch - times when the performances are so balls-deep in crazy you wonder if the movie has just become BAD, but it's so fun, so bizarre, so outlandish you can't help but stick with it. 

So what's the skinny?  AMERICAN HUSTLE is a very loose retelling of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s - an FBI sting operation that spiralled out of control, eventually targeting US senators and congressmen with a fake Arab sheikh offering cash for a passport.  The whole thing was murky as hell.  I mean, the guys took the bribes, but this was entrapment and selection of targets as an artform.   In this version of the story, the original conmen are Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Sydney, played by Amy Adams. They're caught on a small time charge by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who gets so glamoured by their lifestyle that he decides to become part of the con, using them to entrap politicians.  Key among them is a New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito - a mobbed up man, to be sure, but one who genuinely speaks from the heart when he says he wants to use the fake Sheikh's money to reinvigorate his home town.

Director David O Russell is far less concerned with the technicalities of the plot and the con than with the characters and their conscious and subconscious motivations. This is absolutely right.  And ironic.  In a movie so concerned with surface - the hairstyles, the clothes, the moves - there is no superficiality.  When a character extravagantly combs over his hair, or creates a tight perm, or wears a dress cut to the navel - they're becoming a character and the whole point of the movie is to watch them reimagine themselves as they'd like to be. So when the movie becomes a cheap melodrama, that's maybe because that's how these characters see themselves - as the stars of their own C-list caper movie.

Another delicious irony - the most honest man in the film is the original conman, Irving Rosenfeld.  And when I say honest, what I mean in the context of a film about self-delusion is that Irving is totally self-aware.  He knows he's a schlubby conman.  He knows he's going to be ensnared by his manipulative wife forever. And he knows he can stay safe by staying small, and not letting greed get the better of him. He's even self-aware about his weakness - his need to disguise his baldness.  This gives Irving a kind of wisdom and humanity that's lacking in the other, almost universally more narcissistic characters.  He's fully aware that Carmine Polito is a good man dirtying his hands to do good works, and is the only character who shows any kind of moral courage in warning him off.  There's a kind of brilliance in Bale's understated performance - the flash of knowledge that passes across his face as he acknowledges that DiMaso is out of control and makes the call to effectively switch sides.  And, yes, I see the added irony of calling Bale's performance subtle. But it is. Under the weight gain, and the combover, and the velvet wide-lapel suits, it's a great subtle performance. 

By contrast, we have Brad Cooper in appropriately manic mode as Richie DiMaso, the henpecked mama's boy who sees the glamorous "Lady Edith" (Sydney's con character) as his ticket to reinvention as a kind of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, super-cool, super-macho, big-time PLAYA. He over-reaches in a way that Irving never would - to Lady Edith - to Senators - and his tragedy is that unlike Irving he really can't handle reality. 

Irving's wife Rosalyn is as deluded as Richie but to gloriously comic effect. She's a young single mother so fortunate as to have Irving provide and adopt her son.  But in her mind, she's always in the right, always responsible for the good things, never responsible for the bad, and a star in her own universe.  Jennifer Lawrence is so unbelievably hilarious and captivating in her few scenes that she threatens to unbalance the movie just as she unhinges the con, and if her Oscar nomination last year was generous, this year it will be thoroughly deserved. 

Sadly, Lawrence's incadescent Rosalyn put Amy Adams "Lady Edith" in the shade.  Adams, cast against time as the vamp, just can't carry off the super sexy outfits and in the inevitable final act confrontation between Irving's lover and his wife, it's Rosalyn/Lawrence who comes out triumphantly on top.  In fact, they seem to be in different films - and maybe that's the point.  Adams/Edith is playing in a romantic tragedy whereas Lawrence/Rosalyn is in a lurid supersexy melodrama. Adams has the  emotional crisis, but Lawrence has all the fun. 

All the way through watching AMERICAN HUSTLE I felt like I was right on the edge where so bad it's good becomes just bad.  But the more I think about it, the more I think that's the point. These characters are all, more or less, actors, hustlers, putting a con on themselves and us. Some do it better than others.  And David O Russell has made a movie that isn't so much his take on the Abscam scandal, as a patchwork of all these hustlers own perceptions of their con.   Maybe I'm being generous. And if I'm wrong, there are times when the performances and the direction in this film are so broad and pastichey and kitschy they are bad.  But if I'm right, then this is a film working on a meta levels of brilliance while all the time being entertaining in the most basic of ways. 

AMERICAN HUSTLE has a running time of 138 minutes and is rated R in the USA and 12A in the UK.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is on limited release in the USA and Australia. It opens on December 20th wide in the USA and in the UK. It opens on December 26th in Israel, Singapore and Vietnam; on December 31st in Taiwan; on January 1st in the UK and Italy; on January 2nd in Lebanon; on January 9th in Greece; on January 17th in Romania; on January 23rd in Argentina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, Serbia and Turkey; on January 31st in Japan; on February 5th in France; on February 7th in Brazil and India; on February 12th in Belgium and Germany; on February 21st in Finland and Sweden and on March 20th in the Netherlands. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


jOBS - the too cutely titled Steve Jobs biopic - is a ruthlessly efficient but frustratingly unenquiring film that is ultimately saved by the convincing central performance by Ashton Kutcher.  Kutcher goes beyond his striking similar resemblance to adopt the loping walking and speaking style of the iconic computer developer, and allied with superb production design and authentic Los Altos locations, this make the film compelling despite its stylistic problems.  These must rest with the director Joshua Michael Stern (SWING VOTE) and debut screenwriter Michael Whiteley..   To be sure, they don't sugarcoat Jobs - they show his immediate and early ripping off of fellow collaborators - his harsh rejection of his daughter - his frustrating single-mindedness - but they never investigate it.  Why - on the first deal they did together - did Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) off?  Where did he get the drive and knowledge to cut such a financially astute deal with venture capitalist Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney)?  Why did he cut out early collaborators such as Daniel Kottke (Lukas Hass) out of the lucrative Apple IPO?  Why did he deny he was his daughter's father for so long?  And why did he then recant?  This latter issue is perhaps the most frustrating.  In a movie that uses Jobs' eviction from Apple a major psychological turning point it's incredibly annoying to reunite with him a few years later where he's apparently turned into a doting father, husband and zen father. 

So if we're not getting psychological depth here, what are we getting?  A fairly straightforward corporate history of Apple. It reads as follows.  Woz is the IT genius who creates the PC but Jobs is the marketing and design guru who sells it to the financiers and then to Wall Street.  His search for perfection and naivety leads him to a position where the greedy capitalist CEO John Scully (Matthew Modine) forces him out, causes a personal crisis for Jobs and a corporate crisis for Apple. Years later he's called back, annoints his design successor Jonny Ive (Giles Matthey) and announces the design of the iPod.  The rest is final credit success and deliberately avoided death.  I'm no expert on Apple's corporate history so I can't tell you if the account is broadly accurate and fair, but it IS compelling, if a little bit TV movie of the week.  And that's how I'd advise you watch this: on the small screen.

JOBS has a running time of 128 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA.

JOBS played Sundance 2013 and was released earlier this year in the USA, Singapore, Canada, Turkey, France, Argentina, Kuwait, Portugal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Croatia, Serbia, Thailand, Estonia, Greece, Hong Kong, Finland, Lithuania, Spain, Taiwan, Colombia, Latvia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Macedonia, Japan, Norway, Peru, Sweden, Italy and Chile. It does not yet have a UK release date.