Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug ★★★★

Image result for The Hobbit; Desolation of Smaug title shot

    Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" is the second film of the trilogy based on the novel by the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien. Jackson is a master at blending superb special effects and computer graphics with tangible actors and actresses to create a spellbinding world, that, otherwise, could never be adapted into the medium of film. If "An Unexpected Journey" is the heartwarming beginning chapter to this sublime tale of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves of Erebor, then "Desolation of Smaug" takes its rightful position as the climatic chapter of wickedness and divination.

    "Desolation" begins with a meeting between Gandalf the Grey and Thorin Oakenshield at The Prancing Pony of Bree. Similar to the opening of "An Unexpected Journey," this film sets the tone with a little back story. (Now, it is worthy to note that this seemingly chance meeting takes place prior to the events of the previous film.) Gandalf continues his role as the articulate initiator of fateful and perilous journeys; consequently, influencing Thorin to reclaim his throne among the majestic halls of Erebor and reunite the dwarves under his rule.

    This brings us to the current events at hand: Bilbo, Gandalf and the company of dwarves have successfully navigated past the Misty Mountains and escaped the wrath of Azog and his coterie of malicious Orks. However, that is the least of their worries. For, they are being pursued by another vicious entity who takes the shape of a colossal and thunderous black bear. Gandalf forewarns this company of the grave danger this particular circumstance presents and leads them to a nearby isolated home occupied by Beorn. After receiving aid from this "skin-changer," the company proceeds on their journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the fire-drake of the North, Smaug.

    Subsequently, our heroic adventurers trek their way through some truly astounding environments that will captivate and enthrall the eye of the beholder. (In fact, I would go as far as to say that Jackson here is making a solid statement for the use of the digital camera when filming, even if there are several moments where the interplay between light and shadow falter; a known issue aligned with the use of the technology.) From the treacherous inner dwellings of Mirkwood to the splendid halls of the solemn Elvenking, Thranduil. Additionally, this film introduces numerous characters along with the revival of some familiar faces. Legolas, son of Thranduil, receives adequate screen-time to reign his destruction upon the hideous multitude of Orks that linger in the shadows of Middle-Earth. In addition, the introduction of the warrior elf, Tauriel, adds a much-desired air of femininity to the cast.

    The performances in "Desolation" are honorable in their own respect. Although the majority of the film is fast-paced and tends to indulge in extravagant scenes of action, there are a few notable showcases of talent. Martin Freeman reprises his role as the tedious and lionhearted Bilbo Baggins. Freeman continues to impress with his delicate execution of dialogue, especially when conversing with the dragon Smaug in the blackness enshrouded caverns of Erebor. Ian McKellen once again inspires all with his timeless depiction of the lovable Gandalf the Grey. Wherever this film has rough edges, McKellen smooths it over with his ebullient display of character, even if he is restrained in his on-screen time. (I very much desired to see Gandalf in the last thirty minutes of running time to no avail.)

    The performance to keep an eye on, however, is that of Richard Armitage and his portrayal of the heir to the throne of Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage breathes life into this film where it is direly warranted, with short and emphatic soliloquies. Thorin is the blood that simply nurtures the veins of this film.

    This picture has been criticized heavily for its lack of plot development, among a number of other discrepancies. Unfortunately, it is an inevitable repercussion of attempting to extend a short novel into three films. Although, Peter Jackson finds an adequate balance between action and dialogue. Jackson even integrates the beginnings of a "love story" to please the female viewing audience. The ultimate downfall of being a filmmaker is the impossible task of pleasing all.

    "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" is the reason we go to the theater; this film is made for the big screen. It delights, astonishes, and dazzles. It is a magnificent equipoise of special effects and conventional methods of filmmaking. There are a few scenes that involve somewhat horrendous executions of computer generated dwarves, most notably during the "barrel escape" segment. Nevertheless, I am forced to turn my cheek due to the realization that this is where filmmaking is headed. The days involving traditional camera direction and acting are done. The longing for films such as "Days of Heaven" is all but futile; however, "Desolation of Smaug" helps to ease this pain.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

X-Men Origins: Wolverine ★ 1/2

 Image result for X Men Origins: Wolverine title shot

    "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is a superhero film that premiered in May of 2009, and it is the fourth major motion picture to follow the characters and events of the X-Men universe. This film focuses on the early life and struggles of one of the most popular Marvel characters, Wolverine. With an unconvincing plot and scathing special effects, this film takes its rightful place as one of the worst superhero films ever made.

    We begin "Origins: Wolverine" in mid-nineteenth century Canada, as our main character, then named James, is bedridden with some type of illness. After being tucked in for the night, James overhears a confrontation downstairs that ultimately leads to the death of his father. This infuriates young James, who subsequently releases bone type spears from his hands, the first sign of his mutation gene. He plows the daggers into this murderer and, as he slips into the realm of death, the man reveals his true identity as James' real father. This startling information sends James fleeing from the scene, into the dark of night, accompanied only by his half-brother, Victor Creed. We are then shown various World Wars and other historical battles in which James and his half-brother are participating soldiers.

    James and his brother never seemingly age or die simply because their mutated DNA does not allow them to. Their bodies age progressively slower than any human, and they are blessed with incredible healing powers that reject any damage. I guess these attributes, combined with their natural instincts, would only allow for a military career. (I suspect if they were painters or poets, then we would not be interested.)

    This film wraps up the background story of our favorite mutton chop sporting hero with his involvement in the government program Team X and his subsequent departure from the group. Six years later, we find that our protagonist has a new career as a lumberjack and that he goes by the name of Logan. He lives a quiet and peaceful life in the Canadian countryside, along with his girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox. However, one fateful day brings Major William Stryker, the founder of Team X, to Logan's work site. He tells Logan that someone is killing the former members of this team and wants him to rejoin his forces. Logan's declination will trigger a set of events that will ultimately change him forever and send him on a blood-fueled path of revenge.

     The performances in this film are one-dimensional and simply uninspiring. Yet, Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the title character and delivers an emotionally charged performance. Jackman certainly looks the part of this powerhouse superhero due to his superb training regiments; however, his aim to create a terrific film is overshadowed by a dubious plot and unflattering special effects.

    Additionally, there are many scenes in which you will question the integrity of the screenplay. For example, after a confrontation with fellow mutant Gambit, Wolverine stumbles upon Victor in a Louisiana alley. Gambit breaks up the fight and allows Victor to flee. Wolverine then instructs Gambit to take him to the island in which Victor and Stryker are held up so that he can get his revenge. Could he not have just picked up the scent and followed Victor himself? (This is considering the fact that it was only moments before, and it was proved earlier that Wolverine has superior scent tracking.) The answer is no, simply because we would then not have any use for the character of Gambit, whose presence inevitably adds nothing to the story.

    Here we have a film that intends to build on the legacy of Marvel, but it ultimately falls tremendously short. It is truly unfortunate, as Wolverine is a very interesting character with a lot of potential on-screen. Maybe if the picture were catered more to the story than to failed computer graphic enhanced scenes, then it could have logically stood a chance. The Louisiana back alley scene, mentioned beforehand, is a perfect example of horrendous production design. It is as if you are watching the film on set, which kills any credibility going forward. If the "Dark Knight" trilogy is the pinnacle of what a superhero film can bring to an audience, then "Origins: Wolverine" is the cesspool of heinous and unimaginative thought.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Miller's Crossing ★★★1/2

    The genre of film known as "gangster" has evolved thoroughly over the years. We have come to love these movies unequivocally for their dramatic composition, their morose tones and superb dialogue. "Miller's Crossing" is no exception. This American gangster film was released in 1990 and, although it is overshadowed by a fellow gangster film of the same year, "Goodfellas," there is much to revel in. With direction by Joel and Ethan Cohen, this film will intrigue and entertain until the bitter end.

    "Miller's Crossing" opens in a style quite reminiscent with that of "The Godfather," albeit under different circumstances. We indulge in a conversation of ethics between two Prohibition-era mob bosses; Leo O'Bannon is an established Irish mob boss who currently runs the city, from political campaigns to police crackdowns. Johnny Caspar is a rival Italian boss who is on the up and up. The ill-tempered Caspar spouts his desire to kill a local bookie by the name of Bernie Bernbaum. However, O'Bannon quickly disengages the situation and tells Caspar that he will not revoke his protection of Bernie. This act of defiance by O'Bannon infuriates Caspar and persuades him to go to war with the Irish boss.
    The opening scene brilliantly sets the blueprint for the rest of the film; however, there are many integral components that surround this conflict and, therefore, they should be expressed. The protagonist of the film, Tom Reagan, is the longtime adviser of Leo, and his best friend. Tom warns Leo of this brash decision not to give up Bernie. In the code of "ethics," it is the right thing to do. Though, Leo is blinded by the love he shares for Bernie's sister, Verna. This beautiful dame cares for her brother and "steps out" with Leo in exchange for protection of Bernie. Tom knows Verna all too well, and their relationship ultimately turns the tables in favor of Caspar. In the end, it is the genius and manipulation of Tom Reagan that balances these relationships and the dynamic forces they present.

    There are numerous performances in this film that deserve praise and recognition:

    In one of his most prominent roles to date, Gabriel Byrne excels as Tom Reagan. Tom is a genuine and loyal adviser to Leo, and Byrne's Irish background makes him a perfect cast for this role. Byrne reaches into the pit of darkness and delivers a performance here that would inspire any young actor. This is a very delicate character to portray. There is a fine line between reasonable madness and insanity, and Tom Reagan is forced to walk this line. Byrne is unmatched in the control of his emotionally charged dialogue. Albert Finney portrays Leo O'Bannon with exquisite expertise. O'Bannon is an extremely likable mob boss who, when the time calls for it, can display the personality of a pit bull. Finney is excellent with these character traits despite the fact that he is limited in screen-time.

    Jon Polito is the moody Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar. Caspar is quick to change his mood from angry to angrier, and he imposes his will on any weakened prey. Polito is a perfect cast for this simple role of an aggravated, walking cardiac arrest. John Turturro and Marcia Gay Harden round out this wonderful cast. Turturro steps into the role of the strange and conniving Bernie Bernbaum. Bernie's motto is, "you can't have too many friends." He selfishly utilizes them in any manner that seems prosperous. Harden shows little range in the role of Verna and her personality is extremely similar to that of Bernie. She uses and uses until her needs are fulfilled. In this case, her sexual desires and the protection of a sibling.

    "Miller's Crossing" is a tremendous display of subtle direction and superior performances. If you covet a gangster film for viewing, then this movie will not disappoint. Its dark tones and even darker cinematography make it the perfect film for a late night showing. It will enthrall you with a world of greed and deception. There are many aspects of a film that, as a viewer, we need to fulfill our psychological needs. Sometimes, these needs can be found on the darker end of an endless spectrum of light. A film that can deliver on those promises and not leave you in a unwelcoming state of existence is a fine film to behold.