Archive for December, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on December 31, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI have no desire to write this review. I’ll give you a little insight into my creative process. I really enjoy evaluating movies I am passionate about, 4 stars or more. And I’ll admit I take some delight in assailing a production that is an affront to my sensibilities. That’s 1 ½ stars or less. The ones that earn 2-3 stars from me are the most difficult critiques to compose because those flicks merely exist. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of brilliance in them, but by and large they fail to truly engage me as a moviegoer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films.

This is the 2nd time that James Thurber‘s short story has been made into a feature. Apparently bringing the comedy back to the screen again was a tough nut to crack. The origins of this long developing remake go back at least as far as 1994 when its producers had Jim Carrey in mind for the title role. The director included everyone from Ron Howard to Chuck Russell (The Mask) to Steven Spielberg. The lead actor changed as well. Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen had each been attached. It wasn’t until April of 2011 that Ben Stiller was tapped for the lead. A year later he stepped up to direct as well. The current screenplay by writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) is less an adaptation of the original short story and more of a modern rewrite. Walter still has a predilection to daydream. However it’s updated to a 21st-century milieu by setting it amongst the modernity of corporate downsizing and eHarmony online dating. The latter of which hopefully paid for all the free advertising they get here. 

Ben Stiller is a proven talent that knows how to connect with his audience. Tropic Thunder was a prime example of an innovative comedy that brought something new to the table. Conversely, it’s hard to believe this production is from the same director. The nicest thing I can say is that it’s inoffensive. Stridently bland and mild, the picture’s grand design is to serve up some special effects-laden setpieces whereby a milquetoast learns to find himself. Our protagonist manages the photographic negatives at LIFE magazine where he has a crush on his coworker Cheryl played by Kristen Wiig. She is quite likable in the part. Walter has a new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) at work.  Writer Steve Conrad has envisioned his part as a smug jerk. I think Ted is supposed to be amusing, but he’s just annoying. He’s also got a ridiculous looking beard. Actually his whole adversarial team have beards. Anyway, it looks fake, like it was darkened by a magic marker. I was distracted by how ugly it was. The tale is set against the backdrop of the magazine’s final print issue as it converts to online status. (Incidentally this occurred in real life for the 3rd and last time on April 20, 2007 when LIFE was a newspaper insert).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the whimsically labored chronicle concerning a daydreamer who finds himself. The screenplay is annoyingly twee. His amusing daydreams permeate the beginning. Some of these fantasies are kind of inventive while others are kind of random. In one he has the “Benjamin Button” condition where he ages in reverse, leading him to imagine growing old with co-worker Cheryl whom he fancies. He‘s sitting on her knee, as an old geriatric baby. However these delusions dissipate after a while and then we’re left with the reality of Walter Mitty. His goal?  To find a photographer! Zzzzzzzzzz. He flies to Greenland and knowingly boards a helicopter being maneuvered by a drunk pilot. Once in the air, he accidentally jumps out of that chopper and fights a shark in the water below, then takes a boat up to Iceland where heads to a volcano. The non existent drama is populated by overly precious scenarios without much substance. The story ends up having very little narrative heft. Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is an inconsequential fellow, much like the picture. His character has the soul of a dreamer, but the film itself has no soul.

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The Past

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Mystery with tags on December 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Past photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe incredible promise that Director Asghar Farhadi demonstrated with 2011’s A Separation has proven to be no fluke with his subsequent follow-up, The Past. He recounts human behavior with the precision of an absolute master. The plot is artfully straightforward. Four years after separating from his ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), an Iranian man from Tehran named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), arrives in Paris to finalize his divorce. Marie has 2 daughters from her previous marriage and is currently in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), an Arab man. Samir’s wife is in a coma and he has a son with her. Director Farhadi’s understanding of the human heart makes the sentimentality of modern movies look like ersatz emotion. The Past is ambitious in its desire to portray human feeling so honestly. It’s ironic because this is about the façades that people put up to mask their genuine desires.

The Past is an intensely intimate drama concerning 3 key people: Marie, Samir, and Ahmad. As was the case with A Separation, everyone’s point of view is displayed. No one is a villain. We tend to identify with ex-husband Ahmad since that is the person through which most of the action is filtered. However each character has their own merits. Bernice Bejo is quite moving as mother Marie. She is a sympathetic, maternal presence that is immediately affecting. She has two daughters from an even earlier marriage before Ahmad. One is a little girl, the other a 16 year old. Bejo portrays an intelligent woman that seems to have everything in order. Then the cracks begin to show. Older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) has the warmest regard for her former step dad. The bond with her mother is strained because Lucie disapproves of her mother’s current boyfriend Samir. You’ll find yourself vacillating between the various characters trying to decide whose side you’re truly on. What originally appears as the picture of accord, is a woman gently unraveling at the seams.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a knack for extracting fervid passion from our everyday lives. His talent for constructing a fascinating tale from a deceptively simple scenario is nothing less than genius. He starts with routine domestic problems. Then offers an endlessly compelling saga with unflinching honesty. The criteria by which we judge human drama has been elevated. It sets the new emotional high bar by which all other movies must now aspire. Director Asghar Farhadi presents the narrative unencumbered by elaborate devices. Sans music, costumes, special effects, flashbacks, nonlinear storytelling and other stylistic flourishes, he strips the production bare and serves it up to an audience for perusal. Much of the true feeling that percolates beneath the surface is evident not from dialogue, but from body language and gestures. The chronicle considers how we put up walls that impede effective communication. Once again, you think you know the story. As it unfolds, layers are exposed. As developments are revealed we’re drawn deeper into their crumbling relationships. Then the daughter reveals something that threatens to change everything. This is humanity and you cannot look away.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wolf of Wall Street photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe spectacular rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the subject of this dark comedy based on his memoir of the same name. In 1991 Forbes magazine dubbed him the “Wolf of Wall Street”. The article was meant to incriminate the tycoon, but ironically only ended up adding to his allure. He didn’t even work on Wall Street—he operated out of Long Island. Stratton Oakmont was a New York “over-the-counter” brokerage house founded after the stock crash of 1987 by him and his business partner Danny Porush. Jonah Hill is Donnie Azoff modeled after the very real Danny Porush. The financial institution became the largest OTC firm in the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. Employing more than 1,000 young impressionable money-hungry types at its peak, the firm operated as a boiler room. Their racket? Encouraging potential investors to buy mostly penny stocks, pumping up the price with exaggerated claims and then selling quickly leaving investors holding worthless stocks.

Director Martin Scorsese considers the true story, then extracts every ounce of hype and offers it to the masses as a fascinating piece of flamboyant entertainment. It’s a fictionalization of Jordan Belfort’s life and Leonardo DiCaprio embodies that man. This marks the 5th collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and his current muse. The two are a partnership made in cinematic heaven as this elicits DiCaprio’s finest performance in a Scorsese film, and possibly ever. He is simply amazing in the role. All intense wild-eyed coked up intensity, he perfectly conveys the magnetic intensity of the man that became a multi-millionaire at age 26. He displays a manic energy dialed up to eleven. Jordan’s take no prisoners approach to getting investors is at once abhorrent and captivating as he commands a roomful of wannabe Gordon Geckos who hang on his every word. We the audience cannot look away either, even when he is spouting the sort of business tactics that would make him a convicted felon a decade later. He doesn’t ask for your attention. He demands it, then smacks you in the face for not listening sooner.

The Wolf of Wall Street is never boring, but it is overlong. The picture was originally scheduled for release on November 15th. That date was pushed back six weeks to Dec 25th when the production was still unfinished. The pressure to get it out before the year was over to qualify for the Academy Awards was building. The finished 3 hours show signs that it didn’t spend enough time in the editing room. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. It’s not so much that all the lasciviousness occupies a high percentage of the action, because it doesn‘t. But in showing Jordan’s seduction into a drug-fueled and sexual decadence, brief examples pop up continuously throughout. We get it. Jordan snorted a lot of cocaine and <bleeped> a lot of whores. There’s grace in the art of restraint especially in a saga about excess.

The Wolf of Wall Street presents the sensationalism, but what keeps it interesting is the levity. There’s a crazy sense of humor as things are spiraling out of control. The financial institution becomes sort of a bacchanalian orgy where office practices are decidedly less than professional. The movie opens with a large group of brokers playing a dwarf tossing game where they throw little people onto a board with a dollar sign for a bulls-eye. Slimy Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) and stylish British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) are memorable side roles. Jordan interacts with each of these characters separately. The scenes feature alternating voice-over inner thoughts that add a humorous layer to the outer dialogue. But the most memorable scene in the film, and perhaps of the year, is when Jordan overdoses on expired Quaaludes and enters what he labels the cerebral palsy stage. What follows is terrifyingly hilarious or hilariously terrifying, depending on your point of view.

The narrative gently chastises Jordan for immorality and the illegality of his depraved lifestyle, while subconsciously seducing the viewer with temptations. Hookers are his weakness. Cocaine and Quaaludes are his vices, but his ultimate drug of choice is money. It’s an indictment of greed. He and his buddies ultimately get their comeuppance. Although it’s served with a frustrating helping of mercy. Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) adapts Jordan Belfort’s memoir that supposedly lectures us on the wages of sin, then proceeds to show a guy having the time of his life. The cautionary tale gets a bit lost in the 3 hour runtime but it’s a fun ride while it lasts.

Online Film Critics Society Awards 2013

Posted in OFCS with tags on December 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

OFCS

2013 has been a very good year. I was inducted into the Online Film Critics Society back in August. The OFCS is the largest, most respected organization for movie critics whose work appears primarily on the Internet. It’s been one of the greatest things to happen to me as as a blogger and more importantly as a movie lover.

The 17th Annual OFCS Awards Winners were announced on December 16, 2013. I participated in the voting process and here are the results:

Winners and nominees

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave

Best Director

Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Best Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay

Her – Spike Jonze

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave – John Ridley

  • Before Midnight – Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater
  • In the House – François Ozon
  • Short Term 12 – Destin Daniel Cretton
  • The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki

Best Foreign Language Film

Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Best Documentary

The Act of Killing

  • 56 Up
  • At Berkeley
  • Blackfish
  • Stories We Tell

Best Animated Feature

The Wind Rises

Best Cinematography

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Editing

Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger

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The announcement on the Online Film Critics Society web page can be found here.
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Lone Survivor

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lone Survivor photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLone Survivor is the depiction of a United States maneuver during the War in Afghanistan in 2005. Labeled Operation Red Wings, a group of Navy SEALs are tasked to capture or kill high ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The story is based on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book about the failed mission. First let’s address the elephant in the room. I’d be hard pressed to name a more spoiler heavy title than Lone Survivor. It’s a pretty efficient buzzkill. There’s Death of Salesman perhaps, but then that play had so much more to offer intellectually. We’re introduced to a team of four Navy SEALs played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. Right from the start there’s this nagging feeling that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to at least three of these guys.

This is a pretty simple plot. Four guys go in. Only one comes out. Basically everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Director Peter Berg (Battleship) never met a bullet going through flesh that he didn’t want to film in slow motion. The death of Ben Foster’s character is particularly gruesome. As he’s gasping for breath, blood pouring out, we watch as he is hit not once, not twice but three shots with grisly brutality. A veritable pastiche of sound effects highlights detonations, guns shooting, bullets whizzing by. Several scenes show soldiers tumbling down the side of a mountain. This tableau is repeated several times in fact. Their bodies somersaulting like rag dolls with bones crunching against every rock along the way in glorious sonic clarity. In one of the production’s quieter moments, Wahlberg performs surgery on his leg with a knife.

Lone Survivor is a weird mix of jingoism and “war is hell” mentality. The opening crawl of actual training footage feels like a military recruitment film, but then the senseless escalating body count screams otherwise. Our team of four Navy SEALs are robust models of tough American masculinity. Their male bonding, rah-rah, “let’s go kick some Taliban butt” mindset is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of “Muthaf–ka!” and “F–k You!” For the second half, it’s seemingly the only words they know as the action is mainly punctuated by the sound of bodies exploding while bullets pierce their skulls in blood splattering detail. The soundtrack has the audacity to play the quietly solemn beats of a noble drum march in the background as if that makes all the carnage more meaningful. There are admittedly two examples where expectations are subverted and humanity is displayed. In those minutes, we realize what this picture could have been. Then it’s back to bloody business as usual. In the end, the overriding conclusion is that Operation Red Wings was a tragic waste of life and this movie is a tragic waste of time.

American Hustle

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on December 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

American Hustle photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIrving Rosenfeld is a small time con-artist. He meets bewitching Sydney Prosser and the two join forces embezzling money from unsuspecting investors. Their talents are soon tapped by a cocky FBI agent named Richie DiMaso who‘s looking to prosecute political corruption in Washington. Carmine Polito is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and one of Richie’s potential targets. In their interactions, Richie develops an attraction to the seductive Sydney. He tells her things in an attempt to turn her loyalties away from Irving. A dynamic love triangle evolves. Sydney keeps the two men (and the audience) in the dark as to who she is truly loyal to. Oh and let’s not forget that Irving is married to temperamental Rosalyn who complicates matters considerably.

The exuberant flamboyant swagger of the late 70s is an important component of American Hustle. It’s lovingly recreated with the care and attention of an aesthete. The soundtrack percolates with the joy of a disco dancing, pop song loving, classic rock connoisseur. Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, Wings, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer are all represented, The music underscores the action and the tone is humorously tongue in cheek. Witness Christian Bale, who gained 43 pounds for the part, fastidiously fixing his “elaborate” comb over in the opening scene.

Fashion is a key component in the personification of the era. Jeremy Renner rocks a pompadour that would make Elvis jealous, Bradley Cooper sports a tight perm. He even wears curlers at one point. The guys don plaid suits, velour blazers, aviator sunglasses, exaggerated peak lapels and huge floppy bow ties. Not to be outdone by the men, the women raise swanky 70s fashion to new heights with body hugging wrap dresses. Amy Adams models a sequin gown with a plunging down-to-there neckline, channeling ringlets a la Bernadette Peters. Jennifer Lawrence has the sophisticated updo of a Charlie’s Angel with a slinky white dress that would look right at home on the dance floor at Studio 54. The era is conceived as it was and then multiplied by 100.

Abscam began in 1978 and was a major procedure run by the Long Island office of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to target corrupt public officials.  What makes a potentially dry subject so delightfully fun is the intricate way the plot unfolds. The movie boasts the best ensemble cast of the year. Director David O. Russell once again commands his impressive troupe of regulars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence. Was frequent supporter Mark Wahlberg not available? Every performance is award worthy. They give life to a story about a complicated sting. But just who exactly is going to get stung? You’ll be guessing until the end when the true nature of the plan is revealed.

David O. Russell’s tour de force on the FBI operation begins rather modestly with the words: “Some of this actually happened.” That playful intro informs the viewer that while this is a drama, it’s also a bit of a comedy as well. American Hustle is the work of a dazzling showman that has logged years of experience under his belt. Russell manipulates fact vs. fiction with the singular vision of a confident filmmaker. We’re treated to a spectacular production that fabricates the pop culture excess of the late 70s in its unfettered glory. With its remarkable style and storytelling, American Hustle feels like the beautiful lovechild sired by Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Yes, comparisons to one of filmdom’s most accomplished auteurs is a compliment of the highest order. Call it Martin Scorsese’s greatest movie…that he didn’t actually direct.

Her

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 21, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Her photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgHer is the work of a perceptive individual. Spike Jonze has 4 films in his directorial repertoire and he has managed to make a statement with each one. Her is perhaps his most accomplished one yet. He not only directs, but for the first time, he is working from a screenplay that he has solely written himself. With all due respect to the cleverness of past collaborator Charlie Kauffman, Jonze should continue to do this. The writing is brilliant.

The setting is Los Angeles. The time is the near future. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly. He works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a firm in the business of doing just that, providing moving hand written correspondence for other people. It’s kind of like Hallmark, but to the 10th power. He’s a scribe that’s very good at his job. There’s an irony however. His own existence is far from emotionally perfect. Recently split from his wife (Rooney Mara), he is a broken man. Then one day he purchases some new software for his computer. It’s a highly intuitive, self aware, disembodied voice, “the first artificially intelligent operating system“ that makes today‘s technology seem antiquated by comparison. Initially she begins by merely organizing his emails, but her personality is more than organizational. He has many conversations with her. His dependence deepens.

Her is a curious vision of the world to come, but it’s still refreshingly restrained. The movie should age well. Jonze uses background shots of Shanghai to represent a Los Angeles of the future. The cinematography is soothing blue and grey pastels often disrupted by the color of Phoenix‘s shirt. I liked the high-waisted beltless pants. It’s suitably familiar to be recognizable, but noticeably different to clearly not be of this time. Yet the majority of the action takes place in sterile, serene rooms where people simply converse. This gives the bustling metropolis of LA a peaceful, Zen-like gloss on the surroundings. There is a minor nagging contention that the production is based on nothing more than different rooms with a man talking to a computer. But the elementary scene construction generates undeniable results. it’s a deceptively simple conceit that yields an emotional powerhouse.

As the voice of the OS, Scarlett Johansson is sensitive, yearning and passionate. Her name is Samantha. Her intonations mimic the sound and speech patterns of a human voice, but without the complications that a living human brings. The obvious analogue would be Siri, the personal assistant application for Apple’s iOS. Where the language interface of Siri is a rudimentary version of a talking human, Samantha is an almost sentient entity. This isn’t the sound of a computer, but of an advanced individual with the desire to please. The drama is made up of their conversations. She encourages him to seize life both professionally and romantically. They have an easy familiarity with each other right from the start, Her influence starts to have a profound effect. As their interactions grow more thoughtful, their bond becomes increasingly intimate. They provide a cogent dissertation on the nature of relationships in this ever-evolving digital age. This is the giddy delight of two people getting to know one another.

Her is Spike Jonze’s magnum opus on love. He is gently dissecting our modern computer era. With its heavy reliance on cell phones and the Internet, his vision of the future is just enough like our own to be instantly relatable. But is an attachment to a voice too far fetched? Of course it isn’t really the voice, it’s the fully formed personality that we connect with. As the operating system, Scarlett Johansson expresses herself with a joy and wonder that is positively captivating. The doubt with which people used to regard relationships between people who met online, courts a gradually eroding skepticism. Her illustrates the plausibility for someone to fall in love with a person they’ve never met, better than any work of fiction I’ve ever seen. The script analyzes what constitutes love and makes the case that a passionate connection doesn’t even require a physical body. It relies on making an emotional bond with a person on a spiritual level. What sounds like science fiction on paper, is actually one of the most deeply felt romances of 2013.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Posted in Comedy with tags on December 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues photo starrating-4stars.jpgAnchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a modest hit back in the summer of 2004, but truly came into its own on home video. I confess. I wasn’t a fan. I found it unfocused with scattershot giggles. Now that I’ve alienated you, please stay with me. Faced with an over-hyped sequel to a comedy almost a decade old that I wasn’t crazy about in the first place, my expectations were pretty low. That’s what makes Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues such a delightful surprise. There’s a big difference between meandering nonsense, and pointed zaniness. I’m pleased to report, Anchorman 2 is the latter.

Ron Burgundy has difficulty accepting the fact that his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) has been promoted to full time news anchor at the same moment that he has been fired. He gives his wife an ultimatum: him or her new promotion. They split up. Following an unsuccessful stint at Sea World, Ron is inexplicably offered a job at the Global News Network, the first 24-hour news channel. He is encouraged to assemble the old gang. Hilarity ensures. Once again this movie is set in the past. CNN began in 1980 so that appears to be the obvious year. That allows the soundtrack to be flooded with tons of late 70s/early 80s pop songs. It is the greatest assemblage of hits from that era since the glory days of K-Tel Records.

Anchorman 2 is the work of talented writers. There’s a real respect to the original while adding enough unique material to make this episode seem not only fresh, but necessary. We’re given little back-stories of what his news buddies have been doing in the interim. Would anyone care for some fried bat? Later the group is sitting in an RV on cruise control with no one at the wheel. There’s a random assortment of a deep fry oil cooker, a terrarium of scorpions, and a bag of bowling balls on the vehicle. Half the humor is the anticipation from the set-up. But the payoff is pretty side-splitting too. Most of the script maintains that lofty standard. The sole serious misstep occurs in the final 20 minutes where the narrative grinds to a halt for a rumble in the park of rival news teams. It occurs right when the saga feels like it’s wrapping up. It’s just a tiresome excuse to show a lot of famous cameos. I’m not going to list them, but Kanye West is involved. Yeah I know.

Anchorman 2 is a very funny film. The jokes rarely take a pause as the gags are constant throughout. The screenplay by Will Ferrell and frequent collaborator Adam McKay has a driving storyline to keep our attention amidst the absurdist humor. Actors James Marsden and Meagan Good play new characters that are welcome additions. The production also raises some insightful critiques about TV news that are quite clever. I wouldn’t call it a satire, but close. There’s plenty of silly shtick as well. Some of it falls flat, but the majority of it works. The first picture is frequently cited as one of the most quotable comedies of all time. While it would’ve been hard for any sequel to achieve that kind of legendary status, there is still plenty of amusing one-liners. Everyone is willing to fling themselves into an illogical premise and act like it’s just the most normal thing in the world. The effort makes it all worthwhile.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe ongoing story of one Bilbo Baggins continues its seemingly endless continuation toward completion. While An Unexpected Journey took forever to take root, The Desolation of Smaug gets to the heart of the matter a bit quicker. This interlude subverts the Bilbo character for an adventure centered around Thorin, the leader of the Dwarves, and his mission. A brief flashback reminds us why Thorin is on this expedition. In case you didn’t see Part 1 (and incidentally don’t bother watching this if you haven’t) he must locate the Arkenstone inside the Lonely Mountain which is guarded by a fierce dragon. We then jump right back into their quest.

The long chronicle feels stretched to the breaking point this time around despite the fact that it actually runs slightly shorter. The flick is superficially packed with more events, but that doesn’t mean it’s more engaging. In the novel, this is the part where Bilbo proves himself useful to Thorin, but the Hobbit is relegated to the background. There are examples where Bilbo increasingly relies on the ring, but the ramifications are not emphasized in the movie, like they were in the text. Thorin becomes the focus. The most affecting moments have nothing to do with Bilbo. Beautiful elf Tauriel is smitten with hunky dwarf Killi. Their romance forms a love triangle with jealous elf Legolas in the sidelines. The relationship comprises unexpectedly touching vignettes.  Ironically Legolas shouldn’t even be in The Hobbit. Peter Jackson is apparently more concerned with tying everything together with his earlier trilogy over making J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He’s fashioning a prequel to Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit 2 is once again a spectacle. It has lots of captivating computer graphics. At one juncture Bilbo climbs to the top of some autumn hued trees and a kaleidoscope of blue butterflies is unleashed. Soon after the Dwarves lose their way in the forest and are caught by giant spiders. That’s kind of cool too. The action is lively with occasional but rare glimpses of humor. This is true in an amusing scene where the dwarves escape their elf captors in barrels. Initially the elves, led by Legolas and Tauriel, pursue them but then they’re all attacked by the Orcs. There’s a brisk battle involving arrows and some accidental barrel crushing that hilariously saves the day.

The Desolation of Smaug is more of the same. In that respect, it’s still a visual display that will charm an easy-going viewer who wants pretty stuff to look at. Several set pieces will delight the senses. Smaug the dragon is a feat of CGI that is a wonder to behold. But the interminable length of the first film is only magnified this time around. 2 hours and 40 minutes is devoted to rendering 6 chapters (7-12) of a children’s book. There’s lots of eye-popping events, but the story doesn‘t develop in any meaningful way. There’s a feeling of treading water with this entry. It’s not the set up and it’s not the end. A distinct feeling of disappointment sets in when the production stops abruptly with Bilbo lamenting “What have we done?” It implies everything we just sat through was merely exposition to the real deal coming out next year. If you count the first part, we’ve endured close to 6 hours of a saga that hasn’t even reached a climax. The short tale of The Hobbit has become bloated with filler. Now if we were talking about a mattress or a bra, then padding would be a selling point perhaps, but in a movie it leads to diminishing returns.

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Romance with tags on December 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Blue Is the Warmest Color photo starrating-4stars.jpgAdèle is a girl in secondary school. She yearns for romance, but her desires are complicated by conflicting feelings. Egged on by the inane chatter of her high school friends, Adèle goes out with a good looking schoolboy who is attracted to her. On the way to their date, she spies a young mysterious blue haired woman with her arms around another girl. They lock glances. Adèle and Thomas date briefly and although he is taken with her, she breaks up with him. Adèle later meets Emma, the woman she spied earlier. They embark on a relationship.

Blue Is the Warmest Color was originally titled The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2. Somehow that seems more appropriate.  At 3 hours, the movie is like two halves: the original movie and then its sequel pushed together to form two episodes in the life. The first half is what causes two people to fall in love. The second, is what drives them apart. Throughout it all, emotions run the gamut from joy and excitement to melancholia and pain. The drama is such a fully realized portrait, that even after the extreme length, you still might be curious what’s next for Adèle. What happens to her in Chapter 3?

At the film’s heart are two stunning performances. Léa Seydoux is Emma. The French actress is recognized for both French (Farewell, My Queen) and American (Inglorious Basterds, Robin Hood, Midnight in Paris) productions alike. Adèle is played with uncompromising credibility by newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos. As the star, she anchors the drama with her work. Since she shares the same name as her character and this is her first major role, I am impulsively tempted to conclude she is merely playing herself. Yet even that would require the skills of a great thespian given what she does here. She presents a teenager that is nearly flawless in its honesty. The achievement never translates as acting. She just is.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche allows scenarios to play far beyond a normal duration. In most cases, this is a good thing because it heightens the experience that this is reality. The interactions drift and percolate like authentic dialogue. They deceptively feel improvised because of their utter veracity. Yet the script is too focused to truly believe that. They highlight the process of learning about someone and slowly getting to understand them. As a whole the picture attempts to portray every facet of a relationship. The film has most famously drawn publicity for its lovemaking scenes. A sequence in and of itself can shock sensibilities. Their desire culminates in extended scenes of intimacy that do push accepted boundaries. This is an unedited, unembarrassed and sensual expression. Admittedly, the director does a disservice at making them so graphic. Their explicitness tends to overshadow the sensitivity of the rest of the narrative which depicts their association with a much tender approach.

Blue Is the Warmest Color was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, its highest honor. For the first time ever the prize was also officially bestowed to two actors as well: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. That just shows how intrinsic they are to the success of the picture. It presents a relationship in unexpurgated detail – an unbridled 3 hours. Normally that would be a barrier in engaging the attention, but the plot never seems dull. Director Abdellatif Kechiche lets a scene gradually unfold. The script has a natural rhythm. The conversations take their time in the way genuine people would interact with long pauses and the awkwardness of dialogue that isn’t perfected. That permits a candor that is determined in being explicit with feeling. This has courted controversy for its sexual depictions. It could be argued that they are a physical manifestation of the intimacy we’ve already seen on an intellectual level. The director has nevertheless made a dubious choice which is ultimately a misstep. Evaluated as an overall account, however, those minutes constitute a very small part. Most of the story has a delicate beauty of real life and raw emotion that has rarely been presented so honestly.