Friday, June 26, 2015

..."WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE [AND EQUAL RIGHTS] FOR ALL"

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
 
The above quote is from Justice Anthony Kennedy in today's Supreme Court landmark ruling regarding same-sex marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges.
 
It's not so much that the times are changing as much as our country is starting to catch up with the times.
 
Or, put more succinctly...it's about damned time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

EXTINCTION AVERTED: "Jurassic World" Reinvigorates A Stagnant Franchise [MINOR SPOILERS].

Have you seen the trailer for the upcoming Vacation reboot? It showcases a scene from the film that contains this batch of dialogue:
 
     “So, you want to redo your vacation from thirty years ago?”
     "This’ll be completely different."
     “I’ve never even heard of the original vacation.”
     “Doesn’t matter; the new vacation will stand on its own, okay?”
 
When films get meta with their dialogue, you know there’s a giant elephant in the room.  Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow (who also served as screenwriter alongside Rick Jarra, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly), is well aware of its own elephant; or, in this case, dinosaur.  “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” claims Park Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who addresses that very sentiment in this franchise-reboot-that-isn’t. Taking place twenty some years after the events of the original Steven Spielberg-helmed CGI extravaganza (who serves as executive producer for this outing) both in fiction and reality, the film reveals it's self-awareness with its in-story acknowledgement that an entire generation (or two) has since become jaded with the technical wizardry that brought the original and its sequels to life. 
 
In the time since the events of Jurassic Park III, Isla Nublar has been rebranded “Jurassic World” and is run by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn), the CEO of the Masrani Corporation and successor-in-ownership to the island who wants to provide a bigger, better theme-park entertainment for the masses. To that end, he employs bio-engineering scientists to clone dinosaur hybrids to meet that demand; culminating in the appropriately named Indominus Rex.  Claire (Howard) is a workaholic who would rather run the park 24/7 rather than spend some quality time with her park visiting, estranged nephews Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, respectively). When Indominus Rex starts acting erratically, Claire reluctantly enlists the aid of resident Velociraptor expert and trainer, Owen Grady (a rugged Chris Pratt); a man with whom she is most uncomfortable with. As with all previous films in the Jurassic series, when the big, bad dinosaur gets loose, mayhem ensues.
 
The film follows the current trend (as with the recent flop Poltergeist, the aforementioned Vacation, and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) of creating a whole new franchise upon the bones (or fossils) of what has come before. Brand name recognition is the name of this game, and Jurassic World by its very nature plays it (which also includes some rather over-the-top product placement; in fact, its usage of same is as metatextual as the film itself, given that actual theme parks are replete with store brands littering their landscape). Given the under-performance of relatively original material such as Disney’s Tomorrowland, expect this re-branding to become the norm. These films want to eat that proverbial cake and be taken on its own merits despite riding the coattails of its predecessors, but Jurassic World (disingenuously or subversively, depending on your perspective) tries to serve as commentary to the very nature of the beast/studio that feeds it. Jurassic World the locale is a Disney/Universal studio theme park hybrid brought to the life in a “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” fashion, with Indominus Rex acting as the reptilian epitome of that insatiable corporate need for "bigger and better". The film serves as a cautionary tale even as it revels in the very tenants it cautions against.
 
The whole “it’s not wise to fool with Mother Nature” trope is a defining hallmark of this series; however, given the ongoing controversy regarding genetic mutation and GMO’s in the food chain, it seems even more topical than ever…especially when said research is done for military application (as epitomized by the character of Vic Hoskins, played with scenery-chewing glee by Vincent D’Onofrio). These allegorical inferences weight the film with more resonance than it probably would have.
 
Not that it needed it. In terms of pure popcorn summer spectacle, the film is a visual delight. It’s one of the few films wherein the special effects are virtually flawless; surprising given that 3D filming, especially in IMAX, tends to make the weaknesses stand out. The dinosaurs have never seemed so textured or real, and their interactions with the actors are practically seamless; the accuracy of their design, however, is a subject not to be debated here.
 
If the film is anything to go by, Director Trevorrow, a relative newcomer to the world of blockbuster filmmaking, understands that it’s the suspense as much as the visuals that made Jurassic Park stand out from its lackluster sequels. He paces his scenes with enough apprehensive anticipation that the payoffs are more than effective. In terms of pacing overall, the story has a tight flow that makes its two hour and five minute run time seem shorter than it is. Unfortunately, characterization is sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Subplots regarding family abandonment and emotional distance are given cursory lip service and, quite frankly, add nothing to the narrative; they could have been completely excised and wouldn’t have affected the overall story in the slightest. There are minor continuity issues, with one so particularly glaring as to take one momentarily out of the film; however, for all the fantastical elements in the film, none is more unbelievable than the idea of Claire running all over the Isla Nublar in high heels. Eggs, both Easter and dinosaur, abound for the pterodactyl-eyed fans of the series; but one of the film's strengths is to be able to tell a complete self-contained story that can be viewed without having any knowledge of its cinematic predecessors.
 
The filmmakers opted to continue the mythology without the original cast of characters, save BD Wong as franchise carryover Dr. Henry Wu, in keeping with its “look-towards-the-future-while-keeping-a-toe-in-the-past” philosophy; a wise decision, for an overabundance of nostalgia would have kept the focus of off Chris Pratt’s surprising performance. Owen could have easily have been played as “Star Lord.v2”; however, Pratt excises charming goofiness and channels a bit of old school rakish, Clark Gable, no-nonsense swagger. His performance is the solid foundation which anchors this film. In terms of character development and growth, such as it is, Bryce Howard’s Clarie gets the most of it. In what starts out as a blank slate performance, she convincingly gets the audience invested in her character’s fate. Yet, one must wonder how many key grips with spritzer bottles were on hand to constantly spray water on her entire body, since she spends most of the movie looking so oiled up one has to wonder if she’s running from dinosaurs or about to mud wrestle one. As her nephews, Simpkins’ and Robinson’s characters exist to give a child’s (or at least, pubescent) point of view and someone for the youngsters to identify with (after all, Jurassic Park, much like its real-life mouse-led counterpart, existed for children, both literal and figurative). Kudos to Trevorror for not allowing the Mitchell brothers to fall victim to the “precocious child” syndrome that plague most movie kids. While the boys seem like jaded know-it-alls in the beginning, it doesn’t last. In the face of pure terror, their reactions ring true, their narrow escapes believable. Despite hiccups in their individual acting styles, the two actors do sell their fraternal relationship.
 
The film's powerful majesty, both in CGI and cinematography, would be undermined if the score were not up to snuff.  Thankfully, Michael Giancchino’s score is up to the challenge, though his mandatory inclusion of maestro John Williams’ themes and motifs reveal the weaknesses within his own original compositions. Nevertheless, they meld together to create an evocative, thrilling, and poignant sound that, while not equal, is to this film what Williams’ orchestrations were to the original.
 
Ultimately, the question to be asked is whether or not Jurassic World invokes the same wonder and majesty that Jurassic Park did a generation ago. To an arguably lesser degree, it does; but not due to the improvements in special effects, digital or otherwise, over the past twenty-plus years. It’s the focus on the story. The film could have fallen victim to “bigger is better” excess it blatantly extols in self-aware fashion. Instead, it focuses on the more story and relationships (such as they are), which is what drives any storytelling of note…that, and the backdrop of cool looking dinosaurs. No one would be impressed with films just about dinosaurs…the human element is what counts.
 
If this film serves as any indication, the Jurassic franchise is in no danger of going extinct for the foreseeable future.

Friday, May 22, 2015

PALE AS A GHOST: "Poltergeist" Cannot Exorcize The Specter Of The Original Film

The recent trend of rebooting / remaking / rehashing past franchises shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the decrying of Hollywood’s lack of originality, the fact remains that reboots are generally met with success of varying degrees; especially given Hollywood’s belief that today’s generation couldn’t be bothered with the films their parents grew up with. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Poltergeist is added to the ranks. However, reboots carry new sensibilities and new spins on familiar situations; some work, some don’t. Further, to remake a film, franchise, etc., will inevitably invite comparisons to the original.  In the case of this 2015 retelling of this classic film, the proverbial devil is in the details, but unfortunately a satisfying experience they do not make.
 
The situation is the exactly the same.  A family moves into a house on a new development project. However, the house is haunted by restless spirits known as “poltergeists” which kidnap the family’s youngest daughter. Thus, the parents resort to extraordinary means to get her back. The original film 1982 film directed by Tobe Hooper and executive produced and primarily written by Steven Spielberg, considered one of the seminal horror films of the 1980s, casts a long shadow. Director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire seem painfully aware of that fact, as the specter of the original casts a shroud over the entire production, right down to the changing of the main characters’ names and, in some cases, genders (the house is even devoid of a swimming pool). The thing about the original film was that, despite the supernatural shenanigans that took place on the screen, the true horror came from the film’s allegorical take on man’s greed and duplicitous nature, which was the payoff in the film’s climax. Here, it is addressed one-third into the film then discarded; a clear indication that things will be different for those who have seen the original, but by the same token robs any power this film might have had because it gives nothing equally potent to match it. But when one considers that Sam Raimi of Evil Dead and Darkman fame is one of the producers, one can expect less outright scares and more humorous, tongue-in-cheek spooks.  
 
Given the technological special effects advances in the past thirty years, a lot that went implied in the first film is given a more in-your-face, literal interpretation which, while more potent visually, incongruously minimizes the horror empirically; though Kenan is not above using techniques that can be currently found in a “Halloween Horror Night” attraction. There are a lot of modern touches and sensibilities that update the story. The use of electronics and drones that pierce dimensional barriers, for example, that renders the film more sci-fi than horror. What (scant) scares do come stem from the modern “jump scare” style of filmmaking, making it seem more derivative than it already is. Though the film is not a parody, there are moments that it seems to veer towards it. The set ups engender more anticipatory giggles than fearful foreboding (That being said, anyone afflicted with coulrophobia would be wise to avoid this film).
 
With a runtime of 93 minutes, the film seems almost like the Cliff Notes of a story. Instead of taking the time of building actual suspense, Kenan’s direction moves at a quick pace, as if impatient to get to the next scary moment or “isn’t this cool” shot. If there was ever a horror film of the modern era that suffered from attention deficit syndrome, this one is it. 
 
Unfortunately, another aspect as to why the scares are deficient stem from the fact that it's hard for a viewer to become invested in one-dimensional characters who are engaged in hinted-at character arcs that do not allow for any emotional payoff. As patriarch Eric Bowen, Sam Rockwell is basically playing Sam Rockwell, and an annoying one at that. His performance is so lackluster the viewer has no clear indication as to where he’s emotionally at. As his wife Amy, Rosemarie DeWitt is appropriately distraught, fragile, and fallible. The most charismatic performance comes from Kyle Catlett as the precocious and endearing Griffin Bowen, who’s perhaps the most capable of the entire family and has the closest thing to a character arc. Kennedi Clements as Madison Bowen is cute and vulnerable, which seems to be the only requirement for this character in either version of the story. The only other performance that stands out is Jared Harris as the “exploitive-television personality-paranormal investigator-John Edwards” analogue Carrigan Burke, who takes the place of Zelda Rubinstein’s “Tangina” from the original. His character is earnestly entertaining; however, what character arc he has and shares with fellow paranormal investigator Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), is given lip-service only with a relatively minor payoff.
 
Poltergeist is, in a word, perfunctory. At best, it’s a superficial, gee-whiz yet lackluster summary of a story that unfortunately has no meat to it. What is missing is any empathy for the characters or their situation, or any subtext that the best horror films are infused with. Unfortunately, cheesy though the effects may be to the modern eye, the specter of the original 1982 film hangs over this one like a shroud, and not even an exorcism can salvage it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

AGING WELL: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" Keeps Up The Stride Of The Marvel Movie-Making Machine [MILD SPOILERS]

Way back in May, 2012, I concluded my review of Marvel's The Avengers with the following statement:
 
"Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!"
 
Three years later, we have the answer in the form of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cinematic bombast of flash and spectacle guaranteed to leave the viewer exhausted by the end of the film, yet still somehow left wanting more.
 
The film begins at a breakneck pace, with the Avengers, comprising of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruafflo and Lou Ferrigno), Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) invading an overseas H.Y.D.R.A. secret base in order to retrieve Loki’s scepter. Upon realizing that the artifact holds the secret to developing AI technology that could create a peacekeeping force that would obviate the necessity of the Avengers, Stark enlists Banner's aid to create Ultron (James Spader, Less Than Zero; Sex, Lies, & Videotape), a robot meant to be the first line of defense against interplanetary threat. However, upon gaining sentience, Ultron reinterprets its directive to assert that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it and, with the aid of the super-powered twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla; Kick-Ass) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen; Godzilla, Oldboy), sets out to destroy without but not before destroying The Avengers from within.
 
One of the main obstacles this film had going in was that the first Avengers was so epic in scope and execution that the sequel had to be even bigger in all respects. Joss Whedon, both director and scriptwriter, accepted said challenge. The need for character introductions having been obviated by all previous Marvel films, Whedon wastes no time with exposition; which is incongruously both its strength and weakness. Plot-wise, many assumptions are made in the beginning without fully being logically reasoned out and, while jarring, this “cliff notes” approach makes sense given that Whedon crams as much action and character interaction within a two hour, twenty minute time frame; which he does with mostly positive results.
 
Whedon's main strength as a story teller has been characterization, and it shows here; though he has the advantage in that the main players wear their roles like a second skin (including Samuel L. Jackson as a weary Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill).  Nevertheless, Whedon's ability to juggle the screen time of the main cast is to be commended.  Hawkeye and The Hulk are given more to do this time around, which is likely due to the fact that neither carry a Marvel franchise of their own. Unfortunately, Thor is given the short shrift in terms of characterization, but it is by no means a slight as his own journey is still essential to the plot.  There is really little to say about the main cast other than the fact that despite having played these characters many times before, there is no sense of “been there, done that” fatigue that afflict most heroic franchise actors (looking at you, Christian Bale); in some cases, quite the opposite. Evans’ seems even more invested in the Captain America persona than ever. A subplot involving The Incredible Hulk and The Black Widow adds a new wrinkle that allows for an extra bit of spice to Ruafflo’s and Johannsen’s performances.  Downy, Jr. continues Tony Stark’s cinematic psychological evolution, his manic performance bringing in all of Stark’s previous experiences to bear in a manner that drives the central conceit of the plot forward. Renner’s Hawkeye is also given an added character development that grounds the film with a much needed and necessary human element. 
 
Of the newcomers, Spader, who provided motion capture work along with voice over, chews the scenery as the malevolent Ultron. His engaging in sardonic colloquialisms is a bit jarring at first, but a refreshing change of pace from the usual robotic intonations of robots in other films. Both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen bring youthful, brashly cocky energy to their roles and their performances mesh well with the original six. Also of note is Marvel mainstay Paul Bettany in his roles as both Jarvis and the Vision, as he imbues both AI constructs with surprising poignancy. Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie make extended cameos as James Rhodes/War Machine and Sam Wilson/The Falcon, respectively; their presence adding welcome comic relief.
 
The film teeters on political commentary. Though the words “liberal” and “conservative” are never uttered, the ideological lines between offensive versus defensive warfare are clearly drawn and debated, though given the events of the film more weight is given to one side. Whedon manages to incorporate it into the story without either being heavy-handed or losing sight of the fact that this is a superhero film. However, this does lead to one of the few missteps in the film: The overused “hero v. hero” trope. While it fits within the story’s context, it takes place too frequently here. Its inclusion is understandable given that AoU serves as a thematic precursor to the plot of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War (as well as set-up for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War) but within the context of a self-contained film, it's tiresome despite its impressive spectacle of presentation. However, it's not only a narrative staple of the Marvel “brand”, but it serves as required counterpoint to their heroism at the film’s climax. It’s refreshing to know that the filmmakers are aware of the types of heroes they are, with the ability to “beat the bad guys” while ensuring the safety of civilians, and inspiring hope while doing so. Warner Bros. should be taking notes.
 
Another annoying trope is the “Hollywood-think” of “we’re paying this actor to play this role so we’re getting our money’s worth by seeing his/her face.” All well and good, but when one is going to see a movie about superheroes, they expect to see said superheroes in their full regalia on screen, not have Steve Rogers wearing the majority of his costume sans mask/helmet. (Never mind the fact the amount of times Steve is referred to by his nom de guerre can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. He’s Captain America when in action! Don’t shy away from that! Embrace it! Sheesh!)
 
The special effects are top notch, with special mention towards the CGI renderings of both The Hulk and Ultron, though the 3D viewings showcase their relatively minor weaknesses. The battle scenes are exciting; well-orchestrated and choreographed, even if some beats go on far longer than they should. In fact, so much is thrown onto the screen, it almost leads to sensory overload, especially in IMAX 3D. If the intent was to create a roller coaster effect while remaining stationary, it succeeds. It should be noted that said success is bolstered by the musical arrangements of Brian Tyler accompanied by Danny Elfman, who manages to improve upon Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme. While Tyler has said in interviews that he wanted to create a score reminiscent of John Williams’ Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) (though more heavily on the latter than the former), it’s Elfman’s contributions that are more evocative of those classics. Their combined effort is a sublime acoustical experience which offers subtle integrations of the heroic themes from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) (the latter two also by Tyler). Unfortunately, much of the score’s nuance (yes, there is nuance) is lost amid the sound effects. Nevertheless, it effectively does what any good score should do, which is highlight and season the unfolding events for maximum visceral punch.
 
Avengers: Age of Ultron starts 2015 summer season with a nuclear bang, filled with even more thrills, chills, pathos, triumph, and fun than its predecessor, even if it verges on taking itself way too seriously.  In conclusion…well…please refer back to the quote referenced above.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

GUEST REVIEW - VIRTUALLY NO SHADE IS THROWN UPON "FIFTY SHADES OF GREY"

Periodically, American Culture Critic will host guest reviews. The first of these appears below, as special correspondent Jim Chiu has generously and graciously donated his time to pen the review of the polarizing film Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, which appears below. Many thanks, Jim.
 
"Fifty Shades of Grey was a surprise for me. It is difficult, when a film receives as much hype as Fifty Shades has, to go in without expectations. However, I was pleasantly taken aback by the cinematic work I ended up viewing.
 
Fifty Shades of Grey is a film whose underlying theme is contrast and dichotomy. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jaime Dornan) are two polar opposites who engage in a whirlwind romance. Unfortunately, this film plays out more as a tragedy than a romance film. But before we get to that, let me play homage to the people who really brought this film to life: the production crew.
 
Returning to the themes of contrast and dichotomy, the production crew, from cinematographers to wardrobe to set designers, all clearly worked with a unified vision in order to highlight them. Anastasia Steele’s apartment is exactly what one would see in a college apartment. It is chaotic and eclectic.  Christian Grey’s office and home are cold stone and devoid of warm colors. The only room in Christian’s home with any color in it is his “red room of pain.” Each set piece highlights an aspect of the characters’ life. Moving from set piece to set piece colors the interaction between the characters.
 
The inestimable Danny Elfman’s work is amazing in this film. His musical choices complement each scene and create an ambiance in which the actors play their roles. From the college rock on campus and in bars to the dark orchestral pieces that play in the “red room of pain,” Mr. Elfman’s touch cannot be mistaken.
 
The cinematography is masterful in this film, which especially heightens the use of contrast visually and thematically. Great care was taken to ensure the “red room of pain” scenes enjoyed the warmest lighting, creating contrast shadows and at the same time, it felt like the focus was brought to razor sharpness. These scenes were the show piece of the film and mean to communicate the fact that, in these moments, both characters felt more passion, more clarity, and more intensity than any other spent outside this room.
 
All this excellent work is wrapped around a story that is controversial to say the least. I feel it is outside the scope of this review to tackle the social topic of abusive relationships, so we will focus on the storytelling. Anastasia and Christian are not only a couple at odds with each other, but with themselves. Each character is found battling their own nature and their own perceived limitations throughout the film. Unfortunately, this can come off as a bit sophomoric in its delivery. Anastasia’s attempt to deny her attraction towards Christian is an excellent example of this. That said, there was an incredible amount of subtly to both actor’s performances as what was not said was just as important as what was said out loud.
 
Overall, while this film stumbles in places, Fifty Shades of Grey was an impressive and intense piece of filmmaking."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

FREE SPEECH: TRY TO STRIKE IT DOWN, AND IT WILL GROW MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE

Anyone who ever saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (or even read the source comics all the way back to the sixties) are aware of H.Y.D.R.A., Marvel's version of SPECTRE from the James Bond series of films. It's a fictional evil organization whose motto is succinctly put: "Cut off one head, two more grow in it's place." This underlying conceit of motto is what makes that particular organization so insidiously effective ... the idea that an ideal cannot be killed. You may kill one agent, but two others will have taken that agent's place.
 
A tragic situation took place in Paris yesterday. Three armed Islamist terrorists stormed the office of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" and killed 12 people and wounded 10 others, among them an two unarmed Parisian police officers, as retribution for the cartoons the magazine published satirizing Islamic extremism. Like all other terrorist attacks, it was meant to create an environment of fear and contriteness.
 
Instead, the opposite has happened.
 
Chances are many of you did not know of Charlie Hebdo (Admittedly, I never knew about it until the attack). Take a good look at the Internet; particularly social media. You know about it now. I'm sure your Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Pheed, etc. feeds are littered with not only stories of the attack, but statements from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The unknowns and the celebrities, all decrying the attack and, further, posting ad infinitum the satirical cartoons (some censored, but mostly not) that provoked the attack. Instead of being suppressed, its being disseminated while political satirist cartoonists are producing new cartoons in the same vein as of this writing in solidarity and protest. As violent and tragic as the terrorist act was, it has provoked a response completely, exponentially, opposite to what was intended.
 
"Free speech" is not a uniquely American concept; it's a universal desire, especially to those who live under dictatorial regimes. But free speech, as made explicitly clear yesterday, is NOT free. It's a right that has to be claimed, asserted, continually fought for, otherwise it would be eradicated by those who would see it expunged from the proverbial face of the earth. But freedom (whether political, religious, spiritual, or what have you) is not a tangible thing that can be cut down by an AK-47; it's an idea that is worth living for, fighting for, and, as Stephane Charbonnier and his staff unfortunately learned, dying for. However, it doesn't perish with the martyred idea holder...but instead promulgates and radiates outwards to others who carry the torch and push the idea. Kill the one, and two others take it place. Or, as that old shampoo commercial asserts, "you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on..."
 
This is why terrorism must ultimately fail. While the purveyors of an idea may perish, the idea cannot. The current cultural awareness and response to these attacks is evidence of fact. The great irony in all of this is that the terrorists, in trying to promote their cause, have only undermined it further.
 
To paraphrase a pop culture icon, "Stay free, my friends."
 
 

Monday, December 15, 2014

AN UPHILL BATTLE: "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" Is A Feast of Spectacle That Doesn't Justify Its Bloat.

"Will you follow me? One last time?" 


This question is posed by the dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) halfway into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. By that point, the character has used up whatever good will he has left with not only the outer world-at-large, but with his twelve dwarven companions. However, despite all that his character has done through the course of this film, they still follow his lead headless of the bittersweet ramifications. It seems almost a metatextual plea from Jackson himself to the viewer regarding The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, considering he's turning what amounts to perhaps thirty pages (depending on the edition) of one novel into a bloated two-hour plus film (which ironically is the shortest of all of Jackson's Tolkein adaptations). Mercifully, the bloat is not as egregious as it was in The Desolation of Smaug; here there is a tighter focus as the narrative speeds, in jerking spurts, to it's conclusion.


Well, not until a whole lot of this takes place.


The film takes up where the last one ends, with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberatch) laying seige on the seemingly defenseless city of Esgaroth/Lake-Town. Meanwhile, Thorin Oakenshield turns his back on the helpless humans, choosing instead to revel in his newfound wealth and seek the yet-to-be discovered Arkenstone, deafening his ears to the compassionate pleas of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), begging Oakenshield to honor his word. As this takes place, Thranduil (Lee Pace) leads his elven army to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim the elven jewels held there, unaware that the orcan general Azog (Manu Bennett) leads a militia of orcs and goblins to claim the mountain and lay waste to all beings they find be they human, dwarven, or elven, Lastly, Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) is slowly dying at the hands of The Necromancer/Sauron (voiced by Cumberbatch) in the abandoned fortress of Gol Dulgur. It all comes to a head at the base of The Lonely Mountain.

It's all about dat base, 'bout dat base, 'bout dat base...

It's difficult to view this film as a stand-alone picture because (a) it's not, as it is dependent upon what the events of An Unexpected Journey and Desolation; and (b) the fact that Jackson's previous Lord of the Rings adaptation trilogy was vastly superior in execution. Granted, Jackson and his team of screenwriters (Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) took lots of liberties with the source material for those film as well. But at least they remained somewhat faithful to the source's tone, if not its themes and motifs.

What irks the most is how much Jackson & Co. miss the point this time around. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, despite both works being penned by the same author. The Hobbit is a charming, whimsical tale that, while ostensibly geared for children, is a rite of passage character study; particularly the character of Bilbo Baggins. That charm, that whimsy, is all but lost.  It's only in two scenes towards the end...two small scenes, mind you...the spirit of the source material is captured. Heart is traded for spectacle and, while that spectacle is grand, it's also souless. Jackson's stretching out the novel, along with inserting material from other Tolkein works as well as creating a wholly new subplot that doesn't exit, only calls attention to the weaknesses in the endeavor. As such, we're treated to long stretches of dialogue and soap operaish elements that make what is supposed to be taken seriously teeter dangerously into parody.  With the original films, it was easy to buy into the moments of pathos and heroism as they were interwoven organically through the story beats and the performances. Here, Jackson's direction is so self-consciously heavy handed, as the actors are made to stop and pose for dramatic effect, the moments are constructed in such a way as to seem like a subliminal "applause" message at an sitcom-studio audience taping. Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Madonna would be proud.


Azog strikes a similar pose.

And what of those characters brought in that had nothing to do with the story? Perhaps by way of apology, given the actor's scenes having ended up on the cutting room floor upon theatrical release, Jackson gives Christopher Lee's Saurman more to do in a rescue sequence that is reminiscent of his turn as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, with the Galadrial (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) providing back up. The scene is the obligatory foreshadowing of the events in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it makes sense and works within its context.  Unfortunately, Orlando Bloom's Legolas' presence only serves as reminder of how much better the previous series of films were. If you thought his Oliphant battle sequence in The Return of the King stretched the bounds of credulity, what he does in this film makes that sequences feels as though it were within the realm of actual physics. And, as for the shoehorned, exclusive to the films burgeoning romance between dwarven Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evageline Lilly), it would be bad enough to say that it doesn't enhance the procedings...but the most telling indictment is that it doesn't detract from it, either. Despite both actors' charms (which they do have in abundance), and their best efforts, their story is executed so superficially that it fails to make a mark. There's no emotion, no resonance, because the two are simply not given enough time in either of the last two films to make an impression. Tauriel exists only to keep the film from becoming, in crass vernacular, a sausage-fest. Whether that is purist quibbling or not, the bottom line is that to shoehorn a non-existent romance for demographic concerns show a lack of confidence in the material itself and, thus, undermines its presentation.

"Really? THIS is why I'm here?"

While the film gets a lot wrong, what it gets right, it's so RIGHT.  The film is sumptious to look at. Even more than An Unexpected Journey, the viewer gets an idea of scope and scale to Middle-Earth. Alan Lee's drawings come to life in a way that hints at the epicness of Tolkein's world. As for the battles themselves, they are something to behold. The CGI and 3D effects, somewhat disjointed in the last film, are much more streamlined, adding to the film's majesty and worthy of being seen in IMAX. Now, given a 45 minute battle run time, some (not all) skirmishes go waaaaay too long. Further, some of the battles are shot and choreographed in such a way as to be unintentionally humorous, which in turn minimizes the poignancy of some the outcomes of said battles. Nevertheless, they are on par with those in The Return of the King  though, given the rule of escalation in drama, they shouldn't be.

The three of us make for one Aragorn. Honest.

Seemingly an afterthought in the previous film, Martin Freeman makes the most of his expanded role as Bilbo Baggins. While his Bilbo's journey in the film is not as transfromative of character as in the book, Freeman's convincing performance reminds the audience that he is the film's heart and conscience. Freeman manages to make the role his own even as he maintains Ian Holm's idiosyncraces; no easy feat.  He draws you in to Bilbo's joys and inevitable pains, as much as Richard Armitage's Thorin draws you into his own "Madness of The King of the Mountain". Armitage skillfully swings from emotion to emotion with the skill of a trapeeze artist. It's a surprisingly mesmerizing turn, even if one particular sequence is emblematic of the afore said soap opera melodrama. Lee Pace's wood-elven king is as arogant as ever, but Pace deftly shows hints that there are chinks in the emotional armor, and at the film's end, there is a hint of emotional growth in the character. Nothing need be said here about Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf that hasn't been said in over a decade. He basically is that character. Special mention has to go Billy Connoly as Theorin's cousin Dain and Ryan Gage as Alfred, for bringing much needed, intentional comic relief; especially the latter, who ramps up the character's smarm and opportunistic cowardace to great effect.  One of the best actors on set, however, may be the dog who happened to look up at the camera crane as it was panning back for a long shot. Howard Shore's orchestrations give the film the urgency it requires, even if it lacks in some of the punch of his previous efforts in these series of films, Smaug excluded. Yet it compliments the film well, especially at the conclusion and denoument, wherein echoes of The Fellowship come into play. Despite some of the over-the-top elements, the performances will move you. Have a couple of tissues handy. As afore said, there are a couple of moments that capture the spirit of the novel, and one would have to be hard of heart not to be moved by them.

On it's own, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film but, ultimately, falls short of the intended mark; a victim of both it's own hubris and excesses, and in comparison to the previous installments, hampered by the very legacy it attempts to bolster. It is in turns plodding and rousing, teetering between the two extremes like a see saw, but thankfully the good outweighs the bad.  Yet for all that, one can find solace in the fact that the film's meaning stems from Martin Freeman's presentation of the virtues found in the heart of a simple Hobbit who tries to make things right. Would that Peter Jackson had remembered that instead of seeking box office riches akin to all the gold in The Lonely Mountain.