Thursday, December 27, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Red Dawn, The Collection, Life Of Pi

Wow, for the second year in a row this has been another horrible holiday movie season. Hollywood generally saves their big-budget tent pole pictures for May and December, but they definitely dropped the ball again this winter. There's seriously very, very little worth seeing in the theaters right now unless you're a six year old. If you're an adult then it's slim pickins indeed.

SPOILERS AHOY!


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The long-awaited prequel to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

I have to admit I was more than a little apprehensive about this film, as lots of red flags and warning signs popped up in the days before it premiered. Fortunately most of my fears were unfounded and The Hobbit  (so far) is a worthy successor to the original trilogy of films.

The film took a tortuous route to the screen, almost as perilous as that of Bilbo himself. Peter Jackson originally didn't want to direct another series of Middle-earth movies due to the mental and physical toll involved, so he tapped friend and fellow filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to direct. Then MGM Studios, which owned the rights to The Hobbit, went bankrupt, causing extensive delays in the production. Del Toro was reportedly frustrated by these endless delays and dropped out. Once the MGM problems were ironed out, Jackson reluctantly agreed to helm the films once again, to the relief of fans everywhere.

Then there was the matter of them expanding the story from two movies to three. As I stated in an earlier post, I couldn't see any way anyone could stretch the slim 320 page story of The Hobbit into three movies. I thought two films was pushing it, but three? 

It was very obviously a cash grab on the part of the studio and I was afraid the story would feel bloated. Fortunately that isn't the case. I'm not sure how they did it, but I was never once bored with the film and it never felt stretched or padded. It's still a blatant cash grab, make no mistake about that, but at least it's not a bloated blatant cash grab.

Lastly, I was a bit worried that Jackson was not only filming this new trilogy in the dreaded 3D, but at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24. He's going around proudly trumpeting this new process as a revolution in filmmaking, delivering never-before-seen realism. This HFR (high frame rate) process seems to be quite divisive, with half the people who've seen it saying it's the wonder of the ages while the other half say it makes the movie look like a cheap videotaped soap opera. 

Whether this is true or not I can't say, as I saw the film in plain old enjoyable 24 frames per second 2D. I'm mildly curious to see how the HFR version looks, but not enough to plunk down $15 - $20 to see it. Plus the nearest theater playing the HFR version is at least two hours away, so it's a moot point.

One more thing: the news is full of reports about how this first installment of The Hobbit has smashed box office records and raked in more money than any film released in December. Plus as of the end of the year its worldwide gross is over $680 million. To that I say "big deal." 

These results are meaningless when viewed as records. This is an old, old refrain, but I'll say it once again: Of course it made more than any other movie ever-- because ticket prices are higher than they've ever been. And all the various 3D and IMAX and HFR versions cost more per ticket, artificially inflating the box office take even more. And next year some other movie will come out and make even more money, because ticket prices will be even higher. 

I know it'll never happen, but I wish Hollywood would stop measuring a film's success by how much money it makes. The number of tickets sold would be a much more accurate yardstick of popularity and success. Butts in seats, guys. That's what should count.

The Plot:
Decades before The Lord Of The Rings, Bilbo Baggins is visited by Gandalf and a posse of dwarves who hire him to accompany them on an adventure. 

Pros:
• Whoever decided to make each of the thirteen dwarves look as different as possible is a damn genius and deserves a raise. In the book the dwarves are all pretty much interchangeable. The only difference between any of them are their names and the color of their beards and hoods.

Giving each dwarf his own distinct look greatly helps to tell them all apart (although I still don't think I could identify all thirteen of them by name). 

• Martin Freeman did an excellent job as young Bilbo, echoing Ian Holm's older version perfectly. It was nice to have Gandalf the Grey back as well, before he became the more serious Gandalf the White.

• Many fans complained that the Radigast the Brown character (one of Gandalf's fellow wizards) strayed too closely into Jar Jar Binks over-the-top annoying sidekick territory. For the record I didn't mind the character at all, as I'm a big fan of actor Sylvester McCoy. I could have done without the bird poop cascading down the side of his head though.

• The film has quite a bit more humor in it than the previous trilogy, which I welcomed. Some have complained about this more lighthearted tone, apparently not realizing it's part of the source material. The Hobbit is geared much more towards kids than The Lord Of The Rings.

• Visually the film is spectacular, even more so than the earlier movies. It doesn't always look real exactly, but it always looks great.

• It was great to have Christopher Lee back as Saruman. For a while it looked like he might not be able to participate in the film, as Lee is now twelve years older and didn't think he could survive another 27 hour flight to New Zealand. Luckily Jackson figured out a way to film Lee's scenes in front of a green screen in England and include him after all.

Cons:
• The little prologue featuring Elijah Wood as Frodo felt completely superfluous to me. It seemed like a weak attempt to tie the two trilogies together and to help the dimmer members of the audience to realize the films all take place in the same universe. 

• Another lame attempt at linking the two stories: The Frodo prologue occurs on the day of Bilbo's eleventy-hundredth birthday party, as seen in The Fellowship Of The Ring. Was it absolutely necessary for it to occur on that day? It made it all seem a little too coincidental.

• One last beating of the dead horse that is the prologue: it turns The Hobbit into a flashback story, my absolute least favorite form of narrative. The film starts out in the time frame of Lord Of The Rings, and Bilbo narrates events that happened to him sixty years ago. So viewers new to the material will know that no matter what happens to him during The Hobbit, we know he has to survive in order to tell the tale in the future. This was not a problem in the book, as it was published before Lord Of The Rings, and is another example of why you should film sagas in their proper order (I'm lookin' at you, George Lucas).

• Can't say I'm a fan of all the songs in the film. Yes, I know they're a big part of the books, and I hate them there as well. Every time I read any of the books I usually skip over all the various songs and poems. I wonder if that's how they're going to pad out the story into three films-- by including all the musical numbers?

• I really liked the "Riddles In The Dark" scene between Bilbo and Gollum, but found it odd that they left out many of the riddles. There were ten riddles in the book, but only six made it into the actual movie. Odd that they'd leave out any of them, considering they're trying to stretch this short story into three films. Maybe they felt the audience would lose patience with the riddle game if they included all ten?


• Not really a con I suppose, but an observation. As I mentioned earlier, I thought it was genius to give each of the thirteen dwarves an individual look. That said, there's the matter of Kili, the dwarf played by Aidan Turner of Being Human fame. For the film, Kili has become the "hot" dwarf. No long scruffy beard, portly shape or bulbous nose for him! Nope, Kili's the world's first heartthrob dwarf, looking far more human and attractive than any of this comrades, and is obviously there as a Legolas substitute to help draw women and tween girls to the theater in droves.

Kili is supposed to be the youngest of the thirteen dwarves, so I suppose you could justify his appearance by saying dwarves "ugly up" as they age. I suppose you could say that, but why should you have to?

• There's some unfortunate duplication of certain scenes and actions from The Fellowship Of The Ring. For example, after Bilbo finds the One Ring, he slips and lands on his back and the Ring falls right onto his outstretched finger, just as it did to Frodo in TFOTR. Surely there was a better, different way to get the ring onto his finger? 

Later when the entire company is trapped at the top of a tree, Gandalf catches a moth and whispers to it, which apparently relays his message to a flock of eagles who rescue them, pretty much exactly as it happened in TFOTR. Yes, I realize the eagle rescue is in the book, but the moth part isn't, and they should have come up with another way to bring the eagles into the story.

• After the eagles rescue the party, they drop them off on top of a hill and the dwarves look off into the distance at the Lonely Mountain. This is their destination and it appears to be fifty miles away at best. Many viewers have wondered why the eagles didn't just carry them all the way to the mountain and be done with it.

It's a valid question, and one that's answered in the book. In the book, the eagles can talk, and say they didn't mind rescuing them from the goblins, but they won't fly them anywhere near civilization for fear of being shot at by nervous farmers. So there you go. Would it have killed the filmmakers to have included that seemingly important explanation in the movie? The running time is already well over two and a half hours, would an extra thirty seconds really be a deal breaker at that point?

A worthy successor (and prequel!) to The Lord Of The Rings movies. I give it an A-.


Red Dawn
I was never a fan of the original 1984 film; it was a little too jingoistic and improbable for me. Plus it was a frustratingly low budget affair-- they couldn't afford to depict an actual war taking place on American soil, so instead they showed us teens huddled around a radio listening to reports of the battle. Yawn.

So when I heard there was going to be a remake, I had moderate hopes that it would correct the problems with the original. Unfortunately that didn't happen. The new movie is just as bad as the first, if not worse. I'm beginning to think this is just a terrible plot overall and it'll never make a good film.


This film also had a troubled journey to the screen-- it was filmed way back in 2009 but shelved in 2010 due to MGM's financial woes, before finally being released in 2012. Maybe they shouldn't have bothered.   


Much has been made in the press about the fact that the remake originally featured a Chinese invasion of America. At the last minute the powers-that-be decided to change the invaders to North Koreans (in order to insure a healthy Chinese box office!). To that end, they delayed the release of the film so they could digitally change all the Chinese insignia and signage to Korean. Good. The last thing we need right now is to piss off China. 


The Plot: 

North Korea invades the good ol' US of A. A group of high school kids, led by a marine on leave, fight back. Improbable plot points ensue.

Pros:

• Um... better special effects of the invasion, I guess. 

• The shocking and unexpected death of a main character.


Seriously, that's all I got.


Cons:

• Really obnoxious (is there any other kind?) and blatant Subway product placement.

• The two main characters, Jed and Matt, are supposed to be brothers, but they look about as much alike as Jet Li and I do. Surely they could have found a kid somewhere in Hollywood who looked a little like Chris Hemsworth? I realize this is a pretty minor quibble in a film with much bigger problems, but it bugged me all through the movie.

• Jed the Marine molds a bunch of high school kids into a crack guerrilla squad through the power of the most cliched and laughable montage imaginable. It's just that easy, folks!


• All through the movie Jed yells at Matt for acting irresponsibly and jeopardizing the mission. Near the end Matt finally impresses him, and he tells him he's proud of him. Seconds later Jed's killed and in the space of five seconds, high school student Matt steps up and becomes the new leader of the guerrilla movement, proving just as competent and inspiring as his Marine brother ever was. Unlikely.


• Part of the North Korean's plan involves detonating an electromagnetic pulse above the US to knock out all our electronic and communication devices, making the country easier to conquer. The enemy has a special EMP-protected radio so they can continue to coordinate their forces. Um... that's all well and good, but an EMP doesn't just knock out electronic gear like radios and phones. It also disables vehicles like jeeps, tanks and planes. And an EMP doesn't discriminate. Wouldn't it render everything useless on both sides? It doesn't seem like they thought their plan all the way through.


• Like its predecessor this is another "Open-Ended" movie. The filmmakers know they can't credibly depict a group of high school kids successfully repelling an invasion by the entire North Korean Army, so the film simply ends. A voiceover by Matt tells us the resistance movement is growing in numbers and momentum and he's confident they'll be successful in defeating the enemy. Whether that actually happens or not is apparently none of our concern as the house lights come up and the ushers start sweeping between the seats.


A substandard remake of a mediocre movie. I give it a D.


The Collection 
I can't imagine anyone anywhere out there was asking for a sequel to 2009's The Collector, but here it is.

The first film had an interesting premise: A two-bit thief breaks into a wealthy family's home only to discover someone far worse is already inside. The family's being held captive by a serial killer who's rigged the house up with ingenious (and physically impossible) Goldbergian traps. The thief is now trapped inside as well and has to decide whether to fend for himself or help the family escape from the clutches of The Collector.


As I said, an interesting premise, but it was marred by substandard acting, writing and directing. It felt for all the world like a SyFy Channel movie that was released to theaters by mistake.


The sequel is a little better, but that's damning it with faint praise to say the least.


When I saw the first film a few years back I got the feeling the producers were trying really really hard to come up with a new slasher movie icon, ala Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. Looks like I was right-- once again they're practically spraining a hamstring trying to sell The Collector character to the audience. It would not surprise me if there was a third (or even fourth) film in the series.


I still insist that these films are in fact sequels to the Home Alone movies, and that the Collector is actually young Kevin McCallister all grown up and still constructing elaborate and ingenious death traps. 

The Plot:

Arkin, the thief who was captured by The Collector in the first film, finally manages to escape from his clutches. While recovering in the hospital he's offered a deal: the daughter of a prominent businessman has been captured by the Collector. If Arkin helps the police find her, he'll receive a full pardon for his former crimes. He agrees and reluctantly reenters The Collector's creepy booby-trapped "playground".

Pros:

• Elana and Arkin actually seem to have a little bit of brains and don't act like complete idiots, as most characters in these types of movies do. Arkin's plan to fire out a window and wound a bystander outside The Collector's headquarters in order to attract the police was pretty smart, and it actually worked. 

Cons:

• At the end of the first movie The Collector stuffed Arkin in a large trunk. At the beginning of this movie Arkin escapes from said trunk. I have to assume that this film takes place just a few days after the first (and not in real time) or else Arkin spent three very cramped years inside that trunk!

• Substandard digital gore effects. Hey producers, CGI fake blood doesn't look as good as real fake blood!


• As I mentioned in the plot description, Elana is the daughter of a wealthy businessman. He somehow not only persuades the police to drop what they're doing and rescue her, but to issue a full pardon to the one criminal who can help them. He must be a powerful businessman indeed!

• I didn't understand that Elana was wearing a hearing aid until about two thirds of the way into the film. I thought she was wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. Not sure if this was due to dullness on my part or bad direction.


• What the hell was the point of the spider scene? Elena escapes from her trunk seconds before The Collector returns to his lab. He notices she's gone, apparently assumes she's hiding somewhere in the room, so he lets loose several large tarantulas, I guess in an effort to flush her out. 


The spiders crawl all over Elana as she's hiding but she stays still and quiet. The Collector apparently decides he can't be bothered to, you know, actually look under the only table in the room, and leaves. Wow, that was a worthwhile scene! The only reason I can think of for the existence of the entire sequence is to show scary spiders crawling on a pretty girl's face.

• The Collector's nightmarish headquarters is located in an abandoned hotel on the edge of town. It appears he's been living and "collecting" here for years and years, but laughably has gone completely undiscovered. Did no one ever once notice him coming and going or dragging heavy equipment inside? Does he pay the monthly utility bill? Do no building inspectors ever visit the area? Does he mail in the property taxes twice a year? These secret abandoned hideouts are standard for these types of movies, but never make any sense if you think about them for more than ten seconds.


Better than the first one, but far from a masterpiece. I give it a C-.


Life Of Pi
Based on the 2001 novel of the same name.

Most film critics are in love with this picture, but I was largely immune to its charms. Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it, I don't know. It's not a bad film but it features two of my least favorite narrative devices: the Flashback and the Vague Ending.


I hate flashback movies. Absolutely hate them. Always have, always will. When a character starts telling us about something that happened to him in the past, then it's impossible to generate any tension or suspense. That's exactly what happens here. The movie opens with Middle Aged Pi telling a writer the story of his life. From the very first frame we then know he survives his harrowing ordeal, so why are we watching?


At the end of the film, Pi asks the writer what he thinks of his story. The Writer is polite and doesn't say, "What a load of bullish•t." Instead he says, "It's a lot to take in." Pi then admits that it may not have happened quite that way. 


Instead of being marooned on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger, Pi may have been on the boat with an injured sailor, his mother, and a cook played by the always repulsive Gerard Depardieu. In other words, the tiger version of the story may have been just that: a story. The movie hints that the tiger version really happened, but it's all very vague, which absolutely infuriated me. If it didn't happen that way, if it "was all a dream" so to speak, then why the hell did I just waste two plus hours watching it? 

There's a good movie buried in there somewhere if you could somehow separate it from its awful framing structure and ending.

I also don't understand the Time Magazine quote on this version of the poster. "The Next "Avatar?" This movie is absolutely nothing like Avatar in any measurable sense. Story-wise they have nothing in common and Life of Pi does nothing to push the technical and visual envelopes the way Avatar did. I suppose technically they were both shot with some sort of cameras, starred actors playing roles and were presented in theaters, but other than that I don't see any similarities.

The Plot:

Pi Patel is a young Indian boy whose family owns a zoo and who is intensely interested in religion. His family decides to immigrate to Canada. On the way their ship sinks and Pi is marooned at sea in a lifeboat... with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (don't ask).

Pros:

• The film is visually stunning at times, I'll give it that. 

• The boy vs. tiger story is actually quite compelling. More than once I wondered what I would do in such a hopeless and dangerous situation. Too bad it's surrounded by so much unnecessary drivel.


Cons:

• Rafe Spall (whoever that is) plays The Writer, and a more annoying character I can't remember seeing for many a long year. His wimpy demeanor and over the top earnestness just made me want to punch his insipid face every time he appeared onscreen. Supposedly Toby Maguire originally played The Writer, but at the last minute director Ang Lee cut his scenes and refilmed them with Spall. Too bad. 

• Obnoxious use of 3D. I saw the film in 2D or course, since I loathe 3D with a white hot passion, but even in 2D the three dimensional "tricks" were obvious and intrusive. At one point the aspect ratio of the film even changes so Pi can thrust a spear "out of the screen" at the audience. It will be a red letter day indeed when 3D finally goes away (and I do believe it eventually will disappear).


• The flashback structure wrings any possibility of tension or suspense from the script. It's tough to work up much concern for young Pi's plight when Old Pi is telling the story.


• The vague ending is infuriating, torpedoes any good will the film generated and made me wonder why I wasted my time watching it in the first place.


A visually impressive film with a compelling core story that's unfortunately marred by a poorly constructed script. I give it a B-.

2 comments:

  1. I love the movie Life of Pi. It has a very inspiring story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I liked the core story, but as I stated I hated the structure, i.e. the flashback and vague ending.

    ReplyDelete

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