Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Year: 2014
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett

Plot: After reclaiming Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield is threatened by the same madness that drove his grandfather mad, and refuses to listen to reason as elves, men and orcs descend upon the Lonely Mountain to take its treasures.

Review: So we can finally bid goodbye to Middle Earth. Or can we? Peter Jackson has stated he wants to do more, but then again he may not.

The fact remains though, The Battle Of the Five Armies is epic as it should be, despite not running longer than the previous two Hobbit films. The battles are huge, intense and yes, even personal, as the best battles here are not the ones involving large scope and numbers, but raw one on one scraps.

As the story goes, Smaug the dragon has left Erebor and goes straight to Lake Town, where he faces off with Bard the Bowman. This leaves Thorin and his fellow dwarves to finally reclaim their home and with it, its large wealth. But with it comes a price: Thorin grows more and more paranoid that everyone around him will betray him, and outside forces will take away his home again. Meanwhile, the people of Lake Town, elven King Thranduil and a massive army of orcs come knocking at their door.

We all know Peter Jackson can do the massive epic stuff he's done five times before, so it goes without saying that as far as cinematography, visual effects, set design and other technical aspects are concerned, they all come together seamlessly to make this film as thrilling as possible. Thus, it will be the other things that matter, namely script, acting and characters that decides how well this film actually fares. In this regard, I'd say it's mostly top notch.

As in the previous trilogy, where we saw Frodo and Aragorn become the heroes they didn't think they'd become, here we see Bard, Thorin and Bilbo do the same. Luke Evans is exceptional as Bard, who becomes the reluctant hero that stands up for Lake Town against Smaug, even as we notice that he only really wants to keep his family safe and protect his fellow townsfolk. Bilbo as usual, finds the courage to do the right thing and save his friend Thorin from himself, and Martin Freeman does well in the role. However, once again it is Richard Armitage that impresses the most as Thorin, who goes from vulnerable king to determined leader of the dwarves. His final one on one fight with orc leader Azog is one to remember. Other cast members such as Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly and the men who play the dwarves (especially Aidan Turner as Kili) do their parts well too.

The film has a few hiccups though, like the annoying Alfrid, deputy to Master of Lake Town, who spends every single second of his screen time being a useless jerk, or the appearance of the Eagles being too brief, since they are one of the five armies after all.

But after all's been said and done, this film is truly a fitting end to the Middle Earth saga, with a couple of nods that connect it to the LOTR trilogy before it. Jackson and company have done a great job indeed, and it does make me want to revisit LOTR all over again. (8/10)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gone Girl

Year: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Neil Patrick Harris

Plot: When a man's wife disappears, the resulting media reaction turns his life upside down and he suddenly becomes a suspect. But there is more to it than meets the eye.

Review: This film reminded me of a repeated line from Hugh Laurie's Dr House: Everybody lies.

But to David Fincher's credit, Gone Girl is a lot more than a mystery and more than just about people lying. Based on Gillian Flynn's novel which she also adapted for the screen here, Gone Girl shows how the power of media and public perception can play a key role in determining if someone is innocent or guilty. Basically speaking, if it looks bad, it's gonna be bad, and vice versa.

The story begins with Nick Dunne, who comes home one day and finds his wife missing, with signs of a struggle in his living room. The police check it out, and upon further investigation, they and the audience discover that Nick isn't a stand up guy that we're supposed to believe. Then halfway through, Fincher and Flynn throw a twist into the story and changes the status quo. It gets more twisted as more facts are revealed, and that's all part of the appeal.

Fincher wisely keeps the story moving and making every scene count, so that despite its 149 minute running time, you don't feel it dragging. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gives an unsettling feel throughout (another wise choice by Fincher for using them again) and Donald Graham Burt's production design adds to it with its dark and mostly dim lighting in every scene. 

Ben Affleck puts in a subdued but effective performance as Nick, whom we suspect isn't as good as we'd like to believe, but eventually sympathise with. Rosamund Pike is perfect as the missing wife Amy, who seems like the perfect woman, but is holding a ton of secrets of her own. Pike isn't the best actress there is out there, but her acting style is actually perfect for the role she got here, and deserves plenty of credit for it. The supporting cast are also solid, with Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's former lover, Tyler Perry as Nick's lawyer and Kim Dickens as Detective Boney all putting in sterling work.

Now, despite its near flawless storytelling, Fincher once again moves a tad too fast at times, switching from one scene to the next quickly or not allowing a scene to stay a few seconds longer for dramatic impact. He did this before in The Social Network, Zodiac and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, though to be fair, it's less noticeable here. And without giving anything away, I felt that the biggest lie in this whole story isn't as perfect as the filmmakers would have you believe. It can be explained if someone looked much closer.

That being said, Gone Girl is still undeniably a solid film all around. Back to what I said above: everybody lies. Here, we ask ourselves: how good are they at lying? Recommended. (8/10)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Penguins Of Madagascar

Year: 2014
Directors: Eric Darnell & Simon J Smith
Voice cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich

Plot: The penguins face off against Dave the octopus, who wants revenge against them for stealing his spotlight at the zoo many years ago.

Review: The penguins from the Madagascar films finally get their own movie. Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private return in their very own adventure after proving they're worthy of it in pretty much every Madagascar film so far.

In this film, the penguins break into Fort Knox to celebrate Private's birthday, only to run into the tentacles of Dave, an octopus who is bitter over losing his spotlight at the zoo to them when they arrived. Now he plans to not only destroy them, but all penguins around the world as well. Then, a clandestine group of animals called the North Wind blows in, who aim to protect all animals and plan to stop Dave, preferably without the penguins' interference.

Credit should be given to directors Simon J Smith and Eric Darnell for coming up with a mostly witty and fast paced film, which is largely helped by a sharp script from writers John Aboud, Brandon Sawyer and Michael Colton. Watching the penguins get themselves repeatedly in and out of trouble, mostly by not having a plan is downright fun. The opening sequence featuring how Private was born and joins the group is cool too. The action sequences are also well thought out and executed, the best being a chase through Venice between the penguins and Dave's goons. Speaking of Dave, the writers manage to execute some solid comedy by having famous actors' names in his speech (for example: Nicolas, Cage them!). There's plenty more you can find later on. Kudos also to John Malkovich for his great voice work here (they even made the octopus look like him).

The film however starts to slow down in the final stretch as the plot gets thinner and the laughs start to slow down a bit. The North Wind animals themselves aren't that interesting to begin with, save for Agent Classified, the dog voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film's last third is partially saved by the drama involving Private's desire to be a more crucial member of the quartet, after being dismissed frequently by Skipper. 

At this point, I don't know if the penguins deserve a sequel, but if they can come up with a good script that can sustain itself all the way to the end next time, I'm all for it. For now, Penguins Of Madagascar is entertaining enough to spend 90 minutes on. (7/10)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay - Part 1

Year: 2014
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin

Plot: After the destruction of District 12 courtesy of President Snow, Katniss Everdeen resides in the underground base of District 13, where its leader, President Alma Coin plans a rebellion using Katniss as their weapon. Snow on the other hand uses Peeta Mellark as his weapon to quell the rebellion across Panem.

Review: If the first two instalments of the Hunger Games films focused on survival, Katniss' in particular, this film takes an entirely different route by focusing on politics. This unfortunately makes Mockingjay Part 1 the weakest instalment so far.

This film spends three quarters of its runtime showing Katniss' preparation and eventual execution of anti-Capitol propaganda to fuel the rebels' cause, all at the behest of Alma Coin, leader of District 13. Supposedly staying true to the book, director Francis Lawrence shows Katniss recording and filming anti-government propaganda to broadcast to the other districts, in hope of getting them to stand up and fight back. As usual, Katniss needs some coercing as she is more concerned with Peeta's welfare, and she isn't used to becoming a hero for the people.

The problem is Francis spends so much time on Katniss and the propaganda stuff that the film drags, and there isn't much room for anything else. One feels that this particular book didn't need to be split into two films, and this is just a cash grab for the studios. There were many things here that could be shortened or left out, and certain minor characters like Effie Trinket could have been excised completely as well.

Cast wise, other than Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore and Liam Hemsworth, the rest of the cast would be lucky if they had ten minutes of screen time, give or take. Jennifer is once again on point here as Katniss, though she has too little to offer here other than looking distraught most of the time. It's not Jennifer's fault, it's the script, so kudos to her for making the character work even in these conditions. Hemsworth gets the chance to step up here, now that Josh Hutcherson gets much less focus surprisingly, but his character Gale has always been rather bland, and that hasn't changed. The rest of them get too little to do unfortunately, despite having certain moments to shine. If you blinked, you'd miss Jena Malone. Poor girl.

Another thing that bothered me was the whole propaganda thing. In the past, using Katniss' relationship with Peeta, whether it was real or not, as a tool for their survival was something we can believe in. But here, they actually have a film crew led by Game Of Thrones' Natalie Dormer follow Katniss around to record her activities and speeches to broadcast to the people. I know this happened in the books, sure, but does this actually work on screen? After everything that happened in the first two films, is it necessary to continue fueling the people's hopes to fight back? It is as if everything Snow does is forgotten so easily, that Katniss has to remind them who the enemy is. The scene where she records a message for the first time at Plutarch Heavensbee's direction was laughable and not in a good way. Maybe they were trying to make the audience laugh but seriously, that didn't feel right at all.

The worst part is, we have to wait a full year before we can end this once and for all. Thanks to Francis, who at least gave the audience a well directed final 15 minutes of this instalment, my excitement is somewhat stoked to see this to the end next year. If only there was more to write about Part 1, in a good way I mean. (6/10)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Drop

Year: 2014
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Cast: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts

Plot: Bob Saginowski, a bartender at a drop bar i.e. a bar where criminals drop off their money for laundering, finds himself in a bad situation when the bar is robbed and the owner, a Chechen gangster, wants it back. He also faces aggravation from another thug over a dog he saved from a garbage bin.

Review: If you're expecting a crime thriller walking into The Drop, you may be a tad disappointed, like I was. Instead, it's more of a character study on one Bob Saginowski.

Bob is a bartender at a place run by his cousin Marv, which happens to be a drop bar, where criminals drop off their money for laundering. One night, the bar gets robbed, which angers the Chechen mobster who owns the place. Marv himself isn't too fond of the boss, since the place used to be his. The other subplot involves Bob's relationship with Nadia, a waitress whom he meets after rescuing a dog outside her house. Her former boyfriend Eric is a thug, who threatens Bob over the dog which he claims is his.

The marketing for this film might have you think that this is a slow burn crime thriller, but it's not. The focus is mostly on Bob, who seems like a regular guy, nice with a simpleton's personality. Director Michael R. Roskam does a good job with cinematography and sets, showing the lower side of Brooklyn during winter, through their dark alleys and cold streets. It's the kind of film small time criminals and the blue collar society can easily relate to.

Tom Hardy is the star here, playing Bob as a quiet, unassuming man that runs Cousin Marv's bar. With Hardy, you'll always notice the quiet intensity painted on his face, and he uses it well here. On the surface, Bob seems harmless, and it's clear Hardy wants you to believe that, at least until near the end. The late James Gandolfini puts in a solid final performance as Marv, the guy who still believes he's the man everyone fears, but obviously isn't anymore. Noomi Rapace plays off of Hardy quite well as Nadia, but doesn't quite convince me in being a waitress from Brooklyn. Matthias Schoenarts is impressive as Eric, being the kind of guy you would be afraid of running into on the street.

The fact that this is a character study makes The Drop a little taxing to sit through. Maybe Dennis Lehane's original story is genuinely tense on paper, but not so here. Those expecting something to happen every now and then throughout the film may find this dull. As good as it was seeing Hardy and Gandolfini on screen, I wanted more tension. It only reaches its peak in the final 15 minutes, but in retrospect I understand the long wait. Overall the film almost feels like a TV movie, and it deserves better.

The Drop may have missed its mark a little for me, but thanks to Hardy and Gandolfini, the film is worth checking out once. (7/10) 


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