Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

“DOCTOR STRANGE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Marvel universe, but stranger.

It’s so hard to be unique in the day and age of the modern superhero epic. We’re relatively familiar with the formula by now. Guy X gets superpowers, Guy X goes through training to learn how to use powers, Guy X meets Guy Y who becomes his arch nemesis, both Guys have epic fight where Guy X wins and ultimately accepts his superhero destiny. In just one sentence, I’ve more or less named the outline of multiple superhero movies, from Superman all the way to The Avengers. And make no mistake: this is the exact same outline for Doctor Strange as well.

This much is how Doctor Strange is similar to its superheroic peers. Where it’s different is in its execution, in how it handles its title character not as a larger-than-life action hero, but as a man, fatally egotistical, selfish, eccentric, ignorant, and most of all, flawed. This is not a guy who wraps a cape around himself and fights for truth, justice, and the American way. This is the guy who looks at the cape and scoffs, asking why he should put it on if it looks so ridiculous on him.

Perhaps his flaws are exactly why we relate to Stephen Strange as much as we do in the film. In Iron Man, Tony Stark was a war profiteer and shameless opportunist who repented of his ways once he realized the repercussions of his actions. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne was a broken and resentful young man bent on revenge before realizing that it would only sink him into a deeper, darker place. For Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the brilliant surgeon who is as thick-headed and self-centered as he is skilled and talented. Great doctor. Awful person.

This is all before Strange gets into a devastating car crash that crushes his hands and permanently damages the nerves in them, removing his ability to be a doctor. He spends all of his time and money to repair his hands, only to come up short in every direction he turns. His last ditch effort is to visit a monk called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Nepal, who has helped individuals with impossible recoveries from all around the world. What Strange doesn’t realize is that he’s about the be flung into a world full of sorcery and supernatural forces, and he’s somehow at the heart of it all.

First things first: the visual effects. I know they’re usually my first positive point of mention in most superhero movies, even in bad ones like Batman V. Superman. But Doctor Strange is on a visual caliber on a whole another level. In an early action sequence, sorcerers are shifting buildings, roads, architectures all around them, all while whipping out weapons and kung-fu fighting each other on constantly shifting walls, pillars, windows, ledges, and walkways. In a later scene, Strange is thrown through the multiverse, a constantly-shifting panorama of space that looks like you’re looking through the lens of a kaleidoscope. In most superhero movies, the visual appeal comes from the action scenes and how explosively people can punch or throw each other. But in Doctor Strange, the appeal is in the scenery surrounding Strange, how the sorcerers interact with environments, and how they affect the upside-down, wayward fights that are so mindbogglingly perplexing. Not since Avatar or Inception have the visuals been so sensory that they felt more like an out-of-body experience rather than a cinematic one.

But the visual effects are not the only impressive thing with this film: its also in how they are used. Director Scott Derrickson, who before this has made the equally atmospheric Sinister, smartly uses the visuals not for blockbuster spectacle, but as advancement for the story. In most action movies, the film usually builds up to some action-packed, destructive, prolonged fight that ends with a lot of property damage and civilian casualties. That is what most gripes were with 2013’s Man of Steel, at least. But here, the climax doesn’t involve destroying a city block, but rather trying to save one, as well as the many lives that are on it. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, but in an entertainment industry that celebrates violence and killing, it’s nice to see a movie that is the antithesis of that, and looks for a smarter, more thoughtful conclusion rather than the more adrenaline-fueled one.

The cast is on par with the rest of the film’s spectacle. Swinton is fierce yet serene as the Ancient One, a mentor figure that isn’t as innocent and angelic as she may appear. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a companion of Strange’s named Mordo, and while most movie sidekicks are passionate loyalists who could never betray their beloved hero, Mordo here has his own motivations and reasonings that make him a complex, fascinating character in his own right. And Mads Mikkelsen portrays the movie’s villain, and while he is slightly typecast, he at least plays the role with passion and intimidation, making him one of the more memorable recent villains in the Marvel universe.

But the most impressive performance is easily Benedict Cumberbatch’s. The more movies you watch him in, the more you see his range as an actor and how he can do different roles so well. Seeing him portray real-life figures in The Fifth Estate and The Imitation Game, then watching him embrace villainous roles in Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Hobbit movies, you wondered how exactly he was going to approach Doctor Strange as something he’s never been before: a superhero. He brings exactly to Doctor Strange what he brings with his other roles: charisma and authenticity. His American accent makes him almost unrecognizable as the good doctor, and the earnest, yet self-centered way he carries himself makes him all the more believable, making Stephen Strange feel more human rather than hero.

Rumors have been swirling around that Doctor Strange might take over for Iron Man as the new face of the MCU. After seeing this movie, I wouldn’t mind that one bit. Cumberbatch plays him as a charismatic, narcissistic, almost Shakespearean character that is regretful of his old self that looks to start anew. Cumberbatch’s performance in conjunction with the film’s writing makes Doctor Strange a very fun, relatable, and likeable character, if not a great superhero already.

Does Doctor Strange break barriers for the superhero genre? Well no, not if you’re comparing it to the likes of Captain America: Civil War, which challenges the heroes morally as it does physically. But for what Doctor Strange does do, it does well, and it stands firmly alongside its Marvel family, including the likes of Iron Man and Spider-Man. This is one doctor you won’t regret calling.

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Oscar Predictions 2014

There is no such thing as the best picture.

That’s what I keep thinking year after year when I make my Oscar predictions. Why? Because everyone has a different idea of what the best picture means.

There were many great movies that wasn’t nominated from this year that left a profound impact on the people who watched them. The Fault In Our Stars is one of those pictures. Guardians of the Galaxy filled people with as many laughs and energy as it did with tears and quivering lips. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the most liked movie of 2014 according to the Internet Movie Database. God forbid, there are people out there who even liked Inherent Vice.

My point in saying all of this is that different movies have different effects on people. It doesn’t matter what the Academy thinks is the best picture: it matters what you think is the best picture to you.

Regardless, the Oscars are unfortunately still a thing. With the 87th Academy Awards coming up in a few weeks, people are going to be scrambling to guess who is going to win which awards this year. Here are the movies I think are going to win big this year at the Oscars:

Best Picture: The big category. Good God, how do you predict this one? Boyhood and Birdman have been at each other’s throats since the beginning of awards season. Since Boyhood‘s best picture win at the Golden Globes, it at first seemed like the frontrunner for best picture. Since then, however, Birdman has gone on to win the Screen Actors Guild award for best overall cast, the Directors Guild of America award for best feature and the Producers Guild Awards award for best picture. At this point, Birdman would be most poised to win the award, and it would be wise to opt for it.

Best Director: The nominee most deserving of this award is Richard Linklater for following with his passion project 12 years straight for Boyhood, a wonderfully ambitious project that shows the joys and heartbreaks alike of growing up. Unfortunately, Linklater didn’t win the DGA award for best director. The Oscar, then, is going to go to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Birdman, which was an innovative, creative, and darkly clever film in it’s own right. Neither filmmaker is a bad nomination, as both of them delivered the most unique and memorable pictures of the year. The award can only go to one of them, but both Linklater and Inarritu are undeniably the best filmmakers of the year.

Best Actor: Another close one. Which is it going to be: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything or Michael Keaton for Birdman? Redmayne has the Screen Actors Guild award and the Golden Globe for best actor. Keaton also has a Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for best overall cast. So who’s going to take it? Redmayne or Keaton? My bet is on Redmayne, but don’t be surprised if either actor takes home the award. This is going to be a close one.

On that note, honorable mention to Benedict Cumberbatch for his brilliant, heartbreaking, passionate, intelligent, and wonderfully unique performance as physicist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. You sir gave the best performance of the year, and are most deserving of the Oscar for best actor this year. Unfortunately, the Oscars is not a game of talent. It’s a game of politics.

Best Actress: Everyone (including myself) has been praising Rosamund Pike’s work in Gone Girl and has been saying that she deserves this award most. The charts don’t lie, however, and Julianne Moore has won award after award for her heartbreaking performance as a mother suffering from early onset alzheimer’s in Still Alice. She’s locked for the award. Don’t bet on anyone else except her.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. If you have any objections to that, you haven’t seen the movie.

Best Supporting Actress: It takes a lot of dedication not only to play the role of an aging mother losing her children to adulthood, but to return to that role year after year for 12 years straight. The award for best supporting actress rightfully goes to Patricia Arquette for her stunning decade-long performance that she melted so wonderfully into year after year in Boyhood. It will be a huge upset if she doesn’t get the award.

Best Original Screenplay: This year was borderline impossible to make a clear prediction of who was going to win in the best original screenplay category. First, critics predicted it would be Boyhood due to it’s massive popularity in the best picture race. Then, people switched sides and said Wes Anderson would win for The Grand Budapest HotelBirdman won the Golden Globe and a slew of other state critics awards. Since I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the WGA’s next week to claim which is the best screenplay of the year, I’m going with the only nomination that has the physical accolades to back up their nomination: Birdman is going to win best original screenplay. 

Side Note: I will never cease to get angry at the Academy for profusely snubbing Christopher Nolan multiple times. If Interstellar was not deemed one of the best movies of the year, it definitely is considered one of the best stories of the year. Nolan deserved a nomination in this category, but like all other the Oscar ceremonies, he got snubbed because he’s Christopher Nolan. Typical.

Best Adapted Screenplay: This category is messed up from the start, because how in God’s name is Whiplash considered an adapted screenplay? I get it that it was first made into a short film before a feature release, thank you for pointing that out Academy. That doesn’t change the fact that it was an original idea conceived by Damien Chazelle, and that both properties were projects that he worked on. Whiplash was, in every definition, an original work. To put it in the adapted category is pish posh.

On that note, Graham Moore’s The Imitation Game IS an adapted work, and it so wonderfully brings interest and awareness to this secretive story that only a few have known about for quite some time. The Imitation Game is most poised to take home the best adapted screenplay award, unless Whiplash snabs it from them first. 

Another side note: Did the Academy just work to have the worst nominations in this category this year? Is there seriously nothing for The Fault In Our Stars? Nothing for Gone Girl? Shoot, I’d even take a nomination for Guardians of the Galaxy over the confusing Inherent Vice and insipid Theory of Everything. These awards should not be nominated for the Academy’s opinion, but rather, on the impact these films have had on the public. All of the films I’ve mentioned above were movies the public had very strong reactions to, and each of them deserve nominations over the other films recognized. This is the Oscar category I am most frustrated with this year.

Best Animated Feature: Let’s get over the frustration that The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for just one second, shall we? The biggest competition is between Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Dreamwork’s How To Train Your Dragon 2. Since How To Train Your Dragon 2 has won the Golden Globe, the Annie Award, and the National Board of Review for best animated feature of the year, the best bet is on that film. It is the best animated film of the year, and matches it’s predecessor in almost every way. If it does win, it is a very deserving one.

On that note, shame on you Academy for taking out The Lego Movie. Everything is not awesome for you.

Best Documentary Feature: Were Steve James’ wonderful documentary Life Itself on film critic Roger Ebert’s life nominated, it might have posed a challenge to the frontrunner for this category. Since it isn’t however, the award is most poised for Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, a documentary about Poitras’ investigation in U.S. surveillance programs until her research brings her face-to-face with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Keep this one on your radar, folks. This is one of those films that needs to be sought out.

Best Foreign-Language Film: The Academy loves movies that are not only politically challenging, but are also based around events surrounding World War II. The frontrunner, then, is Ida, a polish film about a young nun who discovers a dark secret about her family from the Nazi occupation before taking her vows. Wild Tales has also been widely talked about, but don’t expect anything big from it. Ida is most positioned to win the award.

Best Film Editing: The film with the best editing of the year isn’t even nominated in this category, and that is Birdman. The shots were so seamlessly blended together in between takes that it gave off the illusion that the film was shot in one take, even though it wasn’t. The work done with Birdman is both innovative and revolutionary, and it’s flat out disrespectful that it’s not even nominated here.

The next best work is from Tom Cross on Whiplash, which editing together the film so perfectly that it gave off an heart-pounding, unnerving sensation better than most thriller’s you’d see in theaters. Neither one will win. The award will go to Boyhood for it’s compilation of 12-years worth of footage into one film, even though the editing dragged out at times and it had to handle the same amount of footage any other film would have to. Even though Boyhood is a great movie, it’s editing is average at best.

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubeski for Birdman. If he wins, he will be one of the few cinematography nominees to have won the award two years in a row. It’s not undeserved. Lubeski is a great cinematographer, and has done great work for years for films such as Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and last year’s Oscar winner Gravity. He deserves the award for cinematography if he does wins it.

Best Original Score: I waited until the last possible second to write down my prediction for this, because the nominee everyone is talking about is also the one least deserving. Alexandre Desplat has been nominated year-after-year at the Academy Awards for scoring movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, Argo, and Philomena. This year, he deserves the award the most not only for his nomination with The Imitation Game, but also with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s going to lose both of his nominations to Johann Johannssons’ The Theory of Everything, a theme that is as average, annoying, and repetitive as its movie is. I didn’t like The Theory of Everything, and I liked its music even less. But all critics and accolades point towards that movie, so that’s the one I’m begrudgingly going with.

Best Original Song: “Glory” from Selma will win and deserve this award the most. No song fills you with as much power and proclamation as this song does. It fills you with the same energy and captivation that the movie does, and it’s a shame that the film wasn’t nominated in more categories this year.

Best Costume Design: I doubt that Colleen Atwood is going to take home the award yet again for Into The Woods, despite her great track record with the Academy. My bet is on Milena Canonero for The Great Budapest Hotel, mostly because 1) The film’s costume work is as lovable and quirky as the movie itself is, and 2) She hasn’t won the award since her work with Marie Antoinette in 2006. It’s her year to win the award.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: This is such a difficult category to decide for, because what on Earth is the Academy’s criteria for this ungaudy award? A few years ago, movies like Star Trek beat out films like The Young Victoria in this category. In 2011, the boring, mundane, and insipid Iron Lady beat out Harry Potter. What is going on?! How on Earth are you supposed to predict this category when the Academy keeps flipping the standard???

If I was going off of the best makeup work out of the nominees, it’s no competition: Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, keep in mind from previous years that films have won for the exaggerated minimalist work seen from The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m keeping my bets on The Grand Budapest Hotel, but don’t be surprised if either film takes home the award.

(Post-script: The makeup work for The Iron Lady was awful.)

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel. If any film other than that wins for best production design, the Academy officially hates Wes Anderson.

Best Sound Editing: Normally, I couldn’t care less for the sound editing awards, because who has enough patience to dissect the sound bit-by-bit in each feature film? This year though, there is a frontrunner in this category that doesn’t deserve to be nominated. Great a film as it is, Interstellar has some of the worse sound editing and mixing I’ve heard in years. The music overwhelmed the dialogue at times, character’s couldn’t be heard that well at certain parts of the movie, and the sound got so loud at times that I felt like I was at a Daft Punk concert. For all of the accomplishments Interstellar has made, sound is definitely not one of them.

Unfortunately, I think Interstellar is going to be the one to take this award home. Christopher Nolan’s movies have a good track record for getting sound awards at the Oscars (Ex. The Dark Knight and Inception)and I don’t think the Academy has any intent of stopping his good run anytime soon. The film most deserving in this category is American Sniper. It’s going to Interstellar.

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash had the most impressive sound mixing out of any of the other nominees. The Oscar, however, is going to go to Interstellar. See above for my reasoning.

Best Visual Effects: I’m partial towards X-men: Days of Future Past because it had great visual effects, costuming, and set design to make not only a convincing portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future, but also to show the slow dissolution of American society in the mid-1970’s. However, Interstellar was also an amazing movie, and accomplished visual spectacles unseen since Avatar and Inception. It will win the award, and it is also the most deserving. 

And now finally, my most-dreaded predictions for the categories I never know how to predict: the shorts. Let’s play a game of Eenie-Minie-Moe, shall we?

Best Animated Short: Feast. It’s the only film out of any of these categories that I’ve seen anyway.

Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Because why not?

Best Live-Action Short: Aya? The Phone Call? Boogaloo and Graham? What kind of titles are these???

Screw it. Boogaloo and whats-it’s-face is going to get it, because reasons.

That’s all I have for now, folks. I’ll see you and Barney Stinson on Feb. 22.

– David Dunn

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The Unexpected Virtue of Being Nominated

I am never more conflicted with myself than when Oscar nominations are released. It’s the same time every single year, and every time I look at them I feel a strange combination of pride and disappointment. Of course many actors and filmmakers are nominated across the board, and most of them are well deserved. But then there are always a good amount of snubs that are equally undeserved. Example: Since when does The Fault In Our Stars, Interstellar and The Lego Movie deserve zero nominations in any of the major categories?

Snubs happen every year. I expect it at this point. But what I find particularly interesting is that this year’s ceremonies are more well-rounded in their nominations. The eight best picture nominees, for instance, are also the pictures with the most nominations in the show. I think that reflects well on the Academy, especially because the best picture award isn’t won by only being nominated for best original song.

Regardless, the nominees have been released and the Oscars race has officially begun. Here are all of the best picture nominees.

Birdman

Otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s black comedy epic stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a struggling stage actor who is desperately trying to escape his image as formerly portraying a superhero. Considering the irony that Keaton has been most known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s movies, I can’t help but think he relates more to the film than he lets on. Birdman is nominated in nine categories, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best sound editing and mixing, and best acting awards for Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A surprise standout out of the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedic escapade about Concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who is framed for the murder of one of his hotel guests and for stealing her most cherished painting. As he tries to outrun law enforcement and the family assassins that are after him, he teams up with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence. Written and directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), The Grand Budapest Hotel has already won best comedy at the Golden Globes, so it is off to a good start in the Oscars race. The film ties with Birdman with nine nominations, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best costume design, best editing, best makeup and hairstyling, best original score, and best production design.

The Imitation Game

This historical epic stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, a brilliant physicist during WWII who worked with a team to crack Enigma, a German processing machine which masks German messages through cryptographic messages. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum and also starring Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong, The Imitation Game is nominated for eight academy awards, including best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best editing, best original score, best production, best actor for Benedict Cumberbatch and best supporting actress for Keira Knightly.

American Sniper

Based on the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), American Sniper tells his story working for the U.S. military, and the 120 kills he garnered throughout his military career. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper is a late entry to the Oscars race, but it came out strong regardless. American Sniper is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best sound editing and mixing, and best actor for Bradley Cooper.

Boyhood

The 12 year epic that everyone is talking about, and the movie everyone is dying to see. Boyhood follows the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to adulthood, through puberty, love, heartache, loss, and life. Richard Linklater directs Coltrane among others through this masterfully crafted drama, filmed over the period of 12 years. Ambitious both in production and vision, Boyhood was nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best film editing, and best supporting actor and actress for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

The Theory of Everything

The fluffy, inspirational adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as King and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, and follows their relationship from college to their marriage, and covers the issues that they’ve had to face together. I personally didn’t find this film to be as imposing as the other nominees, but Redmayne’s performance and the film’s intentions are definitely something to be admired. The film is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best original score, and best actor and best actress for Redmayne and Jones.

Whiplash

One of the best under-the-radar films of the year. Whiplash follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a young college student who is enrolled in an orchestra and is working to be the best drummer there is. His teacher is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a narcissist conductor who treats his students like he is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. As their rivalrous relationship builds to a tense climax, both men learn more about themselves as artists and teachers to each other. Written and directed by independent filmmaker Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is one of the year’s most standout films. Featuring strong performances from its leads and masterful direction from Chazelle, Whiplash is nominated for best picture, best editing, best sound mixing, and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons. The movie is also nominated for best adapted screenplay, even though it’s an original idea crafted by Chazelle.

Selma

Directed by Ava Duvernay and starring David Oyewolo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma follows the civil rights movement as it builds to a climax in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The interesting thing about this film is that it only has two nominations for the evening: best picture and best original song for John Legend and Common’s “Glory.” If that is the logic behind the nominations, should Selma even be nominated for best picture? It’s more than deserving of the nomination, but it certainly isn’t great just because of the song that’s in it. Where’s the best director nomination? Best actor? Best screenplay? I feel like this movie had potential in many different categories at the Oscars, and it was snubbed for mostly all of them. It’s an utter shame to see so many great films get snubbed at the Academy Awards, and this film perhaps has been snubbed the most out of all of them.

Other films that were nominated in other categories include Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, Into The Woods, Unbroken, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. We can gripe more about which films deserved which nominations later on, but for now, let’s be excited that Barney Stinson is hosting the awards.

– David Dunn

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“THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” Review (✫✫✫)

And the Dwarf King: The Battle for Himself. 

Here it is, at last: the end of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It hasn’t arrived without it’s challenges. Originally, the series was supposed to be directed by Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro before he dropped out and let Peter Jackson hop back in the director’s chair. Then, Jackson decided to turn it from two movies into three because he wanted to “expand the story.” Then in April, he decided to retitle the third film from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies. Every indication from the production of this film has shown that the movie was going to be either the weakest entry or the most unnecessary film out of the series. Jackson, however, has overcome every obstacle in his path and made a film that is just as exciting, enduring, and memorable as any other film in the series. Jackson’s persistence is something to be admired.

Picking up after that horrible cliffhanger of an ending we got from The Desolation of Smaug, The Battle of the Five Armies opens with Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) laying waste to the village of Laketown shortly after he was set free by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). After setting the village on fire and killing many of the villagers, Bard the bowman (Luke Evans) escapes from prison, climbs the highest tower he can find, and kills the dragon with the black arrow he inherited from his father.

With Smaug dead, the dwarves have taken possession of the Lonely Mountain. However, something strange is happening to Thorin. He has become more greedy, violent, and eager to find the Arkenstone in the chamber and become the next king of the mountain. Bilbo has noticed his new attitude, and finds it disturbingly similar to that of Smaug’s personality. As tensions grow inside the mountains, things heat up with elven, eagle, orc, and human armies assembling outside of the mountains as well. Now with the four armies gathering to take the mountain from the dwarves, Thorin gathers his own dwarf (and hobbit) army to protect their inheritance and keep it from unworthy hands.

The third movie in any trilogy is always the most crucial. It either makes or breaks the series, making it just as memorable as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or as half-baked as the Matrix trilogy. Part of me wonders why they even had to make a third movie at all, and why they couldn’t just combine this with The Desolation of Smaug. That was originally the plan, after all, but I guess if they did that, they would run the risk of shoehorning two plots into one film.

Honestly though, I don’t know if it would have been that big of an issue. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies offers exactly what the title suggests: a battle which is bigger and bolder than any other fight in the Lord of the Rings movies. Yes, that includes the final siege on Sauron in Return of the King and the fight against Smaug in Desolation of Smaug. The scale and scope is bigger here than any other Lord of the Rings movie, with elves, dwarves, eagles, orcs, villagers, trolls, wizards, spirits, and a hobbit crashing, slashing, and colliding into each other like nobody’s business. This is the most action-packed Lord of the Rings movie yet, with it’s final lengthy action sequence clocking in at about over an hour.

Some of the action runs rampant and gets repetitive now and then. In one scene, for instance, Legolas the elf fights against an orc on a tumbling castle. The scene ran for well over 20 minutes, with them clashing swords and fists against each other, and I sat there wondering to myself “Why couldn’t he just trip him off and be done with it?”

But here’s the interesting thing: no matter how long the action ran, it kept me engaged. If this were a Michael Bay or a John Woo picture, the action would have ran wild and I would have gotten bored about 10 minutes into it. But Jackson is more talented than most filmmakers. He understands that in order for your audience to be invested in the action, they need to be invested in the characters first, because what’s the point of having characters go through these epic fights if you don’t care about them?

With this movie, I noticed that the character I cared most for was not Bilbo Baggins, but Thorin Oakenshield. He has the most interesting arc out of any other character in the movie, spending one half of the film fighting orcs, and the other half fighting himself. His character in the film reminds me a lot of Gollum: his conflict isn’t so much with others trying to take the things precious to him, but with himself in how the things he values most changes him. He especially serves a crucial part in the film’s final climatic battle scene, which is so nerve-wrecking and heart-pounding that it brought me just as much excitement as the climax in Return of the King did. The impressive part? Return of the King’s climax featured an entire armada of warriors, while The Battle of the Five Armies’ climax only needed two.

All in all, The Battle of the Five Armies did to The Hobbit what The Return of the King did to The Lord of the Rings: it wrapped it up nicely into a tight, satisfying conclusion, bringing excitement, emotion, and resolution to these characters that we’ve cared so much for so long now. Granted, it didn’t do as well as The Return of the King did with this, and I personally would have wished that Jackson would have made it less messy and cluttered than it already was. Does that ultimately matter, though, if I had fun watching it? Let’s just be glad that Bilbo made it there and back again in one piece.

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“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” Review (✫✫✫)

Be honest, Mr. Smaug: do you need a breath mint?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is both one of the most satisfying and maddening films of the year. It’s visually splendid, illustrating the joys and perils of the world of Middle-Earth as finely as any movie before it did. It’s emotionally versatile, being comical and lighthearted at certain moments and then treacherous and gloomy in others. The performances are sound, with CGI characters being just as memorable as the live ones. Everything in the film was perfect up until it came to it’s end, which ended on a cliffhanger so big that a slackwire artist couldn’t tightrope across it.

Taking place shortly after the events of An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the journey of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), his troop of dwarves, and the slight hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). After narrowly escaping the clutches of the white orc Azog (Manu Bennett), Bilbo and the rest of the dwarves venture on towards the Lonely Mountains, only having a few days left until the secret entrance closes, leaving them forever locked outside of the Lonely Mountains.

Bilbo, however, has greater concerns if the dwarves do manage to get inside. Deep within the twisty lairs of the mountain lies an endless sea of gold and jewels, and asleep among these riches is the vicious Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a violent, terrifying dragon that formerly laid waste to the dwarves’ land and took their possessions all for himself. If the company does manage to get inside the mountains, Smaug will be waiting there for Bilbo, and there will be a massive conflict between the 100-foot tall fire-breathing dragon and the small, terrified hobbit.

One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings movies is that the stakes are set up really well in them. Peter Jackson, who has been writing/producing/directing/godfathering the series since The Fellowship of the Ring has proven time and time again how well he can make depth-defying set pieces and visual spectacles, all while raising the emotional stakes of the movie.

Here is yet another example of what Peter Jackson can do in a movie. Visually, the film is unparalleled. There were many moments in the film that I recalled for being either visually spectacular or heart-poundingly exciting. One of them was a eerily creepy fight scene where Bilbo and the dwarves were fighting off an army of spiders in a cursed forest. Another was a chase scene where the crew was stuck in a line of barrels while falling down a waterfall. Other instances in the film include when the dwarves encountered a giant who could transform into a bear, or when Gandalf confronted an early confrontation of Sauron in his own castle. And don’t even get me started on when we meet Smaug for the first time. Jackson’s visual prowess excels just as much as his emotional involvement, and with each of his movies, he always seeks how to outdo himself from his last effort. I’d say he’s outdone himself tremendously here: the look of the film shows just that.

The performances are just as refined as the action and visual effects are. Martin Freeman was just as charismatic and loveable as he was the first time he was Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey, and Ian McKellen once again does well as the wise, ambitious, righteously-driven wizard Gandalf. And Richard Armitage has gained traction as Thorin Oakenshield since the first movie, showing that he can be more than the brutish tough guy. He’s a more vulnerable, more fleshed-out character here, with deep desires and hidden intentions showing that perhaps will be explored more in the third installment.

My favorite character by far, however, wasn’t even from a live performance. Benedict Cumberbatch was frightening, fearsome, and daunting as the terrible Smaug, his articulate, vocabulary-filled speech lining up perfectly with his sinister, seething voice. The visual spectacle of Smaug is perfect, with the dragon leaning luminously over his small, feeble enemies, while his long, slender, scaly arms and body lunge across the dungeon like an elongated spider. But the vocal performance is what makes him convincing, what makes him more than just a CGI creation and a terrifying villain in his own right. The minute I heard Smaug speaking to a shaking Bilbo, I had shivers run down my spine. The entire time he was speaking to Bilbo in mysterious anecdotes and sinister undertones, I was on the edge of my seat. When he started to attack, I clutched my mouth and stared endlessly at the screen, wondering and hoping for the fate of these characters in Smaug’s way.

In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo benefits from being a more active protagonist than that of Frodo. Here we have Smaug, a giant, fearsome beast that is more actively sinister and spiteful than the stillness of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

Everything in the film is refined to the quality of film that you’d recall from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My only regret is the copout, cliffhanger of an ending that inspired my theater to erupt into boos and groans. I hate it when movies do this to me. They put in so much effort to make a great film up until the last five minutes, where they pull the rug from under you and say “Sorry, that’s all for now! See you next year!” What was Peter Jackson thinking when he went with this ending? At the end of each Lord of the Rings movie, it ended with some form of closure and assurance that the adventure would continue into the next installment, but you didn’t know how it was going to pan out. It kept us intrigued, and it kept us wondering what would happen next. With this movie, it sets itself up to where we already know how it’s going to end: we just don’t get the payoff along with it.

I quote J.R.R. Tolkien: “Books ought to have good endings.” The same should be said for movies.

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Over a decade of injustice and cruelty.

12 Years A Slave is quite possibly the best film of the year.

It is also the most disturbing.

Based off the 1853 autobiography of the same name, 12 Years A Slave follows the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who lives with his family and plays the violin in Saratoga, New York.

One evening, he becomes acquainted with two young gentlemen who claim to be circus performers looking to hire him for a one-night gig. When he wakes up the next morning, he is in chains, and realizes that he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery by his captors. During his years as a slave, Northup goes from one owner to the next, from a kindhearted owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a cruel, racist and mean-spirited pig named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who presents the greatest trials he must face if he is ever to survive.

12 Years A Slave is a film that not only lives up to all of its built-up hype and expectations: in many ways, it exceeds them.

Its quality as a work of art is so striking and powerful that it can be compared to other historical tragedies, including The Pianistand Schindler’s List.

Director Steve McQueen, who made the morally reprehensible and eerily bleak film Shame back in 2011, redeems himself here as a filmmaker. McQueen, in collaboration with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is not only masterful with framing his articulate, beautiful shots with 12 Years A Slave, but also brilliant with orchestrating scenes between his actors, showing us the bleak realism and truth of the slavery years in America.

Ejiofor, who portrays Northup in 12 Years A Slave is endlessly captivating. In moments where you think he might just be phoning it in, or just going along with the motions, he surprises you and releases an emotional intensity in ways no other actor has this year, not even Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays a young female slave in this movie so passionately that you forget she’s an actress and slip into her character’s tragedy as a human being more than you do as a movie character.

Most noticeable perhaps is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, who is so hateful and so spiteful in this role that all of the audience’s energy, anger and frustration is focused on him and his sadistic acts. Fassbender was brilliant in his portrayal, and I sincerely hope that he at least gets an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Every other aspect of this film can be praised endlessly. The script by John Ridley, who wrote Three Kings in 1999, was endlessly emotional and captivating. The score by Hans Zimmer was quiet, humble and breathtakingly beautiful, encompassing both the truth and tragedy of Northup’s heartbreaking story.

However, let there be a strong word of caution: 12 Years A Slave will elicit violent reactions from its audiences. You will laugh. You will weep. You will grind your teeth in anger and frustration, maddened by the many years of cruelty, prejudice and barbarism that no human being should ever have to experience. But it compels you to care for the character, to reach deep down in your heart to feel what he is feeling, to experience compassion and sympathy in ways almost no other film can do, not even with Schindler’s List. 

And let this be a testament to the film’s quality: at the end of the showing, there was a white man who could be heard weeping in the back of the theater. In between his hiccups, tears and hysterical reactions, he turned toward the black viewer sitting next to him, shook her hand and after introducing himself said to her, “I’m so sorry for what my race did to your ancestors.”

That man felt a powerful feeling of guilt and shame for the things that he saw in 12 Years A Slave.

That man was me.

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“STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A.k.a, the wrath of John Harrison. 

Star Trek Into Darkness is a sequel of excellent caliber, a science-fiction movie that not only lives up to the expectations set beforehand by its fans, but in many ways, surpasses them by making a much more efficient, fluent, exciting, and overall, more well-made film.  The movie is everything a science-fiction epic should be and more: it is exciting, suspenseful, entertaining, visually spectacular, and surprisingly emotional.  Were we expecting this?  I think we were not.  

Taking place a few years after the events of the first film, Star Trek Into Darkness finds the newly-appointed Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his first-mate Spock (Zachary Quinto) as they have just started breaking into their roles as pioneers of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  As they continue to carry out their duties, however, a new threat has arisen to challenge them and the entire Starfleet: Captain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sniveling criminal who has betrayed Starfleet for unknown reasons.  As Kirk and Spock begin to investigate further into Harrison’s history, however, they uncover a dark secret that will haunt their lives forever.

This is everything a great sequel is supposed to be: exciting, suspenseful, engaging, emotive, and reminiscent of the original.  The key ingredient to this recipe is its writers and director: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are responsible for the witty and intelligent dialogue from the first movie, and J.J. Abrams, who is nearly a master at making blockbuster movies.  Abrams, whose most recent film was the intelligent and highly entertaining sci-fi Super 8 shows once again why he is one of the best filmmakers in the business: he is great at manipulating emotion.

In one scene, for instance, he shows a light-hearted, funny, rivalrous exchange between its two leads, Pine and Quinto.  In another scene, he shows an explosive, exciting, and suspensful mid-space gunfight through all of the lense flares and visual effects.  In another, he shows a sad, tragic, emotionally stirring moment between two close characters, almost bringing its audience to tears in the process.  With Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams does what every great director should: he doesn’t let the visual effects run on autopilot.  He illustrates every emotional moment of this film with alluring precision, and it only makes us all the more excited knowing that he’s going to be in the directors chair for Star Wars: Episode VII.  

Regardless of Abram’s direction, however, this movie would not have survived without Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s intelligent, creative, and captivating screenplay.  This movie once again reminds me why they are among my favorite writers in the industry: they highlight character motivation and emotions and embed them into gripping, fascinating, and exciting science-fiction stories.  This is prevalent in all of their work: Mission Impossible III.  Transformers.  Eagle Eye.  Even the first Star Trek was focused largely on character than it was in explosions and special effects (although, as you can guess, it didn’t disappoint in either category).  With Orci and Kurtzman, they do here with any of their screenplays that makes their writing the highlight of the film: they make the characters appealing, funny, likable, and sympathetic.  Even the bad guys have a soft spot we can root for.

Which leads me to my final point: the performances.  Specifically Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives such a rousing performance as the film’s villain that he stands out in my mind similar to The Joker from The Dark Knight, or Loki from The Avengers.  Cumberbatch, who is most known for portraying the title role in BBC’s Sherlock, plays here a villain so contrasting, so ruthless and unforgiving in nature, that one could say he’s a more driven antagonist than Nero was in the first Star Trek.  His movements are stiff in STID, his gaze cold and calculative.  But when his intent is revealed, its a secret so shocking that it shakes the entire theater like the collapsing corridors of the Enterprise when it is shot and going down.

That, and this movie has endless amounts of explosions, gunfights, spacefights and CGI, which only makes the movie all the more better.  The only thing this movie lacks is the originality of the first film, and it somehow doesn’t evoke the same sense of fascination the first one did either.  That hardly matters, because Star Trek Into Darkness is still a wonderful science-fiction story while paying homage to the earlier Star Trek film, Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan, although I dare not say precisely how.  All you need to know right now is that Star Trek Into Darkness is engaging, intelligent, touching, shocking, energetic, and fun.

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