Friday, December 20, 2013

The Hopper #6

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (2013)

A have a confession to make: Novels, as a medium, don’t particularly interest me. When it comes to reading fictional stories, imagination is a key component to recognizing what takes place over the narrative. While I can visualize ideas in my head, attempting to do so with an entire story can get me sidetracked rather quickly. I’m much more adapted to a visual medium, where the images are played out right in front of me. 

As such, I have not read many great novels or books. This includes all the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and his work with “The Lord Of The Rings” and “The Hobbit.” I’m not opposed to the idea of ever reading such fantastic stories, just that I’m hesitant to do so. 

My only exposure to the world of Middle Earth has been through Peter Jackson’s ongoing film series, and only recently at that. Over this last summer did I finally sit down to watch “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, and it immediately impressed me with its scale and scope of story, hooking me through opening narration alone. 

“The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey” was the first film in Peter Jackson’s newest trilogy and attempt to bring Tolkien’s other well-known work to life. My complaint with the film is there are many elements that go nowhere and don’t add much of anything to the film, such as every scene with Radagast. Jackson did a wonderful job trimming the unnecessary parts of “The Lord Of The Rings” novels, such as anything dealing with Tom Bombadil. The same cannot be said for his newest film series. 

The next part in that trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug” is more of the same as the first film: A grand sense of adventure, filled with many diverse characters as they face a perilous journey across an unforgiving land where they will face down a foe that all men fear, the mighty dragon, Smaug. 

What I enjoyed more about the second film than its predecessor was how it gave more the cast of twelve dwarves their own character. In the first film, many of the dwarves were interchangeable and by the end of the film I had forgotten nearly all of their names, let alone their personalities. While in this film, they take the time to develop certain dwarves, showing off their strengths and the reasons why they were brought on this journey. 

Kili (Aidan Turner) shows his strength through his determination to completing the mission even after taking a poisonous arrow to the leg, while his brother Fili (Dean O’Gorman) demonstrates his devotion and love towards his family by giving up such a marvelous adventure to protect his sick kin. The elder of the group, Balin (Ken Scott) seems wise beyond his years and would rather remain peaceful, preferring to resolve matters through words. 

But Orcs don’t take kindly to anything that doesn’t involve putting heads on pikes, so he decides to be crafty instead.

Moments like these really make the characters stand out amongst others and really makes you appreciate the film slowing down to develop them and to make us care about their journey. 

However, much like the first film, Jackson seems to indulge himself way too much in his craft and puts in parts that don’t serve any purpose in the story. These types of scenes would work great in an extended cut for the DVD/Blu-Ray release, but not for a theatrical release. 

For example, many of the scenes involving the elves just serve as a distraction from the journey of the dwarves. Ask yourself: What do these scenes accomplish? What do they tell us that don’t already know? Honestly, it is a hard question to answer. 

Does this mean I feel most of the elf scenes should have been cut? Yeah. They not only exist for their own sake, but are merely fan-service. In particular, moments with Legolas (Orlando Bloom). I don’t know about you, but Legolas was my least favorite character in the original trilogy, because he is so perfect and infallible that he becomes boring. You know that he’ll walk out of any situation without so much as one hair out of place that it removes all tension and drama from the sequence.

Nearly all scenes containing Legolas in this film are about him kicking copious amounts of Orc carcass. It may be exciting to watch a CGI-Orlando Bloom flail around the screen, but when you know that he’ll make it without even breaking a sweat, what’s the point?

This isn’t the case for all action sequences in the film though. In a later scene, the team of dwarves are floating down a river in barrels and being shot at by Orcs. There is little that the dwarves can do, and you really feel their helplessness and will to survive. They devise creative ways to handle their opponents and this makes for one of the best sequences in the whole film. 

That is “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug” in a nutshell: While it may feel like an extended cut filled with fan-service, there are moments of great creativity and brilliance, especially when it focuses on the character moments of the dwarves. 

If you liked the first film, then you’ll certainly like this one. If you didn’t care for “The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey” then this one will not change your mind on the series. 

Final Grade: B-

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013)

One of the most talked about movies from last year was “The Hunger Games” for its unique story, diverse world and the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen.

I didn’t care for the film at all. While some praised it for the story, I knew I had seen this a dozen times before and done so much better in films like “Battle Royale” which prided itself on developing every one of the children involved by showing just what each of them would do to survive this game.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” on the other hand does not tread the same path as its predecessor. It takes the time to develop its unique and divided world, showing how one act of survival can change an entire nation. While it does eventually get to the titled game itself, the film truly shines when its not focusing on competition, but survival. 

After the events of the first film, Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are now traveling around the twelve districts of their nation as the winners of the most recent Hunger Games. Some of the districts have taken Katniss’ final actions in the games as an act of defiance, while others an act of rebellion, causing riots and anarchy to run rampant. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has not taken kindly to this and plans to tarnish Katniss’ image as a symbol of hope by whatever means necessary, including putting her into the next Hunger Games.

One thing I’ll give the film is that President Snow and his associate, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are quite intelligent at the ways of bringing down Katniss. Through their actions of increasing public executions and media focus on her, they’re making her look as if she’s siding with them rather than with the rebels. They’re not influencing her decisions or hurting those near her. They are simply exploiting her weakness towards helping the helpless.

Lawrence again turns in a stellar performance as Katniss. She makes it clear early on that she only sees herself as “stubborn and good with a bow” but as the movie develops there is clearly more to her than that. In a scene where she meets the other contestants in the games, she takes the time to help out many of them and get to know them, something she despised doing in the first film. Katniss is now a caring person who just wants what is right for the world. 

But the strength of film comes from its moral center, especially compared to the first film. In that, Katniss choose to offered as a contestant to protect her sister, with everything else being an act of survival. To make it back to her sister. 

Now those actions have been twisted. Selflessness has turned to defiance, which cannot be tolerated. Even her sister has begun to think that Katniss’ actions were not to protect her, but so that she could fight and give purpose to her own life.

Now it’s a game of survival, but of a different kind. Katniss’ mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) summed it up very nicely when he said that there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors. Now those survivors must continue to do what they can in an unforgiving and brutal world.

Final Grade: B-

“Nebraska” (2013)

If films like “The Big Chill” and “(500) Days Of Summer” are any indication, capturing the full effect of regular life is a difficult task to pull of in cinema. When a story and goals are essentially removed from the picture and the filmmakers focus on just random events that seem to go nowhere but give the film a certain atmosphere, that can be both a good and bad thing. 

“Nebraska” is another film that can be added to that category, as it spends the majority of its time on rural life in the heartland of America, mostly Montana and Nebraska. While there is a story with some soft-spoken yet deeply motivated characters, most of the film is spent on quieter moments with family members around a TV or at a bar sharing a beer. 

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a senile and forgetful old man living in Billings, who gets a letter in the mail that he can win one million dollars. The problem is that he has to ship the letter back to Lincoln, Nebraska and he doesn’t trust the postal service with his million dollars. He also can’t drive. So he’ll walk.

This doesn’t bode well with his son, David (Will Forte) and he reluctantly decides to drive his father to Nebraska. Along the way, they stop at his home town, where he meets up with many people from his past. Word spreads fast in the little rural city that Woody is a millionaire and everyone starts clamoring for his attention and money, including old enemies.

While I’m sure that many people will be talking about Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody Grant, its Will Forte as David that stands out to me. Forte is a mostly comedic actor, but doesn’t get many opportunities to be funny in this role. He makes David a sympathetic yet relatable character by giving his father one last chance to go on an adventure and do something with his life. 

Dern certainly plays the role just fine, but not a whole lot stands out. He mostly just stares vacantly at everything and most of his lines are one or two sentences. This makes sense for his character being a man of few words and forgetful, but this just means he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Meaning his performance is just good, but not great.

If there’s something I had against “Nebraska” it would be how incredibly slow it starts out. It takes quite a while before the film gets up to speed and this is around when most of the townspeople become aware that Woody might be a millionaire. Before that point, scenes will just come and go without much happening in them. 

The problem is that there are some scenes later in the film that do something similar but leave an impact on the audience. For example, at one point Woody and his children visit the house that he grew up in and we learn about how his father built this house and that he remembers his brother dying when he was two years old. 

This scene, while ultimately pointless to the story, gives so much breath and emotion to Woody and the respect that David has for him. While scenes with his family sitting around the television talking about how their feet hurt not only go nowhere but leaves no impact on the audience. 

That’s the problem with “Nebraska.” Not only does it take quite a while before anything interesting happens, but there’s a strange mix of scenes that want to be lifelike with some working and others failing. Once the story gets going though, these scenes are far fewer but they are a major part of the film. They may be an attempt at atmosphere and depth, but there has to be more to a scene than just building the tone and attitude. 

Final Grade: C+

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