Saturday, December 22, 2012

Les Miserables

My parents got pre-screening tickets to see this movie a few days ago, and I was a little hesitant to see it. Not that I didn't want to watch the movie at all, but I knew Lara wouldn't be able to come as she had to work that night. On the other hand, if I didn't go I wouldn't be able to see it with Lara until Christmas Day. Though I initially felt bad about going without her, I couldn't resist seeing the movie that nearly brought me to tears just from the teaser trailer. I've never seen the play, and what I know of the story I have gleaned from the lyrics of songs I've heard. As this was my first experience with the tale of Jean Valjean, I have no baggage from previous incarnations or performances.

For those who don't know the basic story, it begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in prison and pulling a massive ship into the bay with a multitude of other prisoners as Javert (Russell Crowe) looks on from above. He proceeds to inform Valjean that he is being released on parole, but that he will be watching to see if "24601" ever slips up again. Valjean leaves the prison but is unable to find work or even a place to stay before he is invited in by a priest, who goes so far as to give Jean Valjean his silver after he is caught stealing it by the guards. The priest gives Valjean even more than he attempted to steal with the sole condition that he use the money to become an honest man.

I won't go any further into the plot for those who want to avoid spoilers. Being a big movie fan, I've followed this project since it was first announced and was excited to see Hugh Jackman in the starring role. As the cast continued to fill out, however, I soon realized this was going to be something really special. Thankfully, this early realization was confirmed on Tuesday night as I saw one of the best films of the year. Les Miserables is a tremendous feat, a beautifully orchestrated masterpiece that honors the source material of the play and the book. The cast is uniformly fantastic, particularly Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who plays the tragic character of Fantine. Both are front-runners to be nominated for Academy Awards in their respective categories and I wouldn't mind seeing them both win. Even Russell Crowe, the wildcard in the bunch for me, portrays a dangerous and slightly unhinged inspector that feels like a suitable foe for Hugh Jackman.

There are so many flourishes of foreshadowing in the screenplay, facial expressions that completely sell the emotion of a song, as well as large-scale set pieces that really transport you into the French revolution that move this film from great to masterful. It can be somewhat hard to watch at certain points, namely the section where Fantine is thrown out into the street and falls into prostitution to care for her daughter; but it sets the stage perfectly for the emotional and spiritual journey each character will take, particularly Valjean. I can't count the number of times I teared up during this film, and the expression of humanity and grace depicted in the songs and actions of the characters make me want to be a better person. This is not just wonderful music, but the story itself is so iconic and poignant that I don't see how it would be possible not to be moved in some way by what unfolds.

Les Miserables is one of the best films of the year, and director Tom Hooper does a fantastic job of melding together the terrific production designs with the choreography and action while still allowing for the actors to express emotions that other directors might not be willing to attempt. It's fairly well known that this film, unlike other musicals adapted to the big screen, shot the actors singing live into the camera rather than recording the songs beforehand in a studio. It's this kind of organic quality that allows viewers to really experience the situations the characters find themselves in where other musicals have barricaded themselves from the audience forcing them to merely observe from a distance. This is a phenomenal achievement and I give Les Miserables a strong four stars.

LES MISERABLES is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Of all of the movies that I have seen and loved, there are none more important to me than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm that guy who watches the extended versions multiple times, indulges in hours and hours of special features, and even listened to the commentary tracks on all three films. "Return of the King" is in contention for my favorite film of all time. Suffice it to say, I was monitoring the production of "The Hobbit" as closely as possible to see where they were going to take the story that was so precious to me (pun intended, obviously). I couldn't have been more excited for this film, though I went in with slightly tempered expectations. Of course, this film had a bit of controversy surrounding it with the first use of 48 frames per second. While I did not see it in the higher frame rate, I have heard it is a polarizing feature. Some reviews site it as a brilliant innovation providing higher clarity, while others call it a distraction and almost like a "soap opera" in quality. I did see this film in 3-D, and (because my work got me the ticket) I even tried the D-Box technology used in many seats in Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theaters. While initially a little distracting, the format eventually became second-nature and I can see why some people might enjoy it.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo, the main protagonist from the Lord of the Rings series. Bilbo is an ordinary, non-adventure-taking hobbit who gets swept up with a group of dwarves at the behest of Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf needs to find a "burglar" for their journey to steal something very valuable in their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is apprehensive to join their company, as he enjoys his creature comforts surrounding him at Bag End. However, following a rambunctious party with all thirteen dwarves, Bilbo awakens to find his home completely restored to normal with a contract for him to sign if he changes his mind. Bilbo takes the challenge and runs to catch up to the company, many of whom were not expecting the hobbit to join them, and so their "unexpected journey" begins.

I heard many grumblings about the first half-hour of this film being arduous and slow paced. Having experienced it for myself, I can honestly say that I can see how some people might think that, though I never experienced boredom during this set up. Perhaps it has something to do with my love for the original trilogy, but any amount of time spent in this world was time well spent, in my opinion. Peter Jackson clearly loves these books, and when he's projecting his vision of Tolkein's universe on the big screen that attitude is infectious. It's so nice to see a big-budget franchise being brought to life by someone so passionate about the source material.

The technical aspects of this film have all been stepped up a notch, particularly with Gandalf and the hobbit/dwarves. Those scenes were cleverly crafted in the original trilogy so as to keep the illusion of their difference in size, but this time the effect is completely seamless. When I first saw the trailer, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to tell the dwarves apart, and while for a couple of dwarves I do struggle, they all have their own distinct personalities for the most part.

This film instantly drops you into the world of Middle Earth, with brilliant set and costume designs as well as beautiful scenery courtesy of New Zealand. Not only that, but recurring characters like Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel provide connective tissue that takes the movie one step further in tying it to the original series. The performances from this cast are terrific across the board. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, showing great potential as well as taking small steps in his evolution to becoming the globe-trotting adventurer we know him as in the Lord of the Rings. Ian McKellen is just as good as always, and the party of dwarves also brings their own unique flavor to the ensemble, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. He evokes a similar gravitas and commanding presence as Aragorn that I hadn't previously seen with dwarves. The best scene in the movie, however, is probably the altercation between Bilbo and Gollum. I am continuously amazed at how wonderfully Jackson is able to depict the tragic nature of Gollum's obsession and bring new elements to light each time.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, however, this isn't as epic or grand. There are far more comedic and light-hearted elements found in this film than the original trilogy, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The premise of this film is the adventure, and there are more tussels and bombastic escapes as a result. However, there are interesting story threads that will surely come into play later, such as the oft-eluded to "Necromancer". The final scene in this movie also did a great job of piquing my interest for the sequel, "The Desolation of Smaug" coming out next December.

Watching this film I got the distinct impression that this was setting itself up to be the perfect lead up to the Lord of the Rings films. There are wonderfully poetic moments in this film where Bilbo shows the kind of inner strength later personified in his nephew Frodo, as well as moving lines from Gandalf that remind us of the symbolism at play here. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a very enjoyable experience, and I have a feeling the next two films in the series are going to get even better. I give this movie a strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.

Pitch Perfect

This is sure to be a controversial review to whoever reads it, but I have pretty strong opinions about "Pitch Perfect". Let me first just say, I don't dislike these kinds of movies in general. There are plenty of female-focused movies that I have enjoyed quite a bit. Having said that, I really was not looking forward to seeing this film. Lara and I went with some friends of ours, and while I probably would have seen any movie with them just because they're fun to hang out with, I just had a feeling this would be hard for me to sit through. For one thing, it reminded me (in a bad way) of "What to Expect When You're Expecting" from the humor they were selling as well as sharing many of the same cast members. Anyone who's read my review knows that I wasn't a fan of what that film was trying to do, so going to see a movie so similar was really not appealing to me. I will try to be as objective as possible, but, fair warning, if you really enjoyed this movie there might be some feelings hurt by the end of this review.

The film centers around Beca, an outcast of sorts who is only going to college to appease her father, a professor at the university she attends. Beca really only wants to be a DJ and move to LA, often shirking her educational responsibilities to construct mix tracks in her bedroom. However, when she is heard singing in the girl's bathroom one day, a prominent member of the Barden Bellas, an all-girls a cappella group, invites her to audition. She and an odd group of girls eventually make the cut and they compete against their rival group, the all-male Treble Makers. Together, the Barden Bellas must learn to put aside their differences in order to defeat the Treble Makers at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

The story sounds pretty straight forward, like 90% of all other teen comedies, with a few minor adjustments. The thing is, this movie has no idea what it wants to be. On one hand, it has all these scenes of incredibly broad comedy, and then tries to take itself seriously with ridiculously forced "emotional" exchanges between Beca and her father. This movie played like an R-rated frat comedy that held back just enough to warrant the PG-13 rating. A lot of the comedy in this film might work better for me if it were a little more subtle, or at least not so repetitive. There are scenes where the leader of the Barden Bellas spouts projectile vomit from her mouth, not once, but three times. I can't tell you how many music-themed puns are thrown out during the film. Even on the poster they can't resist spoiling one of the only puns that I found amusing.

Despite all the things that I disliked about the movie, I cannot deny that some of the musical scenes are pretty enjoyable. Particularly the final performance by the Treble Makers where a barely seen character finally gets a moment to shine (even though it doesn't really make me root for the Barden Bellas to win...). There is also a nice little parallel between Bela's DJing and how the group uses those mixes to change up their act.

Regardless of whatever portions of this film I could enjoy, this script is a mess. It's infuriating that the movie tries to make parallels to "The Breakfast Club" while cherry-picking musical numbers from Glee (of all things) and implementing comedy on the same caliber as films like "Scary Movie 3". Even the characters that I occasionally found amusing (the announcers played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins) consistently go too far with their "funny" anecdotes. This movie is a complete mish-mash of genres that aren't constructed well enough to make sense, let alone coalesce into an enjoyable experience.

Having said all that, however, I know for a fact that the other three people in our group actually liked the movie (to varying degrees), and I can't completely trash it as a result. Girls always seem to be more game for this style of comedy than guys, as I said during my review for "What To Expect When You're Expecting". Even most critics found more to like about "Pitch Perfect" than I did, though I really don't understand how. So, because of the positive experiences of those around me, I'm giving this movie a generous two stars.

PITCH PERFECT is rated PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life of Pi

My experience with Ang Lee has been hit or miss. On one hand, I remember enjoying "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but I also didn't care for his iteration of the Marvel comics character in "Hulk". I therefore didn't want to get my expectations too high for the already critically hyped "Life of Pi", though the promotional material made that difficult. The poster looked intriguing, implicating a survival story of a young man stranded on a life boat with a Siberian tiger. The trailer also bolstered incredible visuals, which is a staple in Ang Lee films.

The story is told by an adult Pi, recounting his incredible life to a reporter looking for inspiration. Pi prefaces his tale by promising the young reporter that the story will make him believe in God. The reporter is skeptical, but clearly interested in what Pi has to say. Pi grew up in India, the son of zoo keepers. He has great interest in many types of religion, helping him gain a unique relationship with his creator. When the family is forced to sell their animals overseas and start a new life in America, however, the transport ship is sunk in a gargantuan storm, resulting in the death of Pi's entire family and eventually leaving him with no one but Richard Parker, a Siberian Tiger, for company.

This film has a fairly simple plot, but the experience of Pi's physical and spiritual journey is what makes this movie a must-see. "Life of Pi" is the best kind of storytelling in my opinion, as it asks the viewer to analyze and construct their own meaning from the material presented. There are many different interpretations that can be inferred from the movie, which is refreshing in a Hollywood climate of force-fed metaphors and explicit political agendas. It's the simplicity in the story that makes it so captivating in many ways. By removing all other superfluous motivations and boiling it down to survival and faith, the story becomes so much more relatable and accessible.

The only criticism I can think of is that some of it can be hard to watch at times. I am an animal lover, and seeing innocent creatures killed in front of you can be off-putting. Nevertheless, "Life of Pi" is a beautiful achievement, and a terrific adaptation of a book once believed to be "unfilmable". The Lord of the Rings was once categorized in a similar fashion, but such a challenge usually results in remarkable advances in technology and storytelling. This movie did for me something that the "Lord of the Rings" film series did: it made me want to read the source material. In short, this is a great film, an ambitious feat that needs to be seen to believed. I give "Life of Pi" a solid three and a half stars.

LIFE OF PI is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

The Twilight series was never something I voluntarily sought out for entertainment. In fact, the only reason I watched the first film was because my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) really wanted to see it. Later, in order to convince her to read the Harry Potter series (you're welcome Lara) I subjected myself to Stephenie Meyer's prose. Overall, as one might imagine, the books were a lackluster experience. Since then, Lara has more-or-less forced me to see every film of the series in theaters, to varying degrees of enjoyment. The first film was kind of intriguing, though the awkward romance and corny special effects were hard to watch at times. The second film was a slight improvement, but only marginally. "Eclipse" was actually a fairly good experience when taken in the context of the previous two attempts at storytelling. It was by far the most action-packed and suspenseful of the films and actually developed some of the characters. Then came "Breaking Dawn"... First of all, let me just say how infuriating it is that Summit Entertainment felt the need to elongate the book (in which nothing really happens) into two movies I needed to sit through. The first film really heightened the uncomfortable exchanges, though it provided some unintentionally comedic moments (Jacob and the wolf pack having their telepathic argument, ala "Homeward Bound"). With the excess of baggage I was bringing into this film, it's a wonder that I stayed past the opening credits, but I am going to attempt to remove my bias when reviewing the final installment in this bloated romance.

The film opens up with Bella getting used to her Vampire abilities, hunting deer (or mountain lions...) while narrowly avoiding rock-climbing humans. They return to see their daughter, Renesmee, a creepy computer generated baby who Jacob has taken an even creepier clinginess toward, growing at an alarming rate. Within a few months, she has grown to the size of a seven year old, getting unwanted attention from a neighboring coven. Assuming the child has been bitten (which is apparently against vampire law), the girl who sees Renesmee goes to the Volturi to report the crime. Getting wind of the betrayal, the Cullen family begins to form a resistance to the army coming to kill Edward and Bella's new child. They feel that if they can build a strong enough case, the Volturi will see that she isn't a threat and will leave them in peace. The Volturi, however, may not be as easily persuaded as they had hoped...

This film is the shortest in the series, coming in at less than two hours, despite the best efforts of the film makers to elongate it in any way possible. In fact, the entire climax of the film seemed tacked on to placate the male viewers in the audience as well as to stretch the running time. I have a lot of problems with this film, which I will get into, but my main issue is the story itself. Nothing happens in this movie. Those who have read the book know how anticlimactic the film is, and all of the intrigue that the story was building toward fizzles out in the most unsatisfying way imaginable. The climactic fight scene was one of the only portions of this film in which I was actually engaged, but even that ended up being a total non-issue. At the end of this movie, the only thing accomplished is that they manage to convince a group of vampires not to fight another group of vampires. It seriously has to be the lamest ending to a series I've ever experienced.

Not only is the story completely pointless, but even the visual effects in this film are second rate. With all the money these films have made over the last five years, it's insulting that they have not only failed to improve the product they're selling, but have actually found a way to make it worse. The computer-generated wolves, despite having an additional three years of technological advancement, are somehow less convincing than when they first appeared in "New Moon". If you need any more proof as to how cheaply made these films have become, take a look at the poster. Even the "running" of the three leads looks laughably bad, not even taking into account the amateurish photo-shopping on display.

I could go on and on about the many things that infuriate me about this franchise, but I'd rather not. Suffice it to say, thank goodness this series is over. Finally some stories that are worth telling will be in theaters (ahem, Hunger Games), rather than ridiculously drawn-out love stories with half-baked plots and horrible production value. I haven't been this put-off by a mainstream film since "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and that film at least had impressive visual effects. I give this movie a generous two stars.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dark Shadows

I don't necessarily consider myself a Tim Burton fan, but there are some of his movies that I really enjoy. In fact, one of his films is one of my absolute favorites ("Big Fish"). We all know he can be quirky, darkly comic, and slightly repetitive with his ideas. I've championed some of his more commercial-focused projects ("Alice in Wonderland"), but I have to admit that I was somewhat apprehensive when we sat down to watch "Dark Shadows". Maybe it's the fact that this is now the eighth collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp, but this didn't seem as novel or interesting a concept as I was expecting. Nevertheless, I tried to watch the film with an open mind to see if there was something good I could latch on to.

The film tells the story of Barnabas Collins, a wealthy young man whose parents immigrated from Liverpool and established a fishing port in Maine. Barnabas later seduces the maid, who turns out to be a powerful and vengeful witch named Angelique, though he admits he doesn't love her. In a rage, she kills Barnabas's parents and bewitches his true love into throwing herself off a cliff. As Barnabas tries to follow her, however, he finds he's been cursed with immortality (in the form of a vampire). When the townspeople learn of his transformation, they bury him in a coffin, wrapped in chains. Almost two-hundred years pass before construction workers stumble upon the long-forgotten vampire and he attempts to re-acclimate himself with 1970's society. He isn't the only one who's survived to the twentieth century, as Angelique is still a prominent member of the small town, taking over the fishing industry and leaving the Collins family out in the cold. Barnabas decides to regain the family legacy, which he must do despite his past coming back to haunt him in the form of Angelique.

Dark Shadows is based on a gothic soap opera that aired in the late 60's, though I'm told the film itself shares little resemblance to the show. The story itself isn't all that complicated, but isn't exactly one that lends itself to a tale about vampires. The film has a lot of interesting elements to it, but none of them coalesce into a cohesive and organic plot. Burton loves his gothic imagery, but the strange amalgam of cheap-looking digital effects and lavish costume design undermines any attempt to convey realism in the movie. As garbled as the visual style is in this film, it's nothing compared to the tone. At some points it seems like a horror film with Barnabas ripping out throats and killing innocent hippies, and at other points it plays far more comedic and almost slapstick.

The performances are universally par for the course, with Helena Bonham-Carter perhaps doing the best work in the cast. Johnny Depp is his typical quirky self, and the Barnabas family (Michelle Pfiefer and company) all do a serviceable job. As much as I love Eva Green for her turn in "Casino Royale", I think this was a really weak performance. For one thing, her American accent isn't very strong, and she seems like she isn't sure how to play the character. Overall, this film seems passionless and I'm not even sure why Tim Burton wanted to spend  $150 million to make it. Perhaps some of the tonal inconsistencies are due to studio interference, or maybe Burton himself wasn't sure what kind of film he wanted to make. Regardless of the reason, "Dark Shadows" is just as mediocre as I was afraid of. I give it two and a half stars.

DARK SHADOWS is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.