The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Genre: Fantasy

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice)

Running Length: 161 minutes

Synopsis: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their unexpected journey, the Company continues East, encountering along the way the skin-changer Beorn and a swarm of giant Spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the dangerous Wood-elves, the Dwarves journey to Lake-town, and finally to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all—a creature more terrifying than any other; one which will test not only the depth of their courage but the limits of their friendship and the wisdom of the journey itself—the Dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Review: Peter Jackson is in an enviable position – the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey, had already clocked more than a billion dollars in revenue, effectively paying for the entire franchise. Any box office takings for Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again is pure icing on the cake. Perhaps if this was anticipated beforehand, there wouldn’t have been a need to draw out the film adaptation into three installments instead of the originally-planned two, because although The Desolation of Smaug is better than An Unexpected Journey, what cannot be denied is that there is a massive amount of bloat in the franchise, which is even more apparent in this second outing.

Instead of being true to the novel, what Peter Jackson has done is to use the source as an outline for the movie. In fact, half or more of The Desolation of Smaug is not found in the novel, with entire sequences and characters being crafted from the collective imaginations of the writing team and from the notes of Tolkien himself. Splitting such a short book into three three-hour excursions has necessitated this, and plot wise The Desolation of Smaug is about as spare as it can get. It’s a telltale sign when the most interesting and well-developed character is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is not even part of the novel, and the remainder dwarves are still as featureless and unmemorable as before, excepting Kili (Aidan Turner), who is really only made interesting because of his involvement with Tauriel. The ostensible leads of Gandalf, Bilbo and Thorin are stagnant in terms of character development, and the actual plot development is minimal – in fact, one can simply sit through just the final 30 minutes of The Desolation of Smaug and be completely up to speed with the plot leading into There and Back Again.

That is not to say that The Desolation of Smaug is a bad film by any measure. Peter Jackson showcases his mastery in action sequences, and there are a number of action set pieces that are extremely well done in the film, particularly the water barrel sequence involving Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who unfortunately looks older despite playing a younger version of Legolas) and the showdown with giant spiders. The visuals presented in Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth is as stunning as ever (I’m still undecided on whether HFR is a good or bad thing, however), and Smaug, finally unveiled in his full glory, is a marvel of CG imagery.

However, there are just as many segments in the film that drag, particularly the hour between the water barrels and Smaug’s appearance, and only the most ardent fans or tolerant moviegoers would not feel some sort of impatience at the plodding pace. And of course, it then ends abruptly, giving no resolution to the storyline till the next installment in December 2014. While most people would have had some inkling of the plot progression and the series’ conclusion, the lack of a conclusion of any sort may still frustrate some audience members.

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Hobbit franchise is the impossibly high standard that Peter Jackson and crew had set with Lord of the Rings. While The Hobbit bears a resemblance to that franchise, it is plagued with problems that the three Lord of the Rings movies did not face, particularly the paucity of the source material and the desperate attempts to pad out the films to justify a trilogy. Somewhere beneath the bloat is an excellent movie (or two, at most), and one hopes that instead of a further extended edition heading to home video, that Jackson and team would be able to produce an abridged version that will distil the films into a more refined whole.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Genre: Sci-Fi / Adventure

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks

Running Length: 146 minutes

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Review: Being the middle installment of any book or movie franchise poses a unique problem – there’s no start and end to the story, and many audience members will leave the cinema feeling dissatisfied at the lack of a denouement. This is the case for Catching Fire, the follow up to last year’s box office blockbuster The Hunger Games (although now that they are splitting up Mockingjay into two films, Catching Fire doesn’t exactly sit right in the middle any more), but it’s very interesting to see where the film has brought the franchise to. It’s a much darker, broodier movie, and sets the tone for the even bleaker events unfolding in Mockingjay.

Armed with a much larger budget ($130 million versus the first film’s $78 million) and a new director who cut his teeth on music videos before moving to film, it’s almost a given that Catching Fire will be the handsomer movie. Coupled with impressive performances all round, particularly that of Jennifer Lawrence’s, and the compelling screenplay, it’s readily apparent that as the title suggests, the box office for the film would be quite fiery indeed. Catching Fire belongs to a rare breed of page-to-screen movies which would please both fans and non-fans alike.

A caveat – it is essential to have prior knowledge of The Hunger Games (whether in novel form or from the first movie) because Catching Fire jumps right into the narrative without any preamble. Anyone not initiated in any way before watching the movie would certainly find it hard to navigate around the multi-layered plot (masterfully put together by lauded scribes Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) and figure out exactly what is going on. This is not a film that will be coherent on its own.

However, anyone who is already familiar with the Hunger Games backstory would find that Catching Fire has managed to elevate the franchise to way beyond a mere film catered for young adults (yes, Twilight, I’m looking at you). Yes, there’s a pseudo love triangle, and yes there are the occasional moments that lapse into pouty teen movie territory, but thankfully these are few and far between. Catching Fire is a somber movie dealing with rather adult themes, and even the Hunger Games itself is a more joyless event this time round – it’s clear that no matter who survives the Games, the victory will be a pyrrhic one. The film also concludes on a grim note, almost identical to how the Catching Fire novel ended.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, and once again proves that she is definitely one of the best young actresses of our time. Katniss has been emotionally damaged after the conclusion of the first Hunger Games, and Jennifer Lawrence manages to flesh the character out further along this line. She manages to craft a tangible, strongly identifiable character out of Katniss, and commands the full attention of the audience whenever she appears.

The rest of the ensemble cast are very capable as well, particularly Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, who both shine in the small number of scenes they have. The male heartthrobs Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are the weakest links in the movie, but that may have been a construct of the script rather than due to a lack of thespian skills.

Costume design and art direction is superlative in Catching Fire – the costumes in particular are stunning, well worthy of many nominations (and potentially, wins) in the upcoming awards season. The increased budget also shows in the set design and effects, especially during the Quarter Quell itself.

Catching Fire is a complete package, even though the storyline isn’t – it boasts everything that the original Hunger Games has, and ups the ante in almost every way possible. The film has set the tone for the franchise, and it is now with great anticipation that I await the next two films in 2014 and 2015 to conclude the franchise.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Perfect Mothers

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Genre: Drama

Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Christopher Hampton, based on “The Grandmothers” by Doris Lessing

Cast: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Ben Mendelsohn, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville

Running Length: 111 minutes

Synopsis: A pair of childhood friends and neighbours falls for each other’s sons.

Review: Perfect Mothers is one of those movies with a pretty high “ick factor” – after all, it is about two lifelong female friends who fall for each other’s sons, which almost toes the lines of incest. However, viewers who can see beyond this point will find a movie that has strong visuals, is relatively well directed (although the film would have worked better with a tighter edit) and boasts some very strong central performances, particularly that of Robin Wright. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at the very least it’s a beautiful movie to look at.

French director Anne Fontaine chose to film Perfect Mothers in Australia, and the cinematography is lush and sun-drenched, with an almost dreamy quality that at times seems at odds with the more serious tone of the screenplay. There are plenty of beach scenes – perhaps a little too many – and plenty of bare skin for audiences to ogle at. Although based on a novella named “The Grandmothers” (by the late Doris Lessing), both Robin Wright and Naomi Watts are simply a little too shapely and youthful to convince as grandmothers, more like women coping with a mid-life crisis.

However, what cannot be denied is that there are some very good performances to be found in the film. While Naomi Watts is given the somewhat flashier role (which she performs capably in), Robin Wright is the one that truly stands out with her restrained performance, perfectly nailing the vulnerabilities of her character without having to resort to theatrics. For the younger set, Xavier Samuel also puts in an excellent job as Lil’s son, wounded repeatedly by those he loves the most, and bridling with a silent rage that seems to intensify as the movie progresses.

 It’s tempting to dismiss Perfect Mothers outright simply because it deals with quite a taboo subject – is it right to lust after your friend’s son (and vice-versa)? It is definitely true that the film can’t really hit the right note in handling the subject matter, at times being overly melodramatic, and at other times coming off as being a little too flippant about the whole thing. There is more than a handful of unintentionally funny sequences, and given how serious the screenplay seems to want to be, very jarring and damaging to the tone of the movie. However, credit has to be given that at least Anne Fontaine managed to craft a decent film out of the subject matter – in less capable hands this may very well have come off as a much worse movie.

 Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Tom Yum Goong 2

Genre: Action

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Writer: Prachya Pinkaew

Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchai Wongkamlao, Jeeja Yanin, Marrese Crump, RZA

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Kham (Tony Jaa) has once again been separated from his pet elephant, and Kham must fight anyone in his way to be reunited with his pet.

Review:  There’s no denying that Tony Jaa is a bonafide action star, successfully breaking into Hollywood and slated to appear next in Fast and Furious 7. However, he is best known for his kick-assery in the Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong movies, and in Tom Yum Goong 2 he continues to show why he’s probably one of the best martial artists/actors of our time. Unfortunately, that does not make Tom Yum Goong 2 (henceforth known as TYG2) a good movie, and the film comes off as being barely (just barely) passable, plagued with issues like bad acting, dodgy CGI, questionable plot lines and a complete disregard for the laws of physics (and common sense). The only saving grace are the fight sequences, and even some of these come off being poorly edited and choreographed. Although the viewing I was at wasn’t a 3D screening, it was clear even in 2D that the third dimension is just a cheesy gimmick. Even with tempered expectations, TYG2 just can’t warrant a recommendation, except for the most hardcore fans of Tony Jaa or Jeeja Yanin.

One wouldn’t expect the plot of a show like TYG2 to be complicated, but there are so many plot threads running amok that it just all becomes a rather convoluted mess. Characters are simply forgotten along the way, and Jeeja’s character and storyline in particular feel like throwaways. Even the action sequences are somewhat questionable in their execution, none more so than a protracted scene involving motorcycles and some truly heinous green screen work. The film also seems to be subject to particularly overzealous but substandard sound work – there were scenes where it was painfully clear too much celery was being crunched in post production. Don’t even get me started on the scene where a fight is conducted on a electrified railway track, where Tony Jaa and Marrese Gump both sound like they are wielding Star Wars lightsabers. If it is intended humor that the director was going for, then he has definitely raised the bar. 

Unlike the original TYG which really showcased the martial arts prowess of the actors, there seems to be an over reliance on CG in TYG2, with quite a number of scenes shot too close and edited way too rapidly. This wouldn’t be so glaring if the CG was done well, but it is painfully obvious when green screen work is done, which is jarring and does not serve the suspension of disbelief well at all. There are still some rather hard-hitting and well choreographed fight scenes despite this, so it’s not a total wash. Unfortunately, instead of showcasing near-impossible martial arts moves like before, TYG2 showcases impossible moves, for example a truly ridiculous scene that involves what seems like fire retardant shoes and flame kicks. It’s a waste really, that Tony Jaa’s body of work in Thai would end (for now at least) on such a lackluster note, but hopefully his Hollywood foray would prove to be more fruitful.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Thor: The Dark World

Genre: Action

Director: Alan Taylor

Writers: Screenplay by Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book series by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Thor: The Dark World continues the big-screen adventures of Thor, the Mighty Avenger (Chris Hemsworth), as he battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself.  In the aftermath of Thor and Marvel’s The Avengers, Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos…but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) returns to plunge the universe back into darkness.  Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Review: It now seems par for the course for superhero movie sequels to outdo their predecessors, but this is particularly surprising for Thor: The Dark World, because the first Thor had already set the bar pretty high. Throw in the fact that the villain (Malekith the Dark Elf) is so bland and spectacularly unmemorable in this outing, it almost seems like an impossible task. However, director Alan Taylor (probably best known for his work on Game of Thrones) manages to deftly balance action, drama and humour, and coupled with a brilliant performance by Tom Hiddleston, manages to one-up the original Thor. While Marvel fans are still going to be getting the most out of the movie, Thor: The Dark World is a definite crowd-pleaser and is destined to do well at the box office.

Although Chris Hemsworth has loads of charisma and the physicality to pull off playing Thor (for those interested, there is a gratuitous “money shot” of Hemsworth’s muscled torso, much like every other movie he’s been in), he is outclassed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who not only gets the best lines in the movie but gets the delivery spot-on. Hemsworth and Hiddleston share a great onscreen chemistry, and the best scenes in Thor: The Dark World are when Loki and Thor team up against their common enemy. The only downside is that the pairing only takes place about an hour into the film, when more Thor-Loki interaction would probably have further improved the movie.

One of the few nits to pick with Thor: The Dark World would be that of the romantic angle. While it’s almost necessary to include a love interest to tone down the testosterone (and perhaps the bro-mance), Natalie Portman sadly proves once again to be the weakest link in the movie, as despite an expanded role, her performance is rather vapid and at odds with her earlier body of work. There exists very little chemistry between Jane Foster and Thor, and though the movie wisely chooses not to focus too much on the romantic subplot, what’s been left in still does not convince.

Although Thor: The Dark World has a somewhat iffy storyline, it is near flawless on a technical level. The CGI looks stunning throughout, and the set design and art direction (especially for Asgard) are incredible. Perhaps the Dark Knight trilogy has led some viewers to expect a dark, gritty look for superhero movies, but Thor happily takes it to the other end of the spectrum, featuring bright, beautiful, ornate sets and costumes for much of the movie (3D is not necessary to enjoy this movie – it did not add much to the proceedings at all). Action sequences are off-the-wall in their choreography, and although the amount of junk science is nothing short of spectacular, Thor: The Dark World is so frenetically paced that one would barely have the chance to think about the way they trashed physics and logic in this film (the denouement is particularly guilty of this).

With an unending number of Marvel superhero movies coming and having gone our way (2014 alone will bring to the table Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spiderman 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy), it’s getting increasingly difficult to feel enthused about each movie. Thor: The Dark World manages to impress, more so than Iron Man 3, though one does feel some form of superhero fatigue setting in. Remember to stay for the end credits codas, the first one alluding to an upcoming Marvel Studios movie in 2014, and the second one, at the very end of the credits crawl, is at least good for a laugh but largely inconsequential.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Escape Plan

Genre: Action

Director: Mikael Hafstrom

Writers: Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Sam Neill, Amy Ryan

Running Length: 116 minutes

Synopsis: One of the world’s foremost authorities on structural security agrees to take on one last job: breaking out of an ultra-secret, high-tech facility called “The Tomb.” Deceived and wrongly imprisoned, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) must recruit fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to help devise a daring, nearly impossible plan to escape from the most protected and fortified prison ever built.

Review: This is the first real lead pairing of 80s action stalwarts Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while it’s not entirely a case of too little too late, Escape Plan will likely appeal more to moviegoers who are familiar with the duo’s bodies of work (pun unintended) in the 80s and early 90s. Despite featuring two lead actors that are over 65 years old and a ridiculous, hole-ridden storyline, Escape Plan still manages to entertain, although some serious editing should have been made to the almost 2-hour running time.

There’s almost no real plot and character development in Escape Plan, so essentially all one needs to know is that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s characters have been wrongly imprisoned and need to stage a prison break. The only twist in this tale is that Breslin is an expert in breaking out of prisons, and even this “escape-proof” prison will fall to his machinations. Yet, it takes almost a full half hour to lay the groundwork for Breslin, before the audience is introduced to Rottmayer, and the film rambles aimlessly along for almost another half hour before things truly kick into gear. For throwaway entertainment like this, that’s one hour too long to wait. 

Escape Plan does not have a strong storyline at all, and its contrivances can almost be too ridiculous to overlook. However, the lead actors are very likeable, and display enough chemistry to make this pseudo buddy movie work. The only thing that gets in the way is that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger are obviously geriatric (I say this with a lot of love and respect for both actors), and it seems that director Mikael Hafstrom is actively trying to let the audience think that they are still in their 40s. It doesn’t work, and frankly, tests the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to near-breaking point. Implausibility aside, this is definitely a movie that will be found in the “Guilty Pleasures” category, and is entertaining enough (just barely) to make it worth the price of admission.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Gravity

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Writers: Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Running Length: 91 minutes

Synopsis: Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) in command. But on a seemingly routine mission, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone—tethered to nothing but each other and spiralling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

Review: Gravity is a master-class in how 3D can be used to a film’s advantage and to deepen the audience’s immersion. Despite running a mere 91 minutes, this is an intense and visually stunning movie that works best in IMAX 3D (completely worth the price of admission), with a stellar performance from Sandra Bullock that guarantees an Oscar nomination, if not a win. Although it’s not entirely without flaws, Gravity is easily one of the best movies released this year so far, and should be seen on the big screen as home video is unlikely to be able to successfully replicate the transcendent viewing experience.

The film opens with a single 20-minute take, and almost all of the exposition and scene-setting occurs in this sequence. It is a great technical achievement, and the scene is one that sets the tone of the whole movie. A caveat to those prone to motion sickness:  the latter minutes of this sequence could be taxing on your sensibilities, since it’s set in the first-person POV of Ryan Stone.

What ensues after the stage is set is an extremely intense hour of cinema – although the structure is very straightforward, the fact that Ryan Stone is essentially on her own (George Clooney’s character functions more like a cameo appearance despite him getting equal top billing to Sandra Bullock) in the vast confines of space means the challenge of performing even the simplest acts seems near insurmountable. Combined with what seems like an unrelenting wave of bad luck, it’s almost physically exhausting, in a good way, to witness Stone’s struggles to survive.

This is definitely Sandra Bullock’s strongest performance in her career, far outshining her somewhat overrated (Oscar-winning) performance in The Blind Side. Bullock has to carry nearly the entire movie on her own, and has no other characters to play off of for the majority of the movie (even Tom Hanks at least had Mr Wilson in Cast Away). It does veer a little towards schmaltz in the final minutes of the film, but she is definitely the one to beat in 2014’s Oscar race.

Because of the setting in space, viewing Gravity in 3D in the largest format possible will definitely aid in the sense of immersion one gets from the film. Alfonso Cuaron has succeeded in harnessing technology to deepen the viewing experience – it’s rare that one reacts instinctively to “duck” from a flying piece of debris without feeling a sense of cheesiness, but that’s exactly what I did on multiple occasions in Gravity. The 3D amplifies the vastness of space, yet paradoxically it also makes the viewer feel even more intimately linked to and focused on Bullock’s performance. It’s hard to tell how much of the experience will be lost on smaller screens at home, but to not at least view this once in a darkened theatre would be missing out on one of the movie events of the year.    

 * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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