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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Immortals * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Tarsem Singh

Writers: Charles Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides

Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, John Hurt

Running Length: 110 minutes

Synopsis: Eons after the Gods won their mythic struggle against the Titans, a new evil threatens the land. Mad with power, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) has declared war against humanity. Amassing a bloodthirsty army of soldiers disfigured by his own hand, Hyperion has scorched Greece in search of the legendary Epirus Bow, a weapon of unimaginable power forged in the heavens by Ares. 

Only he who possesses this bow can unleash the Titans, who have been imprisoned deep within the walls of Mount Tartaros since the dawn of time and thirst for revenge. In the king’s hands, the bow would rain destruction upon mankind and annihilate the Gods. But ancient law dictates the Gods must not intervene in man’s conflict. They remain powerless to stop Hyperion, until a peasant named Theseus (Henry Cavill) comes forth as their only hope.

Secretly chosen by Zeus, Theseus must save his people from Hyperion and his hordes. Rallying a band of fellow outsiders – including visionary priestess Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and cunning slave Stavros (Stephen Dorff) – one hero will lead the uprising, or watch his homeland fall into ruin and his Gods vanish into legend. 

Review: It is undeniable that Immortals is a visually gorgeous film – this really comes as no surprise since the director is Tarsem Singh, who has helmed two breathtakingly beautiful movies prior to Immortals (The Cell and The Fall). If you’re looking for a film with eye candy, Immortals has that in spades – every visual aspect is immaculate, from the magnificent digitally-created locales (Greece seems to be composed entirely of cities carved out of mountains and villages residing on precipitous cliffs) to the Oscar-worthy costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka, and the sumptuous colours employed to great effect in many scenes, this is probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing films I have seen in years.

Even the action sequences are choreographed with a hyper-realistic sensibility. Rarely has blood and brains splattering looked so interesting and beautiful, although it can really be too much to take in at times, especially when viewing the film in 3D. However, it must be said that the implementation of 3D in Immortals is pretty accomplished, and subtly enhances the look and feel of the movie.

Yet, Immortals’ beauty is really only skin deep. The storyline is weak and uninspired, taking liberties with Greek mythology and at times not really making much sense at all. Various scenes seem to be building up to something greater, but never really go anywhere. There’s virtually no character development, and some of the Greek gods are given such inexplicably short screen times that it almost seems blasphemous. Thankfully the cast is good looking and distracts somewhat from their one-dimensionality – the men are all muscle and machismo, whereas the women (Freida Pinto in particular) are curvaceous and gorgeous.   

When compared with recent films in a similar vein, Immortals does not surpass what has been achieved by 300, but is far better than Clash of the Titans. However, it scores a perfect ten in terms of looks, and if one’s expectations are adjusted accordingly, could be worth the time in the cinema.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four stars)

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II * * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Writer: Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton

Running Length: 130 minutes

Synopsis: Continuing right where Part I left off, Part II begins with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)locating the Elder Wand, one of the three items that constitute the Deathly Hallows. Having already destroyed three Horcruxes, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) continue the search to make Voldemort mortal again, including a return to and a last stand at Hogwarts. It is soon apparent that Harry Potter may have to make the ultimate sacrifice if he wants to prevent the Dark Lord from reigning supreme over the wizarding world.

Review: Part II of The Deathly Hallows is everything the first part wasn’t – concise, precise and engaging throughout, the shortest film in the entire Harry Potter canon happens to be one of its best as well. Because much of the exposition and meandering was done in Part I, Part II begins in the thick of the action and doesn’t let up till the very end, and because this truly is THE end, the sense of urgency is palpable and much appreciated – no dragging of heels in this film unlike every single Potter film before it.

Given the leeway of two movies, it’s little wonder that resident scribe Steve Kloves’ screenplay is nothing short of being slavishly faithful to the source material. It’s a little more understandable and tolerable in the final film since any omissions would have legions of fans up in arms, and at least all the important action unfolds in this installment so audiences aren’t left hanging. The film’s pacing is also vastly improved especially when the focus shifts back to Hogwarts.  

However, this is a caveat for viewers who are not familiar with the Harry Potter universe – prior knowledge is a necessity as almost nothing is explained in this film, and even audience members who are familiar with the films are advised to at least watch Part I again before venturing into the cinemas for Part II.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have been immersed in their roles for a decade, but to be honest their performances have never been outstanding, especially because the movies have always roped in a large number of British acting greats to act beside them. In this final installment, the list of British actors is by far the longest (unfortunately, many esteemed actors like Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent don’t speak more than a couple of lines each), which means the young actors have an even greater obstacle to overcome. However, having been through this for such a long time means that despite their deficiencies, the trio share excellent chemistry and many audience members are too vested in the characters to care about acting quality.

It’s also interesting to note how far the visual effects have come since the first film, and the visuals in Deathly Hallows Part II are about as good as it can get. Aiming for a much more monochromatic look and gritty feel than in the previous films, Deathly Hallows Part II shines most in battle sequences, especially in the finale sequence where no expense was obviously spared. Having only seen this in digital 2D, I am not able to judge if the 3D elements are retrofitted successfully onto the film – but somehow I think watching the film without a third dimension might actually serve it better.

This is likely to be the definitive last film of the Harry Potter franchise, and it’s amazing to look back at the past decade and see how far the franchise has come. It’s an excellent send off and ends the franchise on the best possible note, to be sure, but there will be plenty of fans wishing that more could follow, especially since Deathly Hallows Part II has managed to deliver everything it promised. Already the most successful film franchise of all time, there’s no doubt that Harry Potter is here to stay, and despite this curtain closer would definitely continue to thrive in other iterations and formats.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I) * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Writer: Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy

Running Length: 147 minutes

Synopsis: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is growing stronger by the day, and now has control over both the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) drop out of school and attempt to seek out Voldemort’s horcruxes as destroying them will weaken the Dark Lord. Nowhere is safe for the trio, and they are constantly on the run. En route, they find out about the Deathly Hallows, and how it could be a key in the eventual showdown against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. 

Review: Call me a party pooper, but the only thought I had when the end credits rolled on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was “is that it?”. These three words will pretty much sum up my entire review of this half of the complete movie – I had believed it was a flawed decision (apart from the obvious monetary gains for Warner Brothers) to split the movie into two, and having now seen the first half I am sure of it. Coming off the decision to excise the climactic battle in the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), the expectation was that Deathly Hallows will be a spectacle in every sense of the word. However, since the book is further split into two films, there’s once again no payoff in this first installment. Deathly Hallows Part I feels like a continuation of the “filler movie” trend that plagued the previous film, and it’s a largely tedious, meandering two and a half hour movie that, while atmospheric, is plot-wise virtually dead in the water. 

Deathly Hallows is a narratively dense book, but much of the narrative does not translate well on screen, and with Steve Kloves’ screenplay being slavishly faithful (even more so than before, given the lack of timing constraints this time round), this becomes even more apparent. Much of the film involves Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from one (admittedly scenic) location to the next, and sitting around in a tent looking morose. It already was a drag in the book but when depicted in the film the flaws become even more apparent. 

The Harry Potter movies have never really been kind to viewers who are not acquainted in the Potter-verse, but in these last few installments the divide has been even greater than before. Prior knowledge is a necessity if you want to make sense of the ins and outs of Deathly Hallows, and can be frustrating even for audiences who have faithfully watched every Potter movie to date. So much has been left out in the transition from page to screen, and yet the film can still run a butt-numbing 147 minutes, which lends strongly to the argument that the editing for the film needed to be far tighter than its current state. 

Whilst acting has never been stellar in the Harry Potter series, the thespian deficiencies of the main leads, in particular Daniel Radcliffe, have become more pronounced as the films trend towards a more adult sensibility, and kiddish wonder is no longer sufficient. The exception is Emma Watson, who manages to do a decent job, but there is a tendency for Yates to dump most of the heavy lifting on her, and in a way diverts attention away from the “true” lead of Radcliffe/Potter. And, like its predecessors, there’s the British Who’s Who of the movie industry, who unfortunately all seem to be present just to lend their name to the film – literally a waste of talent. 

Of course, for such a big budget movie it’s not all a bust. Yates has proven his proficiency in action sequences, and the higher-octane scenes in Deathly Hallows are as good as any action movie out there. CGI has also improved by leaps and bounds, and digital effects are near seamless in this film. Warner’s inability to convert the film into 3D in time for release may not have been a bad thing – whilst there are definitely scenes that would do well in 3D, so much of the film is static that the payoff wouldn’t have been that great. 

Perhaps when viewed together with Part II, Deathly Hallows would average out to be the finale that Potter fans have waited for. However, taken solely on its own merits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I feels unsatisfying and unfocused, a filmic coitus interruptus that takes way too long to… not get anywhere. 

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Clash of the Titans * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director:  Louis Leterrier

Writers: Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 screenplay of the same name by Beverley Cross

Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton 

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: A retelling of the Greek tale of Perseus and a pseudo-remake of the original 1981 film Clash of the Titans, this remake 29 years later stars Sam Worthington as Perseus, demi-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson). Like many heroes, he has to embark on a ten-day journey wrought with danger in order to save the beautiful Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) from being sacrificed to the Kraken, a terrible sea monster. Along the way he meets both friend and foe, and in particular has to make a dangerous journey to the Underworld to obtain the head of Medusa to subdue the Kraken.

Review: Let’s get this out of the way, right away. DO NOT watch Clash of the Titans in 3D unless you’re feeling generous and want to contribute extra dollars to the cinema operators’ bottom line for a diminished experience. If Avatar is the reason 3D will flourish, “3D” shows like Clash of the Titans will be the reason that cinemagoers will eventually tire of the money grab and start going back to 2D. I spent 10 minutes in Clash of the Titans without my 3D glasses on and it made virtually no difference whatsoever, and in all seriousness the most 3D aspect of the film were the Chinese subtitles. It’s retrofitted 3D and done in a very poor manner, to the point that it detracts from the experience.

Having said that, take away the 3D element and this remake of Clash of the Titans is perfectly serviceable as a pre-summer action blockbuster. Although it takes a while to get started, once the action begins the film’s actually pretty entertaining. Many of us will probably not compare this remake favourably with the Ray Harryhausen original for sentimental, nostalgic reasons, but it cannot be denied that the 2010 version works slightly better because of the improved visuals and a lower cheesiness level.

The CGI found in Clash of the Titans is mostly top-notch, and in particular the Scorpiochs and Medusa are very well-rendered and almost believable – well as much as monsters can look believable. However, certain aspects don’t work that well, including the terribly cheesy “glowing armour” that the Gods wear. It almost feels like a snippet from the old Superman movies, with all the soft focus and dreamy lighting attempting perhaps to make Olympus look more ethereal. It does not work in the slightest.

Sam Worthington basically reprises his role from Avatar, even sporting a similar buzz cut, but here in Clash of the Titans he is never given a chance to really act. In fact, despite the presence of esteemed actors like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes (as Hades), the acting is weak across the board and characters never become (pardon the expression) three dimensional. This is particularly apparent in the superfluous romantic subplot between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton), which is so poorly developed that one wonders why Leterrier even chose to leave it in the film.

It’s likely that audiences who watch Clash of the Titans in 2D (like it was meant to be watched) would be more charitable towards the film, but for those who watch it in “3D” may not feel so generous. In 2D, the movie is generally entertaining and a tolerable remake of the original film. In 3D, all the flaws become more pronounced – blurry action sequences, dim visuals, eye-watering (in a bad way)3D implementation – and coupled with a higher-priced ticket, makes for a very negative viewing experience.

Rating:  * * ½ (out of four stars)

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How to Train Your Dragon * * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy / Animation

Directors:  Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois

Writers: Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, based on the book How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, David Tennant

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) feels like a fish out of water in the Viking village of Berk. Although his father and village chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is a veteran dragon hunter, Hiccup prefers to spend his time designing gadgets and pining for spunky village girl Astrid (America Ferrera). However, Stoick makes the decision to have Hiccup train with the blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) on attacking dragons, despite his protests. At the same time, Hiccup chances upon an injured dragon in the woods and attempts to bond with it. He soon learns that the Viking-dragon feud could be nothing more than a misunderstanding, and that dragons are not as fearsome as they are thought to be.

Review: Dreamworks Animation has almost always played second fiddle to Pixar in the realm of computer animated movies, and since the excellent Shrek, there has never really been another Dreamworks film that could come close to any of Pixar’s films. This changes with the release of How to Train Your Dragon, which is an excellent film in many aspects, and quite possibly a very strong contender for the best animated film of the year (yes, kind of a big statement given that both Shrek 4 and Toy Story 3 are due in cinemas soon).

How to Train Your Dragon is a quintessential family film – although it offers something for the kids (though there are certain scarier portions that may not be all that suitable for the very young), the film is also engaging enough for the parents and other adult audiences. The visuals are colourful and fun, and this is the first film that I’ve watched in 3D since Avatar that seems to be worth the price of admission, and really helps to make the experience a more immersive one. Coincidentally, there are some similarities to Avatar apart from the 3D experience, but none intentionally so, I am sure.

The storyline follows a basic formula – outcast kid makes good and allows others to see the error of their ways – but the story is well-told and the clichés don’t matter as much. It helps that the dragons, initially portrayed as vicious creatures, turn out to be rather harmless and adorable (one word: kittens!), greatly enhancing the cuteness quotient of the movie. The main voice cast is also rather accomplished, and despite the strange choice of having many of the characters speak with a Scottish accent, everything works very well together.

How to Train Your Dragon has ticks in almost every box of the checklist – the movie looks good in both 2D and 3D, there are some thrilling (but some running a tad long) action sequences, the voice acting ranges from good to great, and the “take-home” family values message is a very positive one that parents would certainly endorse.  In a sea of mediocre releases, How to Train Your Dragon stands head and shoulders above many recent films, and if you’re hankering for a good 3D experience, then this would probably be your best bet.

Rating:  * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Alice in Wonderland * * *

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover

Voice Cast: Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee 

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old, and it seems that she has completely forgotten about her first trip down the rabbit hole. However, when she’s practically coerced into a marriage, Alice decides to takes a time out from the proposal party, only to find herself falling down yet another rabbit hole, once again travelling to Wonderland. There, she finds the same cast of oddball characters – the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Absolem the caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), and more. And of course there are the Wonderland queens – the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to off Alice’s head, but the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) would like to regain her reign over Wonderland with Alice’s help. The way to do it? Get Alice to use the Vorpal Sword on Frabjous Day to kill the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee).

Review: There’s no doubt that Tim Burton is a visual genius, and once again it shows in the weird and wonderful depiction of Wonderland in this film. It’s not really kid-friendly, but there’s no denying that the oddity of it all has a queer charm (see the Red Queen’s swollen head for a good example). One wonders how isolated the actors must have been because it seems almost the entire movie is composed of CG imagery.

The flora and fauna of Wonderland is quite possibly almost as detailed as the world of Avatar, but the one differentiating factor is that whilst 3D enhances the Avatar universe, sadly in this case watching the film in 3D will likely diminish the viewing experience. Yes, that’s right – if you have a choice, try not to watch the movie in 3D. The bright colours of the background end up looking muted and dull through 3D glasses, and the experience is not immersive at all. In fact, during the action sequences, 3D actually looks blurry and is not a particularly comfortable viewing experience. Perhaps it’s because Avatar has now set the standard so high, Alice in 3D feels nothing more than a poorly executed gimmick.

This is also a movie where the voice talents fare better than actors who are physically present. Whilst Mia Wasikowska is perfectly decent as Alice, her character is rather colourless to begin with and there’s little depth to speak of. And as always Johnny Depp is cast as yet another quirky Burton-esque reinterpretation of a classic character, though in this instance the performance feels a little perfunctory. My favourite in the movie is actually Helena Bonham Carter, and much as it is totally over the top and she spares no expense in chewing up the scenery, it’s a really fun performance to watch.

One of the biggest issues I have with this incarnation of Alice in Wonderland is how the reimagining has actually turned the movie into a generic fantasy movie starring well-loved characters from the Wonderland universe. This is particularly apparent in the showdown between Alice and the Jabberwocky – the only reasons (I feel) this entire segment exists is to make sure there’s enough fodder for spinoff video games to capitalize on, and to appease cinemagoers who demand action sequences in every movie they watch. Make no mistake – the movie is entertaining enough, and certainly worthy of a trip to the cinema, but there’s this nagging sensation that something had been lost in translation.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)

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