Monday, December 17, 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" Review

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins

To put it simply, it feels like coming home.

The minute The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts, a comfortable feeling settles as you find yourself back in the rolling hills of The Shire, greeting old faces from Peter Jackson’s beloved films released only nine years ago.

Right away there is a proper blend of old and new, from the familiarity of sets like The Shire and Rivendell to the new Dwarven kingdom of Erebor, where we meet a few new faces.

14 new faces to be exact. While several familiar faces return — including Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm (old Bilbo) and Elijah Wood  — most screen time is taken by a a much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a company of rough-and-tumble dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and to be honest, I couldn't get enough of them.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is a perfect choice. Previously playing Dr. Watson on BBC's show Sherlock, Freeman gives his characters deeply relatable qualities and an awkward likability. Bilbo in a way, represents us. We love our comfort, our home, our food, and we like life to be predictable. Before Bilbo meets the dwarves and is thrown into their quest to reclaim their homeland, Bilbo wanted nothing unexpected. But he has another side, as do we; a side that has the ability to become a hero in ordinary, everyday choices and events. Freeman perfectly portrayed the simple, everyday man making small but important choices that aided his friends.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Richard Armitage (aka the "New Aragorn") is a new crowd favorite. Although a surprisingly unknown actor, Armitage brings immense depth and battle-scarred bravado to a character that has lost his homeland and will stop at nothing to reclaim it. 

The story of The Hobbit takes place 60 years before Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring; Middle-Earth is a simpler, lighter place and the overwhelming sense of doom and gloom in Lord of the Rings is a shadow in slight beginnings. The story is told as a flashback by the old Bilbo to his nephew Frodo, the main hero in Lord of the Rings.   

While Tolkein’s book is only around 300 pages, Jackson is stretching the story into three movies to include background history from the appendices of Lord of the Rings and perhaps parts of The Simarillion. Needless to say, the film is a bit overlong, but you hardly notice. It's a fast-paced adventure from start to finish, an "out of the frying pan and into the fire" feeling that fits the book's pace.

While Lord of the Rings had a flawless, classic feel visually, The Hobbit upgrades its technology, giving it a more animated feel. Like it or not, it's a fitting tone since it's a lighter story than Lord of the Rings. And like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit still has plenty of intensely awesome battle scenes — a kind of OHMYGOSHTHATWASSOCOOL!!! kind of intensely awesome. (Definitely thought that in my head as I watched...don't care). 

Overall, The Hobbit is less compelling than Lord of the Rings, but that's mostly because we're dealing with an evil dragon and reclaiming the dwarves' lost land, as opposed to destroying the Ring that will eventually end all of Middle-Earth.

Still, costumes, makeup, props, cinemetography done the way God intended it, a perfect cast and a flawless film score — it's the stuff that made Lord of the Rings so magical, and Jackson's definitely done it again. It's in those little magical moments of the film that it becomes great. As Gandalf puts it, it is “not in great but in the small moments of kindness and love, that keep the darkness at bay.” And I think Tolkein would be proud. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Is 'The Dark Knight' to Blame?

James Holmes, Colorado mass shooting killer

In the wake of the Colorado shooting that occurred during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, it felt eerie to watch the same film, imagining myself in their shoes at the film’s start. Many have speculated that because the murderer, James Holmes, declared himself the Joker, The Dark Knight’s violence is to blame.

I won’t dare deny the fact that the film was physiologically disturbing. It ultimately killed Heath Ledger, who became his character so much that he too was left mentally disturbed. While that might have influenced Holmes, I don’t to lay the blame on that particular film.

I blame us, the audience, as well as the movie industry. Movies have become increasingly violent over the past few decades — as have shootings. Holmes might have copied Joker, but the Columbine killers dressed themselves in dark trench coats styled after The Matrix characters.

Because of the increased violence in films, I believe it predisposes those who might need nothing but a little nudge towards disorder, mentally, to be more violent and send them over the edge. While those of us who are more mentally stable might be able to handle violence in films, it still affects us. It still waters down the real gravity of violence. Because when that violence happens in real life, it’s tragedy —and we watch violence in movies as if it’s nothing.

The movie industry makes more violent films, it’s true. But we are the ones still going to the box office, showing them that we want to see it. I’m not saying don’t go see a movie if it’s violent. But I am suggesting we pay more attention to what we let ourselves be influenced by. Because it does influence us, whether we realize it or not. And it has real-life consequences.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

'The Dark Knight Rises' Review

Film Grade: A

At last.

The highly anticipated finish to the Dark Knight trilogy is here and expectations have been wildly high.

There are two camps of fans for this film — you’ll either be disappointed or deliriously pleased. Disappointed fans expected a film similar to The Dark Knight, the same clever psychotic scheming seen in Joker and more of the same gripping action. If you’re in that camp, know that this film is different from its predecessor. The Dark Knight Rises is more morally themed and grimly realistic, but in my opinion, one of the best finales to a trilogy … just about ever.

Set eight years after Batman’s last public appearance, Bruce Wayne has gone into a self-inflicted hermitage within his home, out of touch with his business, his friends and himself. Until the juggernaut villain, Bane, appears out of nowhere and threatens Gotham City in a way Joker never did. The nearly three hour film packs punches, heart-gripping lines, moral speculations, several incredible characters and ties up all possible loose ends — with a few twists, in classic Nolan style.

Despite the temptation, I’ll not spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. But know that this film is nothing short of a cinematic work of art, and being a Nolan film, is invariably well done. The acting especially is impressive, given the fact that eight of the leading actors (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway) are Oscar winners or nominees or have some related highly acclaimed film award.

Christian Bale, as always, gave a magnificent performance as Batman, but it was Michael Caine who brought me to tears a few times. Alfred shows in this particular film an enormous amount of heart and depth, being Bruce’s father figure and voice of deep wisdom.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a phenomenal job playing the idealistic cop, John Blake. Blake is heroic in his own right because while Gotham crumbled, it would have been easy to “duck his head”, as one character puts it, to get by. But Blake doesn’t just have ideals, he lives by them. Blake at one point faces guns point-blank so others might live. And Nolan doesn’t leave Blake’s character as a mere symbol, he explores Blake’s heart and motives.

Anne Hathaway, by rights, was adequate for Selena Kyle. She had several points where she did a fine job, but sometimes looked as if she were trying too hard to be her Catwoman predecessors, rather than giving her own touch to the character. She did handle herself well with the stunts and worked the catsuit to her advantage.

Tom Hardy is no newcomer for Nolan films; for Inception he was nominated for several Best Supporting Actor awards, and his acting chops, both physically and emotionally, were well cast for the role of Bane. As Bane, Hardy is an intimidating monster, with bone-crushing brawn and a merciless look in his eyes. Yet he has the ability to be as sensitive and emotionally genuine as a romantic lead. The shot where Bane had tears in his eyes was gripping.

As cinematography goes, Nolan outdid himself, and there were few things that bothered me about the film. One was that Bane was hard to understand with his face mask in a few scenes. The running time was unusually long. And while the film was not disturbing like the last one, it was violent.  

Sometimes brutally. Rises is violent in a bone-crunching way, fitting Bane’s form. I don’t condone the violence and neither does Nolan. He doesn’t seem to glorify it, but shows how the violence was a product of Gotham’s disordered people, a result of their inability to hold virtue in high esteem.

In all, I consider Rises  a fantastic film. Those of you who are disappointed, remember that The Dark Knight could not and would not be replicated, or topped in any way on purpose. Nolan, out of respect for Heath Ledger, would not touch any aspect of Joker’s story, nor would he try to create a similar film. He did not want the same kind of action, or the same psychotic villain. He purposely chose Bane to face Batman because he was stark contrast to Joker.

He wanted Rises to finish the series with a more moral touch and symbolic note. To use a line from The Dark Knight, this film was not the movie that audiences wanted. It was the film audiences needed.

Let me explain. Gotham, in a way, represents us viewers. As a general culture, we have lost the ability to recognize real virtue when we see it. Batman symbolizes virtue and he carries out virtuous acts when it’s unfashionable to do so. Batman lives a lie, shouldering Harvey Dent’s crimes so Gotham can have the hero it wanted, some kind of hope. Because in a dark world, there must always be a light to look toward.

Like Gotham, we idolize those who don’t deserve to be that light for us. We idolize celebrities, lying politicians. We eat up whatever they feed us through media, without thinking critically. Yes, we are Gotham. We celebrate Harvey Dents and forget the real heroes quite often — from everyday heroes to the Good Lord himself.

This was the film we needed to see. We need to see a reflection of our world where evil seems to win and virtue is unrecognizable. And we needed to see that good still wins and that heroes still exist, despite it.

That virtue, that black and white picture of good and evil, is clear in this film. Batman refuses to use guns or kill cold-blooded, Catwoman’s ambiguity is shown in its true colors — virtue is still virtue, even when no one believes in it or abides by it. Even when darkness seems to shroud all hope, there is always something to fight for. Heroes sacrifice themselves for the lives around us. That’s why superheroes are so popular. They remind us of virtue, that doing the right thing, even if it costs our lives, is how good wins.

Batman reminds us that we too can be that hero. “Anyone can be a hero. Even a man who put a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know the world hasn't ended.”