Film Review: Hannah Arendt

Hannah-Arendt-movie

(2013) Germany-France, 113 minutes

DIRECTOR: Margarethe von Trotta  CAST: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Klaus Puhl, Axel Milberg |RATING: 3.5/5

In 1961, Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist is asked by The New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. During World War 2, Eichmann was one of the SS officers responsible for organising the mass deportation of Jews to Eastern European extermination camps. Eichmann had escaped the Nuremberg trials (1946-49) by hiding in Austria and then Argentina. He was eventually captured by the Mossad, taken back to Israel and interrogated before standing trial in Jerusalem.

Arendt’s New Yorker reports were based on courtroom observation, watching film of the trial and reading transcripts, They formed the basis of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. When Arendt saw Eichmann in the bulletproof-glass booth he sat in for the trial, she was surprised at his air of ordinariness. She didn’t detect a pathological mind or a sinister quality. Rather she found him incapable of critical thought. Arendt wrote that he displayed a kind of thoughtlessness that avoided all responsibility for his horrific acts. As far as Eichmann was concerned, his mission was to carry out state-sanctioned activities to the best of his ability. He committed unthinkable acts and was detached from them with his lack of thought and reflection. This was in part what she meant by her term the “banality of evil.”

The concept is actually much more challenging and nuanced.  Arendt’s defenders make it clear that she wasn’t minimising Eichmann’s actions or saying he was merely following orders. And this is where the film struggles with its material. In order to really understand what Arendt meant by the banality of evil, one has to read Eichmann in Jerusalem which is a lot more work than your average filmgoer (or indeed reviewer) is likely to do.

Director Margarethe von Trotta and her co-writer Pam Katz do everything possible to dramatise the development of Arendt’s ideas. We are introduced to her in the context of her American life where she is a respected academic with a couple of philosophical blockbusters to her name (The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition). She is part of a group that includes the soon-to-be-author Mary McCarthy (McTeer). She is an important member of an elite intellectual circle. Her present is contrasted with flashbacks to her life as a young student, when she had a relationship with her teacher Martin Heidegger. Her connection with the famous philosopher angered her Jewish friends because of his affiliation with the Nazis. It is clear that some considered Arendt a troublemaker and self-hating Jew well before the 1960s.

These charges and more were levelled against her after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. There were many who specifically read her work as blaming Jewish authorities of being complicit in the Holocaust. This argument has simmered for fifty years. The rigorousness of Arendt’s scholarship has been much challenged and defended. Von Trotta’s movie is undoubtedly pro-Arendt however we are allowed to see an intractable side to the philosopher. She will not relent on an idea simply because others don’t like it. She is more than prepared to lose friends in order to get at the truth as she sees it.

Hannah Arendt is a well made movie that convincingly sets up the early 1960s. When Arendt is in Jerusalem we are given a fascinating insight into Eichmann through Von Trotta’s choice to portray him with the actual trial film. We are given the opportunity to see some of what the world saw of the man in the glass booth. Being a biopic there is a certain episodic quality about the story telling. Many of the figures in Arendt’s life are wheeled on quickly and disappear just as quickly. Barbara Sukowa is excellent in the lead role. She gives Arendt a roundedness and depth, which is much needed. The script is filled with scenes where ideas are discussed by its intellectual characters. As absolutely necessary as this is, an audience has to pay attention in order to not get lost.

HANNAH ARENDT is an accomplished and thoughtful work about big ideas. Perhaps the best service this film performs is as a preview of Arendt’s writings. After seeing this film and doing the review I realise that a CliffsNotes version of her work is not sufficient to understand the idea of the banality of evil.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Monuments Men

The_Monuments_Men

(2014) USA, 118 minutes

DIRECTOR: George Clooney  CAST: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin |RATING: 2.5/5

It is 1943 and although the Second World War is far from over, there are men like art expert Frank Stokes (Clooney) who are concerned that the art treasures of Europe are in danger from the Axis powers. They are being stolen by the Nazis or worse still, destroyed in the collateral damage of battle. Allied Intelligence has discovered Hitler’s plan to steal the art from the occupied countries of Europe and display it in the proposed Führermuseum in Linz. Stokes persuades President Roosevelt that a special unit is required to save these endangered works of art. Stokes argues that an Allied victory will be empty if the finest art of Western Civilisation is lost.

Months pass and Stokes finds six other experts to join the team. Americans James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Murray), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman). A British expert, Donald Jefferies (Hugh Bonneville) and a French one, Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) also join. They go by the collective nickname “The Monuments Men”.

After basic training in England, the unit journeys to Europe where the experts disperse to pursue different objectives. In Belgium, Jeffries goes after Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Campbell and Savitz search for the 12-panel Van Eyck altarpiece stolen from Ghent cathedral. In Paris, Granger tries to persuade curator Claire Simone (Blanchett) to share her knowledge with the unit. She has reluctantly witnessed the systematic theft of French art by the Nazis. It is March 1945 and Granger hopes to secure her help when he shows her Hitler’s Nero Decree which orders the destruction of German infrastructure as Allied forces make their way across Europe. Granger fears this will mean the destruction of all the looted artworks.

For a history nerd like myself, I was excited by the premise of this movie. I wanted it to be like the trailer which sold me on the idea of a rag-tag bunch of academic types led by a grizzled Clooney fighting for the very preservation of Western Civilisation Itself!  However, the actual film is a rather conservative affair with pacing problems and a shifting tone. The release of the movie was delayed as the balance of the comedy and drama, was hashed out. The drama is mostly adequate and sometimes good. The various war set-pieces are executed with the polish one expects after SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BAND OF BROTHERS. The humour barely gets there. Alexandre Desplat, the award-wining composer is called upon to sell the dodgy comedy with his score. Damon is also saddled with some of the comedy and yet Dujardin is given nothing. Such are the decisions of Clooney and his longtime co-writer, co-producer Grant Heslov. I think Damon is great, but when you’ve got a sure-fire audience charmer and comedian like Dujardin on board, give him something to do!

As much as I enjoyed individual scenes with these seasoned professionals doing their thing, overall I didn’t feel this was a strong and engaging film. It is occasionally entertaining in an way that reminded me of later era WW2 movies like VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965) or KELLY’S HEROES (1970), but without having anything like the same vitality. Although I believe the movie falls frustratingly between two stools, the Australian public disagreed and gave it the number one Box Office spot on its opening (St Patrick’s Day) weekend. Clooney’s film took $2,300,000 on 323 screens nationwide.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com 

 

Film Review: Tracks

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(2013) Australia, 112 minutes

DIRECTOR: John Curran, CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver | RATING: 4/5

In 1977, 25 year-old Robyn Davidson trekked through 1700 miles of Australian desert with no traveling companions except four camels. Her reasons were personal and she had no interest in publicity or making money as part of her journey. She eventually agreed that part of the trip would be covered by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan.  A year later, the article was published and generated worldwide interest. In response Davidson wrote an account of her experience that became the international best seller Tracks.

In the past thirty years there have been numerous attempts to make a film adaptation of Tracks. One version even had Julia Roberts in the Davidson role. The usual difficulties of film financing as well as the specific logistical difficulties of making a movie wholly in the desert were constant obstacles. Eventually, producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning optioned the book and have created a version that is likely to find favour with fans of Davidson’s original account.

The movie depicts a young woman who has had a tough childhood and has grown into a self-reliant adult. This movie version of Davidson is spiky, independent and on something of a half-conscious quest. We, the audience, arrive at some kind of understanding of her character through observation of her arduous trek. This is not a film of overt statement and emotional speeches. It is, in fact, a film of very few words at all. For one section of her trip, Robyn has an Aboriginal guide called Eddie  (Roly Mintuma) and the duo do not share a language. They communicate through sounds and gestures.  Most of her spoken communication with English speakers seems no clearer. She is a doer rather than a talker.

Davidson spoke at the 2013 Sydney Writers festival about her original journey. She is not keen on terming it as spiritual or the experience as mystic. Now as then, she wants to avoid other people labeling her or analyzing her motives. However, the interest in her and in this movie is absolutely about people’s drive towards self-discovery through testing their physical boundaries. The movie leads you to the conclusion that she traveled through a place that most people avoid, to avoid the mental and emotional turmoil of others. At the festival, Davidson spoke of being in a place where she could clear her mind

Director John Curran (PRAISE 1998) and writer Marion Nelson have done a first class job in adapting Davidson’s work to the screen. Mia Wasikowska bears some physical resemblance to the 25 year-old Davidson, but her real gift is in fully embodying a loner going through an intense internal and external experience. The lack of declarative dialogue means we mostly have to rely on reading Wasikowska’s body language and eyes to understand the Davidson character. The performance is beautifully judged so the audience is allowed insight into a fundamentally reserved character.  Interestingly, if you do some reading on how others describe Davidson there is the suggestion that the screen version isn’t as outgoing and open as the woman herself.

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is stunning. As clichéd as this may sound, the desert is like another character in the film. The light, texture, heat, dust and sheer physical presence is brilliantly up there on the screen. Davisdson herself has pointed out that her journey was not in the height of summer and that the crew was sometimes dealing with greater temperature variation than she experienced. But just in case that makes it sound like Davidson’s trip was a walk in the park with camels, sometimes she was dealing with highs of 51 degrees Celsius.

The team behind this movie have brilliantly adapted their source material. They have told a powerful story in a nuanced way. The end result is an inspiring tale that I hope will connect across a broad audience.

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Dallas Buyers Club

EXCLUSIVE: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto film scenes together for The Dallas Buyers Club in New Orleans.

(2013) USA, 117 minutes

DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallée | CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto| RATING: 2.5/5

Ron Woodruff is an electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1985 Dallas. He is a hard-living character who suddenly finds himself unable to burn the candle at both ends. He is diagnosed with AIDS and is given 30 days to put his affairs in order. He panics and searches for alternative medicines. AZT is the only available treatment in the United States and is not necessarily available to all. The drug is still in the clinical trial stage.

He is in denial not only about the death sentence he feels he has received, but in having a so-called “gay disease”. Ron Woodruff is homophobic. The reaction of his equally homophobic friends is to abandon him.

Woodruff eventually travels to Mexico and discovers a range of treatments. None are approved by the powerful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use back in the United States. He begins transporting the drugs back to the States and soon runs into trouble with medical authorities.

His partner in these illegal activities is Rayon an HIV-positive transgender woman. They meet in hospital and at first, Woodruff cannot deal with her. Eventually, he learns some kind of understanding of Rayon and they form a bond.

In order to avoid charges for selling non-approved medicines, Woodruff hits upon the scheme of charging those seeking the drugs a membership to the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’. Membership costs, but the drugs are free.

The world portrayed by DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is rich with a promise that is not delivered on. Certainly, a reminder of the horror of the AIDS epidemic is a strong subject for a drama, however I found this treatment of the story to be baffling.  As a friend said to me just after the movie finished, “It’s about how Ron Woodruff learned to be nice to gay people.”  And indeed, this strand of the story is handled in a simplistic manner. The other strand seems to be “FDA bad, entrepreneurship good.”

When AIDS hit America an extremely complex series of events occurred. Health authorities were accused of doing too little. People with AIDS were mostly young and died incredibly quickly because there was no cure. The idea of an incurable plague challenged the assumptions of First World medical supremacy. The fact that many who contracted AIDS were from the gay community led others to declare HIV/AIDS to be a punishment from God for what they perceived as the wickedness of homosexuality. It was a time of great fear and upheaval.

That reality is merely hinted at here. I understand that it isn’t fair to criticise the film for not being ANGELS IN AMERICA, but it doesn’t even take on the depth of the story it has a license to tell. Ron Woodruff is portrayed as a heterosexual good ol’ boy who somehow catches a so-called gay disease and then puts his energies into fighting the overreach of big government. We are given no great insight into Woodruff’s earlier life or current thoughts. If anything he is portrayed even more sketchily than Rayon. She is somewhat of a construct who is saintly and wise and seems to be in the movie because the homophobic character needs a transgender character to challenge his straightness.  We do however, meet her father and get as glimpse at her former life. It all feels somewhat formulaic and didn’t ring true for this reviewer.  This goes doubly for the tacked on relationship with the concerned doctor played by Jennifer Garner.

Which is to take nothing away from the performances of McConaughey or Leto. McConaughey has moved away from his shirtless version of the good ol’ boy. His performances in films like THE LINCOLN LAWYER, MUD and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET show a greater depth of characterisation than his earlier, lightweight leading man roles. He has always been watchable, but lately he has done some of his the best work and is choosing great projects. Despite having a long career, Leto’s work has never made an impression on me until now. It is for the fine performances of these actors that the movie is getting so much attention in award season.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a movie for audiences who want a simple story about how a man is redeemed by battling against a deadly illness, the government and Big Pharma. For anyone looking for a straightforward film about this kind of human struggle, this movie will be a satisfying experience.

This review also appears on AccessReel.com

Film Review: Uncharted Waters

Uncharted Waters

(2013) Australia, 85 minutes

DIRECTOR: Craig Griffin | CAST: Wayne Lynch |RATING: 3/5

UNCHARTED WATERS is Madman Entertainment’s documentary feature about Australian surfing legend Wayne Lynch. Beginning his journey in Lorne, south-west Victoria, he made an impression on a board from the age of twelve, although he remembers an affinity for the ocean from even earlier. Those who saw him surf as a fifteen-year-old described him with terms like boy wonder and child prodigy.

He won title after title in the late 1960s. The way he surfed was innovative and he is credited for changing how others surfers understood what was possible. Australians were wowed when they saw him in competition; Americans saw what he could do through influential movies like Paul Witzig’s EVOLUTION. Surfing writer Drew Kampion observes that before Lynch, the lines of surfing tended to be horizontal and that Lynch brought it verticality.

Writer, producer and director Craig Griffin has made a film which is good on detail (we find out Lynch’s first board was an Arthur Milner balsa) but it also has a laidback flow to its presentation. The use and sourcing of historical film, photographs and music is excellent. There is plenty of footage from home movies, competitions and theatrically released surf films (like EVOLUTION). The audience is left in no doubt of the style of goofy footer Lynch in his heyday.

The subject of the documentary is a quiet character with an unassuming attitude given to saying things like, “Don’t work against nature. Don’t try to dominate.” Lindy Lynch is on hand to speak about her husband and there is an investigation of the personal side of his life to give the story balance. Lynch was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and this affected his life for a period of time in the 1970s.

The line-up of talking heads is impressive with a large number of Lynch’s friends and colleagues being tapped for their recollections. Among those interviewees are Barton Lynch, Nat Young, Rip Curl founder Doug Warbrick , Bob McKnight from Quicksilver, Dave Parmenter, Sam George, Rusty Preisendorfer, Duncan Campbell, Gerry Lopez, David Sumpter and Albie Falzon.

Griffin’s movie is well made and kudos need to go to the departments of editing (Sara Edwards), sound-editing (Nick Batterham) and music (Craig Kamber). I am in no way a surfer and I was engaged by this documentary for its 85 minute length.

 

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Her

Her-Movie

(2014) USA, 126 minutes

DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze | CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara |RATING: 3.5/5

In the San Francisco of the near future, a man called Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) struggles with his life post his divorce. Theodore has a job writing love letters for people who can’t. He is depressed and lonely and when not working, fills his hours playing computer games. He occasionally has contact with his friend Amy (Adams) but his life is in a holding pattern. Then he purchases a new generation operating system that is intelligent, sentient and intuitive.

Theodore chooses the ‘female’ option when deciding what sort of voice the new OS requires. The OS names herself Samantha (Johansson). Within moments of interacting with her, Theodore begins reacting to Samantha like a person, despite her physical form being a smartphone and an earpiece. Eventually Theodore and Samantha begin a relationship.

Whether this relationship is real is one of the central questions of Spike Jonze’s HER. It’s a logical extension of the idea that artificial intelligence will soon be indistinguishable from organic life. Jonze has taken this thought into territory that would likely upset Senator Cory Bernardi. The film asks whether a human can have a fulfilling relationship with a sophisticated computer program that learns, evolves, creates and has a sense of humour.

The world Theodore and Samantha inhabit is very like the present with futurist tweaks. Although Samantha is a genius compared with Apple’s Siri, her reason for existence is the same. We want technology to simplify our lives, so we make it smarter, stronger and faster than we are and we make it in our own image. There are humanoid robots that can dance, run and carry heavy objects. We want computers that can take care of our chores as swiftly as we can speak our demands. We imagine even smarter machines to take care of all our needs. If these come to pass, why couldn’t we fall in love with these brilliant, better versions of ourselves?

How much you can buy into this idea will have a bearing on how much you will enjoy HER. There are many scenes of Theodore interacting with the disembodied voice of Samantha. It should be said that if any actor can persuade you of this reality, it’s Joaquin Phoenix. His performance made this film for me. He brilliantly embodies a range of relatable emotional states. Johansson, whom I’ve always thought of as having a flat voice, does as an excellent job giving Samantha presence.

HER is a film of ideas. The painful realities of day-to-day life are not part of this world. San Francisco is portrayed as some kind of benign technology campus. Jonze is projecting a future of sleek, uncluttered design that allows for the occasional whimsical touch. Politically and economically, Theodore appears to live in a utopian world where the remaining struggles are personal.

Theodore loved being married. He loved his wife. Who is he now he is divorced? He explores questions of self-definition in and outside of a relationship. Some will consider the kind of journey he goes through to be self-indulgent and middle class. As I am both things, I was engaged by Theodore’s grappling with these big ideas. If you are hoping that HER will involve Samantha and the other OS’s controlling human minds, and heralding the rise of the machines, then you’re likely to be disappointed by the quiet, small, detailed film Jonze has actually made.

There were times when HER reminded me of Jake Schreier’s 2012 film ROBOT AND FRANK. That also asked questions about how we will interact with technology in the future. At other times, I was put in mind of BLUE VALENTINE (2010) as designed by Jony Ive. At 125 minutes, I thought the movie was overly long, but ultimately I found it thoughtful and entertaining.

 

This review also appears at AccessReel.com

Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

inside_llewyn_davis

(2013) USA, 105 minutes

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Max Casella, John Goodman |RATING: 3/5

It is 1961, Greenwich Village, New York City. Llewyn Davis is a musician struggling to make it in the folk scene. He has management and a record label. He performs regularly at folk hot spot The Gaslight Café. However he is discontented. The reality is his record has not got him the attention he wants, he is not particularly sought after as a performer and he is sleeping on a succession of friends’ couches.

However, this being a Coen Brothers’ movie, none of the above details is a spoiler. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is seven days in the life of a man who believes, quite correctly that he has talent, but has no idea of how to capitalise on it. One of his fears is he might not be a success as a musician, but he is oblivious to all the obstacles that are holding him back.

The movie is yet another emotionally-detached character study from the Coens, yet the reviewers who describe it as one of their warmer films have a point. This is a measure of how icy it can be in the Coen universe. The movie is also a beautifully shot, production-designed, performed and directed period piece. In American terms, the brothers work with peanut-sized budgets, yet the result is always visually stunning. They are often described as craftsmen.

The astute reader may feel a ‘but’ is imminent and I would hate to disappoint you. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS received the Grand Prix when it screened at Cannes last year and the brothers remain critical darlings, whom many consider master filmmakers, BUT, for others they make films with unrelatable characters who go on journeys, where events happen but ultimately have no point. Such was my feeling about observing Llewyn Davis for a week of his life in 1961. Yes, the details are engaging, the Coens know how to present a world that draws you in, but I wasn’t sure why I should spend any time with the rather touchy Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the title character has justly attracted praise. It is a beautifully nuanced performance of a man who is thinned-skinned and sensitive to his own needs and almost completely closed off to the needs of others. The type Davis represents will be very familiar to most people. Isaac, who has a solid musical background, sings Llewyn Davis’s songs beautifully. It is here that we understand that despite his deficiencies of character, Llewyn is not a joke.

The other performances are as good as we have come to expect from these filmmakers. John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and F. Murray Abraham all do solid work in peopling this early ’60s folk setting. In a way, they are more like characters on the margins of Davis’s vision. The title is accurate, we are inside Llewyn Davis. We are trapped deep within his fears and inadequacies.

If you have seen Coen films before and enjoy their subtle humour and wry observations of human nature, then they have another gift for you to enjoy. If you feel the Coens carefully create movies that are dense inaccessible in-jokes, then INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will not persuade you otherwise.

 

This review also appears in AccessReel.com

Film Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Bradley Cooper

(2013) USA, 138 minutes

DIRECTOR: David O.Russell | CAST: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Evangeline Lily, Louis C.K., Elisabeth Röhm |RATING: 3.5/5

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a small time con artist who dreams of bigger things. He is searching for a soul mate and believes he has found one when he meets fellow con artist Sydney Prosser (Adams). Their relationship is passionate and fulfilling. The one flaw in this perfect scenario is that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Lawrence) and he feels an obligation to his adopted son.

Irving is a con man with the soul of a poet. Or so he believes. We are given to understand that he and Sydney are connected in some higher way through their cons. They’re not scummy grifters, they put the ‘art’ into con artist. Their affair and their business is put under strain when they become entangled with Richie De Maso (Cooper) a man with an overwhelming, yet mistaken faith in his own abilities.  Meeting Richie causes massive problems for the normally publicity-shy Sydney and Irving. They begin work on a big scam that has a public face. The con escalates and draws in more and more players.

Director David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE is an entertaining movie that most audiences will enjoy during its rambling 138 minute length. Despite being based on the FBI’s notorious Abscam operation of the late 1970s, the story does not bear deep scrutiny. This is not a movie about the minutiae of a scam, nor of its takedown. The movie is a loose study of some broad, desperate characters. It delivers laughs and emotion through Russell’s vision of the 1970s. To quote THE CASTLE, “It’s the vibe of the thing”.

Russell has gone to great lengths to make his movie feel authentic; the retro hair, wardrobe and production design are all top notch. There are lashings of era-appropriate rock and pop on the soundtrack. The script name-checks the icons and obsessions of the time. The Watergate scandal is recent history and it affects the thinking of these characters.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is a high-wire act of a movie. In this respect, it is a little like the Coen brothers’ BURN AFTER READING (2008) in that it also has an excellent cast giving outsized but engaging performances that distract us from a preposterous story. Its actual influences seem to be GOODFELLAS (1990) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997).

I enjoyed the movie for its sizzle rather than any substance.  Audiences in Perth Western Australia obviously love this film. Unusually, It has been playing here since its premiere more than two months ago. That sort of thing used to happen back when AMERICAN HUSTLE was set, but no longer.Only the true crowd-pleasers have this kind of staying power these days.

 

This review can also be found at AccessReel.com

Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

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(2013) USA/New Zealand, 161 minutes

DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson | CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner |RATING: 3.5/5

I wasn’t looking forward to SMAUG, THE DESOLATION OF. There were reasons. Mostly because the first part of the trilogy THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was a messy and lacklustre affair. It did not compare well with any of director Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

The original book The Hobbit is a quite straightforward tale with an interventionist narrative voice. It has a kind of 1940s English nursery feel about it. Depending on your point of view, this can seem cosy or cloying. The Hobbit was written specifically for children. It has a quite different tone to that which Tolkien employed in his later Lord of the Rings novels. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were connected, but very different.  Unfortunately, in looking to make the movie prequels seem more congruent to their sequels, the original tale has become somewhat trampled and blurred.

The original story has hobbit Bilbo Baggins, accompanying a party of thirteen dwarves to Erebor, a.k.a the Lonely Mountain. Here the expedition’s leader, Thorin Oakenshield, hopes to regain the magnificent gold-filled kingdom of his grandfather. This involves locating a gem known as the Arkenstone and confronting Smaug, the dragon who conquered Erebor in the first place.

When we left AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Bilbo and the dwarves were rescued from a protracted battle scene. They were dropped off at The Carrock by giant eagles and left in sight of the distant Lonely Mountain, leading us to wonder whether the eagles are like taxis and the dwarves just ran out of money.

The second movie, unlike this review, gets moving speedily.  I wasn’t fully into it until the 30-minute mark, but from there I was rarely bored. The flick is replete with excellent CG creatures. Beorn in bear form, the Mirkwood Spiders and of course Smaug himself are all excellently brought to life. The more humanoid folk are a little less interesting. All the orcs are dull and although they are visually different from each other, they feel like cookie cutter villains; seemingly one orc, multiplied.

There has been some attempt to more clearly distinguish the dwarves from each other. Thorin is obviously the Big Cheese. As King Under The Mountain, he is a handsome and rather tall dwarf whose connections stretch back generations to New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records. Fili and Kili are Thorin’s nephews and also fall into the ‘hot dwarf’ category. The rest of the crew are harder to sort. There’s Balin, the eldest, who reminds me of the actor and third Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee. There’s Bofur who reminds me of James Nesbitt from Cold Feet because he is played by James Nesbitt. From there it gets a little hazy. There’s one who seems gone but keeps returning, called Fifo, there’s a sculptor named Fimo, Nori the seaweed farmer, Ritalin, Ventolin, Oin, Gloin and Duh-Doin.

New to the trilogy is the elf character Tauriel played by Canadian actor Evangeline Lily. Like Liv Tyler’s Arwen in LOTR, Tauriel exists because it’s the 21st century and the story needs an ongoing female character. She is one of the elves we meet in Mirkwood. Orlando Bloom reappears as Legolas and he joins Tauriel in the running, jumping, shooting arrows and killing orcs bits. These are very entertaining. If you look closely, Mr Bloom looks a little older, but because he has the aid of world-class make-up and special effects and he is not as other mortal men, he gets away with it.  ­­

Oddly, there is something of a love triangle constructed between Tauriel and Legolas and Kili. It’s not in the book, but who am I to quibble? Can a dwarf not look upon an elf? Interestingly, Lily is on record saying that her one stipulation when she took the gig was to not be involved in a tacked on romantic subplot. When she was called back for the 2013 reshoots, apparently all that material had been added.

The seemingly tacked on section that continues to bore me is the Necromancer stuff. Yeah, I get that it will lead to the giant Battle of the Five Armies in part 3. And it is the bit with Gandalf of whom there is too little. However, it doesn’t feel like it contributes to the forward motion of the story. I hear tell that the writers  (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyes and Guillermo del Toro) raided The Hobbit footnotes, The Silmarillion, Finnish mythology and The Berenstain Bears Visit The Dentist in order to add to the relatively svelte narrative of the original book.

I saw the 3D High Frame Rate version. As usual, I don’t give a rat’s about 3D and it was neither here nor there or back again as far as I was concerned. The High Frame Rate seemed less obtrusive this time, but needs further development.

All up then, as a nit-picky easily disgruntled reviewer, I believe I am now sufficiently acclimatised to this new world. It is not the book version of The Hobbit. It is more like an epic-ified adventure, based on The Hobbit. A Raiders of the Lost Arkenstone, if you will. I was mostly entertained and felt drawn back into Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

Film Review: Thor – The Dark World

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(2013) USA, 112 minutes

DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor | CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings | RATING: 2.5/5

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is the sequel the 2011 movie THOR. It is the third outing for the hammer-wielding crown prince of Asgard who also appeared in THE AVENGERS (2012). All three movies are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which refers to the movie continuity created by Marvel Entertainment. It includes Iron Man and Captain America and will include the forthcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

THOR: THE DARK WORLD has a fairly dull and unmemorable title. The Dark of the title reflects the involvement of its bad guy threat known as The Dark Elves. Turns out the Frost Giants of the first movie were not the lamest villains of the Nine Realms (a.k.a The Universe) it’s these guys. These naughty Elves want to kill Thor’s people the Asgardians. The Asgardians are portrayed as benevolent space knights, policing the Realms, maintaining order, stopping, frisking and profiling anyone who isn’t Asgardian. I may have made up the last bit.

In the olden times just after The Rolling Stones released their Steel Wheels album, the swarthy elves from Svartalfheim attempted to Destroy Everything and Make The Universe Dark. These guys are to the Nine Realms what the Tea Party is to US politics. Their leader, Malekith is like a deathly white, pony-tailed version of Ted Cruz. Their weapon of Mass Destruction was a cosmic power-slime known as the Aether. Luckily for all of us, the Dark Elves lost control of the Aether and they lost the war. Now thousands of years later, they are back in the ring to take another swing.

It’s all about timing, see. According to THOR: CITIZENS ON PATROL The Nine Realms are set to converge, thus bringing them closer together, thus requiring much less effort and energy to pass from one Realm to another. Enter astrophysicist and proponent of the Foster Theory, Jane Foster. She discovers the Realms are bleeding into each other. Yeah and she used to have a boyfriend from Asgard called Thor, but that’s not the main event here, people! Superhero movies cannot be about the ROMANCE! They’re about superhot beings fighting other superhot beings and BLOWING SHIT UP! KA-BOOM!

Sidenote: I guess someone could remake the movie of THE NOTEBOOK with superheroes and it would be about love, commitment, fidelity and not blowing shit up. I think it’s unlikely to happen because commonsense informs us that a male superhero is not great material for a monogamous relationship. Apart from Superman they’ve all got that rockstar-badass routine going on, they’re in better shape than an Olympic Village full of athletes and you will never be the centre of their attention. Captain Save-The-World doesn’t go missing for a couple of hours because he’s vaguing out at Bunnings, he’s  deactivating a dirty bomb at the U.N. And so it goes with THOR: THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD. It’s not really about Jane hooking up with Thor, which probably makes a certain type of fan breathe a sigh of relief, but it annoyed me. End of sidenote.

Thor’s family problems continue, his father Odin, is still the distant, controlling authority figure. They argue less frequently now, because Thor has evolved into a caring, modern warrior as a result of his hot, asexual triste with Dr Foster. The stepbrother Loki who went through a fascist phase in THE AVENGERS: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is still pissed off at his brother and dad. He seethes indignantly in an Asgardian cell waiting for his revenge.

Thus is the stage set for a battle of unparalleled fury. Not since the last one of these Marvel movies has the threat been so menacing, has the universe been more in danger, have the stakes been so high.  You may find the familiarity of this set up makes portions of the film rather predictable.

The Dark Elves are not sufficiently well drawn to represent a threat. I also found most of the Asgard scenes rather dull visually and in terms of the story. The high ceilings, great halls and golden glow of Thor’s home have the feel of a glitzy mausoleum. Actors dress in faux armour, affect British accents and employ pseudo Olde English to create a yawn-inducing world of shining boringness. As in the first movie, the scenes back on Earth play with more snap.

There are things to like about this curate’s egg of a movie. It’s good to see Kat Dennings back as Darcy and Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig. Renee Russo gets a couple of nice moments as Thor’s mother Frigga. (Apparently her time in the first movie was scaled back after editing). Chris O’Dowd from the IT CROWD has a pleasing comedic cameo. CHUCK’s Zachary Levi takes on the Errol Flynn-like character of Fandral (of The Warriors Three). He replaces Josh Dallas who had to complete his commitments on ONCE UPON A TIME. Hiddleston’s Loki remains a very entertaining creation. Watching him interact with Hemsworth is still great fun.

I wasn’t sold on this film, but I enjoyed myself more than I didn’t. After finding the first two thirds of the movie intermittently engaging, I was pleased to discover the last third was solid. The big climactic battle is executed with wit and humour to undercut its computer-generated been-there-before-ness. THOR: I AM…SASCHA FIERCE more or less defies criticism. Certain fans will give it a pass because of its Marvel-ness. They should go immediately to their local multiplex and pay for a ticket. If like me, you aren’t a Marvel fan, then you may find as I did that this sequel is not the equal of the original.

I rated the original THOR 3/5.