The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 

Let’s get this out of the way up front. The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies is not at good as the first 2 Hobbit films. But it provides much to enjoy and, as it’s the end of the trilogy, it delivers resolution.

2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had a wonderful bit of light-hearted fun as the dwarves engaged Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to be their burglar. The mix of hilarity and peril was in perfect balance. The scene with Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) trading riddles is classic. Director Peter Jackson created a film that was beautiful to look at and set the table for further adventures.

2013’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ramped up the peril and introduced new characters, including the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Oliver Bloom) are brought aboard to provide eye candy. And the Laketown village was visually stunning.

The start of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings Smaug out of his cave to attack the Laketown village with fire and taunts. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that the dragon is decisively neutralized.

The film’s main course is battles aplenty. But there’s a problem: when all the various factions face off, you can’t always tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It’s like in Syria, where so many factions are trying to gain traction. But, as in Syria where everybody opposes ISIS, so too in Hobbit III, everybody hates this one particular group of Orcs.

The final showdown up on the mountain involves several fierce one-on-one hand-to-hand battles. It’s classic, violent, enthralling stuff that provides the film’s real soul.

Afterward, Bilbo and Gandolph (Ian McKellan) hoof it back home where the locals are busy auctioning off Bilbo’s goods, presuming him dead. A brief coda flashes forward and provides a satisfying conclusion for the hobbit, setting him up for what’s to come in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One could argue that lengthy battle scenes with director Jackson’s terrific effects are what the audience wants. And one could reasonably argue that it’s appropriate for the Hobbit films to get progressively darker. But I still like the first 2 better.

 

 

 

 

Wild

 

A thousand mile walk is long and tedious. So is Wild.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. She spends three months on the trail, covering 1,100 miles, to reset her life. Cheryl’s issues are examined in numerous flashbacks.

The scenery is gorgeous. From the sparse vegetation and rattlesnakes of the desert to the verdant woodlands and foxes of the mountains, Wild gloriously displays the beauty of nature. Director Jean-Marc Vallée contrasts the peace and serenity of the trail to the tumult and pain of Cheryl’s personal life.

Her father was abusive. Her mother (Laura Dern) left her husband, took her 2 kids and raised them to embrace the joys of life, no matter the circumstances. When Cheryl’s mother dies from a fast-moving cancer, Cheryl’s personal problems intensify. She becomes promiscuous and shoots heroin. Cheryl and husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) try to work through her infidelities. Although they have split, he sends her supplies along the hike and offers encouragement.

Reese Witherspoon lets down her vanity and lets viewers see her raw with no makeup (and in the raw in some of the scenes of her downward spiral before the hike. Although she brings condoms galore in her backpack, in the film she only has one hookup along way.) Reese’s Cheryl goes from a clueless rube as she begins her odyssey to a seasoned, more confident woodsman as she reaches Washington state. An emotional conversation with a young child she meets on the trail near the journey’s end is designed to trigger audience tears.

Call me insensitive, but I was way more interested in the trek and the people and situations she encounters along the trail than I was in Cheryl’s backstory. Watching a novice hiker take on this immense challenge is, for me, a chance to live vicariously on a long-distance hike that I will never have the time or energy to do.

While the print version of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir was universally praised, the telling of her life events via flashbacks on the movie screen fails to elicit the necessary level of emotional investment from me to make this movie one I can embrace to the degree others have. Wild has its moments, but, for me, it’s not “special.”

 

 

 

 

 

Exodus: God And Kings

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film. It is epic like the epics of old from David Lean and C.B. DeMille. And like modern day epics from James Cameron and, well, Ridley Scott (director of E:GAK). Which is to say, Exodus Gods and Kings is big, bold and ambitious.

The settings and the vistas are magnificent. In the old days, an epic’s trailer would mention “a cast of thousands.” In modern filmmaking, thousands of humans are not actually required to be on hand, but the shots of huge slave villages and giant projects (such as the Pyramids) provide a realistic looking depiction of what life may have been like way back in the B.C. day.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses learns of his true lineage and, after several years away from the center of Hebrew servitude to the Egyptians, returns to set his people free.

Moses goes into the mountains to talk to God. The Burning Bush is there, but the voice of God is represented by a young child (Issac Andrews) whose messages to Moses are sometimes delivered rather sternly. The kid does a great job.

How to convince pharaoh Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) to free the slaves? How about a series of plagues? 3-D embellishes the horror of the plagues, which range from locusts to flies to frogs to boils on skins. The final plague, death of a family’s firstborn, does the trick.

The exodus of the Jews climaxes with their pause at the shore of the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses and Scott do the trick of ensuring safe passage a bit differently from Charlton Heston’s Moses and DeMille.

Bale is excellent as Moses, strong but not overbearing. Edgerton seems a bit uncomfortable as Ramesses. The Egyptian style which has men encircling their eyes in eye shadow makes him look feminine, which I don’t think is the intended effect.

Also in the film’s cast are Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro.

Exodus: Gods and Kings runs 2:23 from the opening Fox logo to director Ridley Scott’s touching dedication of the movie to his brother Tony Scott, also a film director, who committed suicide in 2012.

If you like epic films and if you like Christian Bale, don’t miss it. But I can’t designate E:GAK a “must-see” film. (You may have many opportunities to see this film down the road as it could well become a TV classic for religious holiday viewing, just like The Ten Commandments was for many a decade.)

Whiplash

 

Ever had a mentor who pushed you too hard to succeed? Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a music teacher who abuses his students, especially Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash.

The drums prodigy has made it to the fictional Schaeffer Music Conservatory in hopes of being the next Buddy Rich. Andrew has a bit of swagger. He’s filled with confidence and ambition.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has created two memorable characters. The performances of both actors are award-worthy, but both should be grateful for such powerful roles. Look for Chazelle to be mentioned, too, when nominations are announced.

Chazelle also tells a story that many can relate to. If you’ve ever been bullied by a teacher, a coach, a boss, a parent, a spouse or other domineering individual, you can easily identify with Andrew. Fletcher sees his “tough love” teaching as a good thing, a way to push an individual to achieve higher levels of performance. Fletcher says the worst thing you can say to a young performer is “good job.”

Although other students tell Andrew that Fletcher’s “bark is worse than his bite,” the pressure to perform up to his teacher’s tough standards is difficult. An incident leads Andrew to confront Fletcher physically. The fallout from the encounter affects both men.

The film’s final act is a genius piece of storytelling and a wonderful bit of filmmaking. The conflict between Fletcher and Andrew drives the ending of Whiplash to an unexpected conclusion.

The music performances in Whiplash are entertaining and are presented with great shot variety. Miles Teller does a good job convincing us that he’s a talented drummer. A hat tip goes to Paul Reiser who plays Andrew’s dad.

Whiplash is one of my favorite movies of 2014. I think you’ll be hearing more about this one as awards season swings into gear.

 

 

Horrible Bosses 2

 

Horrible Bosses 2 reminds me of a Saturday Night Live bit that fizzles. HB2, like those misfired SNL sketches, has a ridiculous setup and plot, actors you like who are wasting their talents and a handful of chuckles that make it almost palatable.

When you’re watching SNL, you hang in because you know the bit that’s dying will be over soon. With Horrible Bosses 2, you keep waiting for it to get better and hating yourself for having chosen to watch it.

Here’s the setup: After plotting to kill their bosses in the 2011 Horrible Bosses, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have decided to start their own company so they won’t have to deal with bad bosses again.

They develop a product called the Shower Buddy. They show it off on TV. The bit features a visual sexual joke that was done much better in the Austin Powers movies. The TV host (Keegan Michael-Kay) is stunned by the name of their company which sounds like a slur: Nick-Kurt-Dale.

After Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and his son Rex (Chris Pine) back out of a deal to buy all their Shower Buddys, the trio decide to take drastic action. Here’s where the plot, which centers on kidnapping, becomes ludicrous.

Part of the scheme involves breaking into Julia Harris’s (Jennifer Aniston) to steal laughing gas. As the break-in is underway, she shows up to conduct a sexual addiction self-help group. The hilarity here is minimal, as it is throughout much of the film. (If you enjoyed hearing Aniston talk dirty in the first film, there’s more for you here in HB2. I’m not a prude but I felt kind of embarrassed for her.)

Also in the film is Kevin Spacey, as a horrible boss now incarcerated for crimes committed in the first film. When the trio visits him in prison for business advice, he provides a laugh or two with his profane putdowns. Jamie Foxx plays a hood who participates in the kidnapping.

Honestly, I found the outtakes at the end of the film to be the funniest part of Horrible Bosses 2.

Before you put down good money to see Horrible Bosses 2, take a moment to consider what else is available at your local movie house. There are better options. (Scroll down through this review site for a few good suggestions.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is more than just a bridge to next year’s finale. Things happen. Characters grow.

Having rebuked President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes an ally of the rebels. Realizing her power, she agrees to be a voice for those opposing Snow. President Coin (Julianne Moore) leads the opposition with key advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Heavensbee drafts Katniss for a series of videos, directed by Cressida (Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones). Cressida has a Skrillex haircut and a long vine tattoo on her left side—it’s a distinctive look. (Heavensbee’s guidance reminded me about Hoffman’s role as another crafty political consultant in The Ides of March.)

After scripted attempts at a propaganda clip fall short, Katniss and crew go on location for passionate, ad-libbed speeches that rip the Capitol crew to shreds. There’s also an action segment where Katniss takes down a fighter jet attacking District 8 with a well-directed arrow (with an explosive tip).

All the while, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is ensconced in the Capitol with several other survivors from the most recent Hunger Games. Like Katniss, Peeta is a media tool. Every time he appears on the Capitol’s TV feed, she watches intently.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 brings new versions of certain series characters. Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is now sober and not happy about it, thanks to Coin’s prohibition of booze. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has doffed her outrageous wigs and dresses for a do rag and olive drab jumpsuit. Hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still more like a big brother to Katniss, but there appears to be something stronger between them this time.

Among the questions unanswered in THG: M1… Is Peeta’s call for the rebels to stand down sincere or is he just saying these things to save his skin? Is Snow being overly cocky as he plays mind games with Katniss and the rebels? Do the rebels have necessary firepower to take down the Snow regime? Will Coin turn out to benevolent or will power corrupt? And will Katniss and Peeta ever be a real couple? Stay tuned—Part 2 comes your way in exactly one year!

 

 

 

 

 

The Theory Of Everything

 

In a star-making role, Eddie Redmayne brings a brilliant performance to the screen as nerdy genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His portrayal is the reason to see this film.

The film has three plot elements: Hawking’s romance with Jane (Felicity Jones), his challenge due to physical issues and his work as a cosmologist. Because the brainy stuff is way over the heads of most of us, it gets less play. Because Hawking’s deteriorating condition is so heartbreaking and sad, even in brief scenes, it’s the love story that provides the real essence of the movie.

Hawking’s dogged pursuit of Jane starts the movie. It climaxes with an evening at a spring dance that provides one of the more truly romantic sequences seen in movies this year.

Following marriage, Hawking outlives initial prognosis that gave him just two more years of life. He and Jane try to maintain what normalcy they can. They have kids. His work leads him to teaching along with assembling his thoughts on the physical nature of being.

Jane’s fatigue leads her to join a church choir to relieve the stress of caring for her husband. (She is a religious woman; he cannot accept the possibility of God.) When she meets the choir director, Jonathon (Charlie Cox) it is obvious that they are going to hook up. But that comes after several years of a platonic friendship that includes Stephen.

When Hawking’s condition becomes more than Jane can handle, she brings in Elaine (Maxine Peake). Hawking’s affection grows for the new caretaker and he invites her to take care of him on his trip to America to promote his book A Brief History of Time.

Regarding Time and History, the film begins in summer 1963 (with Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave playing), but director James Marsh does not provide good indicators of time passage along the way. I had to consult Wikipedia to find out that it was 1988 when the book was published.

Marsh makes up for it with a end sequence that recaps the story of Stephen and Jane, reminding the audience that despite his debilitating condition, he lived life to the fullest and managed to accomplish more that most of us able bodied folks. (At age 72, the real-life Hawking is still alive.) It’s an upbeat end that adds a good vibe to that established by Redmayne’s acting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dumb And Dumber To

 

Yes, Dumb and Dumber To is funny! The humor, from the Farrelly Brothers, is silly and frequently disgusting. But there are laughs—big and small—to be enjoyed and that’s why you see a movie like this.

Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) team up again after 20 years. It’s quickly revealed that Harry visited the institutionalized Lloyd every week for those 2 decades. When Harry tells Lloyd he needs a kidney, they embark on a mission to find a living blood relative who might donate one.

Dumb And Dumber To quickly becomes a caper film. When Harry finds mail from years back naming him as the father of a child, he visits the child’s mother Fraida (Kathleen Turner) who gives them the address of the girl’s adoptive parents.

Fraida’s daughter Penny (Rachel Melvin) is just as dumb as Harry and Lloyd. She’s also gorgeous and Lloyd develops a crush, based on her photo. Despite her lack of smarts, she’s sent to an egghead conference in El Paso to deliver a speech on behalf of her ailing dad. Harry and Lloyd go there to meet her and deliver a package for the adoptive dad. The story gets more absurd from there.

Dumb And Dumber To features clever visual jokes, including those that result from a ridiculous mix of cuisines and cultures at an El Paso restaurant. The sight of a Zamboni flying down a highway is chuckle-inducing. The pursuit of a hearing aid for Harry leads to an oddly personal—and funny—encounter with a nursing home resident.

Dumb And Dumber To does not offer life lessons, hope for mankind or commentary on the human condition. Just laughs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Hero 6

 

What a cool movie! If I were a 12-year-old kid, the new animated film Big Hero 6 could easily become an all-time favorite!

Big Hero 6 has robots, action, sadness and joy. And it sets the table for more adventures for this sextet (who don’t really refer to themselves Big Hero 6 until the end of the movie).

Big Hero 6 presents a clever blend of America and Japan. It’s set in San Fransokyo, a city with cable cars and steep hills and also has cherry blossom trees. The lead character is Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a teenager with a Japanese name but no discernable Japanese features. An African-American character has the nickname Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans, Jr.).

The movie shows influences from films of the anime genre, but it doesn’t have the look of typical Japanese anime. And, in this first year without an official Pixar release in 2 decades, Big Hero 6 fills the gap nicely. (Like 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 is made under the Disney Animation nameplate, but has that Pixar look and feel.)

Hiro is a boy genius. Already done with high school, he spends his time building robots. Big Hero 6 opens with robots doing battle, a la Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Ems. When Hiro’s brother shows him around the “nerd school” he attends, Hiro applies. To gain admission, he builds microbots which, when performing together, can do amazing things.

When tragedy strikes his family and the “nerd school” and Hiro’s bots disappear, he engages 4 of his brother’s friends and an amazing inflatable robot named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). Baymax provides many funny moments along with his heroics. Baymax is designed to diagnose medical issues in humans, but is quickly shown to have greater abilities.

An evil villain gains control of the microbots and, with his commands, is able to move them in ways that call to mind certain scenes in various Japanese animes. The pursuit of the villain and the resolution of the adventure are not quite as entertaining as the film’s beginning—especially that first visit to “nerd school.” But, overall, Big Hero 6 provides great fun and cool robots.

In case you’re unaware, Big Hero 6 is adapted from a Marvel comic book series, so stick around for a special coda after the credits.

 

 

Interstellar

 

“Time is a flat circle,” said Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle in TV’s True Detective last winter. In Interstellar, McConaughey’s character Cooper is concerned with time, space, gravity, wormholes, black holes, extra dimensions as well as family and love. It’s a sci-fi fantasy filled with suspenseful adventure, memorable spectacular effects and heartfelt philosophizing about the fate of our species.

Director Christopher Nolan’s newest movie is big, loud and ambitious. In an IMAX theater, with speakers aplenty, you almost feel the G forces of Interstellar‘s space travel scenes. Hans Zimmer’s score is not shy about bringing emotion and volume. The composer is a certain Oscar nominee.

Cooper is a widower with 2 kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Their welfare is his #1 concern. He’s a former astronaut, now working as a farmer in a Kansas-looking flatland. (Plains scenes were shot in Alberta.) Dust storms—not unlike dustbowl storms of the 1930s—have ruined all crops on earth, save corn. The planet is in big trouble.

When mystical happenings occur, young Murphy suspects ghosts. Her dad suspects something more physical. Magnetism, gravitation anomalies or other forces lead him to a hidden fortress in the mountains where he finds… NASA!

The population has become so disenchanted with the U.S. space program that history books have been revised to tell of moon landings that were staged in an effort to bankrupt the Russians. So, NASA has gone underground, literally.

In short order, Cooper’s former boss Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) recruits him to fly a mission to Saturn where a wormhole appeared a few decades back. Earlier brave astronauts made it to the other side of the wormhole; Cooper and crew are charged with bursting through, checking on the prior travelers and determining if three particular worlds in that new dimension are suitable for sustaining human existence. Is their mission to save their own families or to save the species?

Cooper’s crew includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Brand’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). After 2 years of travel, they touch down in shallow water on a new planet. Shortly after exploration begins, an enormous wave approaches, leading to a harrowing escape. They go off to a new, very cold planet where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in an uncredited role) in suspended animation. Events there lead to another hasty exit.

Interstellar’s final act involves many back-and-forth cuts between events in space and those on earth. Our heroes have not aged significantly during their time in space, but back home, Cooper’s kids have become adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck). The earth continues to be ravaged by dust storms. Meanwhile, beyond the wormhole, Cooper and crew work to define and to achieve satisfactory results.

Nolan’s Interstellar (co-written by the director and his brother Jonathon AKA Jonah Nolan) is a gigantic movie, clocking in at 2:45. It is efficiently made. Scenes that don’t necessarily advance the story help delineate the characters and the settings.

Some notes about Interstellar: The underground bunker where NASA is based reminds me of a Bond villain’s lair. The excessive exposition about time and math and gravitational anomalies quickly becomes tedious—I wonder if Steven Hawking will pause the DVD to see if their blackboard formulas are correct.

The little girl who plays the child version of Murph looks like a young Anne Hathaway. A few of the film’s effects recall similar bits in Nolan’s Inception. I loved the cool robots TARS (voiced by Bill Erwin) and CASE—loyal servants and deftly mobile. The cast also includes Topher Grace as adult Murph’s doctor friend and John Lithgow as Cooper’s father-in-law.

Interstellar is not the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 but it has enough going for it to merit an Oscar nomination. Nolan should receive a best director nomination. McConaughey is a possible contender for best actor. Effects, makeup and sound production crews could be taking home awards as well.

I think audiences will enjoy Interstellar because it infuses science with humanity. Last year in Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone talked about her earthly concerns; in Interstellar Cooper’s family is onscreen and is a major part of the film. Interstellar plays on our survival instinct. Several times in the film, Caine’s Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem about fighting off death, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Interstellar does not go gentle. It rages against the dying of the light.