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amateurish, pretentious, vital and watchable, 23 January 2015

Hey, give the kid a break, would ya? Thought lost for many years, this first short film directed by a 17 year old (!) Todd Haynes, was rediscovered in 2014 and put as a special feature on the DVD for the movie 'Safe'. What is it about? In short: a middle school kid right on the edge of puberty (his voice sounds eerily alike to that of whoever voiced Charlie Brown) is contemplating suicide in his bathroom. Or, rather, the film cuts back and forth of him 'doing it' with a scissor across his belly in agonizing slow-motion, to his tortured school life. Bullies, lack of any contact with girls, a doting mother, and a playful senior high-school tutor make his life a kind of awful existence. The lack of a father doesn't help, either, and all of this becomes a jumble for this kid, who also narrates his story.

It's someone who has never picked up a camera or told a story on film before doing so, and the results are what you might expect from someone who has likely seen his fair share of art-house/1970's films and, of course, being a teenager on the outside looking in: it's rough, it's stitched together and edited frenetically, and the acting is done by probably whomever Haynes and company could find (one actor is named Allen Haynes, a relative or sibling probably). When you watch a movie under such circumstances, perspective is needed. I couldn't watch this and give it the same critical eye I would on Velvet Goldmine or Mildred Pierce, movies made with more people and better equipment (likely, as Spileberg did in his early films, he got an 8mm and just decided to make a f***ing movie!)

There are some signs of a budding artist here, to be sure, and big fans of Haynes' approach to experimental narrative (Poison, Superstar, I'm Not There to an extent) may see some of the early signs of what's to come. For the most part, it's kind of a weird sit, it can get choppy, actors talk to the camera awkwardly, and the ending is kind of a cop out. And yet, it's still enjoyable and deliriously fun, in its bittersweet (mostly bitter) way about its lead. It's sloppy, but in the way that you do want to see what this guy will do with a budget.

Safe (1995)
austere, ambiguous, in many interesting ways, 23 January 2015

Julianne Moore plays Carol, and Carol is not in the best way really. Something is... off. Oh, she lives very comfortably in the San Fernando Valley, with her husband and their son (well, his son, her step-son), in a house that is so wide and lush with placid colors and spacious rooms and she can go and do her work-outs and select colors for the sofas (wait, why is it black, it should be teal - drama), and have lunches with her friends where they try to get her to go on all-fruit diets to cleanse and... does she have any thoughts or identity of her own? Hard to say or see it. No passions really, no inner-self, but why should she need it, she has the home and husband and car and LA is so... ugly and dirty, and full of smog that makes her cough and gag relentlessly. Oh, and she has asthma, but that seems second-fiddle to what is really wrong her: everything.

Haynes makes Carol the lead in this story, about how she tries to become 'healthy' by joining a group, the Wrenwood, where she can join with other people also trying to find health and purity of some kind, and yet she is never really comfortable in being herself. Who is Carol? She is mostly defined, as we see in both Haynes' writing and direction, by other people, and also as by herself. For long periods in this film, Carol is off by herself, or other characters are seen in long-view, wide shots, where the loneliness and space is emphasized. Characters may be 'close' at times with one another, but even then there's a distance to people in the frame, and Carol has the distance constantly. Even by herself she's on the margins, and even if she doesn't mean it to be so (or especially if that's the case) she may 'need' these new people, but at what cost?

We want her to get better, but it's not simply because she is the protagonist. She could be any woman, or even most men, lost in a kind of society where terms and status and a sense of self-worth aren't determined by what the individual wants. At the same time there is a pretty clear commentary on AIDS - I wasn't sure if Haynes was going to have anyone say it out loud, but it's present, and a character at the Wrenwood has AIDS - as far as what a person has to deal with when a disease that doesn't really have any clear-cut cure is prevalent. Surely the 'cyst' that Moore has in the latter part of the film - she gets sicker really, you see, on the outside as she says, or means to say, that she is getting 'better' - is meant to symbolize the lesions AIDS victims would get when the disease worsens.

But Haynes doesn't make anything easy here, which makes it so fascinating and mesmerizing. Initially, it almost seems like it could be difficult to get into. Nothing is very much dramatized here, even when Carol passes out and has a seizure from a fumigation in a laundromat (maybe that comes closest, to be fair). Things happen at a slow pace, and the emotions conveyed are subtle, calm (I was reminded of the recent Foxcatcher overall, to give a recent comparison). But things build, and beneath the subtlety and nuance and every-day that Carol goes through the eerie sense of humanity is always there.

And what's great is that nothing is so easily explained as 'oh, this is where it is'. There's a scene where Carol gets her hair done - is it too extreme, it's just a perm, the 80's after all - but right after it she gets a nose-bleed. Is it from the sickness? Is the room just dry? Could be anything. Nothing is so easily explained away except that, yes, she's sick. From what?

The 20th century perhaps? Safe could be read as pretentious fodder for the malaise of contemporary culture (just typing that makes me feel 'ugh'). But Julianne Moore makes it so vivid and powerful because she holds back and makes Carol so fragile and desperate and delicate. In many moments I was worried she might crack, like some precious vase, but there's more to what Moore is doing here. She knows there are women like this in the world, defined by others, unsure, psychosomatic to a degree. So that by the time the ending comes, after all this time around what is essentially a cult - maybe a "good" cult, or maybe not, can a cult be anything but harmful, but is it really, these are questions I kept asking, it's so tricky - when she is staring at a mirror saying "I love you" over and over... it's heartbreaking, and raw, and kind of 'WTF' in a peculiar way.

Safe is imperfect but in the best way an original. 9.5/10

High Noon (1952)
"What will I doooooo?", 20 January 2015

Gary Cooper's Marshall Kane could have left town. He is already on the horse and carriage with his new wife (Grace Kelly, perhaps out of his league in age but whatever, I'm sure they have their reasons). He knows that the dastardly villain Frank Miller, who was put in jail for good reason by Kane for a crime that should've had him hanged, is out on pardon and on his way back to the town to get his revenge. He knows the town would be in danger from him and his posse (including the likes of Lee van Cleef!) But... something's not right about running away. He could, but where would it get anyone? Miller would still continue to terrorize the people, and would likely come after him someway or somehow. No, this won't do - so he returns, and tries to gather up some deputies. Not only can he find practically no one to be at his side, people actively tell him he's wrong for a number or reasons.

High Noon was made without ambiguity as an allegory for the period, namely for Hollywood writers and creators and actors who has to be put up against the BS HUAC and without many to help them in the Communist inquests. Who can you seek help with when fear comes up around everyone? What makes High Noon last though, why it's been homaged and parodied and remake over the years, is because, like with another 1950's parable genre film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it could apply to a lot of things in this world. Teamwork, adversity, ignorance, cowardice, themes and dramatic conflicts presented in High Noon don't just have the time and place of the Communist paranoia, otherwise, frankly, the film would be dated. This is what John Wayne couldn't get through his thick skull when he went on to attack the film (the one good thing to come out was his "response" with Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo). Or, as it was speculated according to IMDb trivia, he secretly wanted the role of Kane for himself - and might've made it, also frankly, more unrealistic.

Cooper is world-weary but keeps pressing on, loaded with sweat, the Tomkin sung song traveling with him like he's Radio Raheem with 'Fight the Power' in Do the Right Thing. He just needs a few good deputies, and yet everyone tells him he's wrong, nuts, foolish, or maybe just the situation itself is just too much - a little more time, not just the hour and change as the minutes keep ticking till the noon train arrives, things could be different - and this conflict of getting people and others telling Kane to just stop and run away, this makes for wonderful tension. There's probably a reason this is called the "western for people who don't like Westerns', because it could be about any time: replace the Miller- led gunslingers with gangsters and it could be set in the 1930's; change it to ronin and you get... Seven Samurai, to a degree, if they couldn't get the 'Seven' that is.

There are a couple of things for me that keep it from being really a full-blown 'classic', at least on first viewing. I didn't fully buy the performance from the Mexican woman and character, Katy Jurado. She's not bad, but something about her is kind of stiff and one- note. Grace Kelly, at first, seemed that way too, but the more I understood her character as the loving Quaker wife with good intentions but a sharp mind and instincts, I liked her a lot more. One or two minor supporting turns from the cast also stick out, but perhaps they'll grow on me over time when I return to the film. Certainly Lloyd Bridges is excellent, giving his scenes an intensity as he is burning with conflict - the deputy who has been in town for so long and is finally giving up, but should he? And should he get into a fight with the momentarily- doubtful Kane as he's in the horse stable? That fight alone is worth the 'price of admission' as they say.

Zinneman may be using symbols, via Kramer's production ethos, but they didn't come off as heavy-handed for me. What is so striking is just how compacted everything is, and how Cooper makes this a performance about stress and being a hero who may very well be reluctant and tired and 'what the hell am I DOING doing this?' But he internalizes it, rarely has to vocalize it, and when he does (like when he has a conversation with his mentor, an older Marshall I think), it counts. Seeing him move through his town, that face matched with all the others, it's a performance for the ages even if you're not crazy about Cooper's other pictures in general. And by the time noon comes and s*** gets real, the actors and filmmaker are so totally in sync that it's hard not to be caught up in the sensation that anything can happen. We have a thought it will turn out OK - it's the 1950's code-era Hollywood after all - but the dread is certainly there and maintained well.

And that song...

creepy, but not very 'funny', 20 January 2015

Jason Stone is the director of this odd little short film that somehow, years later, inspired Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - who were involved in writing and producing this - to make the wonderfully sophomoric and smart-dumb This is the End. This short just has Seth and Jay, who we later see in the feature, as 'themselves', though it's not quite the kind of apocalypse that one might see in the feature (it should be noted you can check out the short on the blu-ray of 'End'). It's mostly an excuse for the filmmaker to show off a ratty and scuzzy apartment the two characters of the same actors names are in, and how they argue throughout about going outside or doing this or that or not. It's not really 'bad', but it's not all that funny, except for a few quips that sound unscripted. The acting is kind of forced - I think Rogen was still getting better as an actor but not quite there yet - as they argue about the roof or faucets or food or whatever. It's only ten minutes long, but feels longer, mostly due to pacing.

Again, not a badly made film at all, if anything Stone should be commended for a creepy atmosphere and an ambiance of dread, as everything is dark and weird and off-putting just in the look of the location. I just wish that there was more focus in what Rogen and Baruchel were doing together on screen. Anything that's funny is kind of accidental, and the end is inevitable but probably could've used a little more time to set up or execute. I sound like I'm hard on this, but it's mostly due to expectations: after loving the feature so much I thought the short would be this cool little nugget that could be worked upon. There's no real satire here about celebrity, it's just a couple of goofs trying to figure stuff out but not very well, or very entertaining is the thing.

It's a good curiosity, though I can see why the filmmakers decided to expand it and make it more of an epic comedy about vanity and ego. There's only slivers of that here, and a lot of, frankly, tedium.

Selma (2014)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Selma works., 19 January 2015

Selma, about the events leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and how Martin Luther King and his group faced adversity at every turn to get equal voting rights, is one of the better films this year (that is to say, it's just shy of my top 10 list, but it's still really really really good).

Oyelowo and director DuVernay turned in fantastic work. I can see why you'd say the filmmaking does matter here. What I loved about the movie were actually the little moments, quiet scenes where King is trying to figure out what he'll write or talking in hushed tones in a prison cell, or (what I didn't expect) the scene where the extramarital question is raised and done in brilliant drama between King and his wife - that is particularly a wonderful scene with so much weight in this room that is surrounded by the threat of death, but it still all comes down to love.

Is it a perfect film? May be not, but it really is directed and presented with vitality and especially now it's more (sadly) relevant than ever between the cop murders and voter disenfranchisement in the south. When you're watching scenes that are really set pieces for the major events that unfold with people being beaten and killed ruthlessly, it's hard to watch - which is the point. DuVernay doesn't turn away, and gives it the harrowing edge of an action film. If she is at all manipulative as a filmmaker, it's for the right reasons for this story. Get people taking notice, not sitting there too complacent at a boilerplate story of black uprising. The way she shoots and executes the action, and how the actors play it - it matters.

Oh, and to briefly address this because it's come up: and Johnson doesn't really come off that well in the film. But you know what? He's not the main focus of the movie anyway. Selma is; even King is, even as the leader, still just a part of the puzzle. He doesn't seem like the most high-minded president, but as a CHARACTER, not a historical figure, he works well for the conflict of the film. If King could walk into the Oval office, ask for voting rights for African-Americans, and LBJ goes 'alright', there's no movie.

certainly has more conflict about him as a politician than George Wallace (both Wilkinson and Roth are good on screen, if over-shadowed by Oyelowo and Carmen Ojojo Coretta Scott King), and ultimately I was okay with his portrayal in the MOVIE. If I want more I can check out the Caro books or, when the time comes, Cranston as LBJ when the HBO movie comes out this year.

The filmmaking is just so charged and vital, but DuVernay knows how to make her film in tones of darkness - a room will be without light, but she has a way of getting us to feel the presence in a room, that weight that King carries is made cinematic as far as being a moral figure who still has to stay alive and keep his family alive. The filmmakers knew it was a subject that has 'Important' going in to it. The question is how to make the performances count - and almost all of them do - and how to make scenes move and flow dramatically speaking.

Even supporting characters like John Lewis gets a strong turn and dimension, and one scene where an 82 year old man, who has lost a family member due to police brutality, has a hear-to-heart with King, it's impossible not to feel the emotion there, and it works. Selma works.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Smaug rules, and the rest of the movie... is okay (thought I'd say 'drools' didn't ya), 3 January 2015

Bilbo is supposedly the lynch-pin of this whole story - hell, it's called 'The Hobbit' after all, and it's about (as the song in the 1977 animated film starts, 'The greeeeatest adventurrrre') - but damn if you'd know it watching the majority of this entry. I say the 'majority' as he does show up in large part at the end, when it comes time to enter the castle in the mountains and the face-off against the dragon, Smaug, who has hoarded over the dwarfs' gold. But with the exception of a few scenes scattered about, it felt like there was a lack of Bilbo, which is a shame since Martin Freeman is so moving and funny and on-point in this role of the quirky 'straight-man' to these much quirkier, rambunctious dwarfs led by who is arguably the real protagonist - or co-protagonist - Thorin Oakensheild.

Let's talk about that for a moment. For what he's asked to do, Richard Armitage isn't exactly bad in the role, not by a long-shot. He is there and present in this character if the hardcase leader of the dwarfs who has a rightful problem with his father, the former king of the dwarfs, being killed. He wants revenge and justice and so on, but the character just feels so flatly written and plain, somehow there was just a little more dimension with the Lord of the Rings trilogy's mirror character, Aragorn. Thorin comes into a scene and makes his declarations, which is what you do in a fantasy epic like this. But I never really felt for the character so strongly or his quest so much, despite the ending of the first film where there is something of an arc between him trusting Bilbo. Again, not a bad character, but something that I wish was a little more strongly written or played dimension-wise.

Like the other two films in this unnecessary trilogy, there's padding. This is like looking at a nervous football player, loaded up so that he doesn't get pummeled. It's mainly in the inclusion of the elves, and an elf/dwarf romance that comes when the dwarfs are captured momentarily and the really handsome one and Evangeline Lilly's elf fall for one another. Oh, and Legolas returns and there's sort of a hint of a love triangle, because these epics need them nowadays. Not bad actors, once again, and Lilly has more than proved herself on Lost to be capable with a bad-ass action heroine as her character is here. But where's the purpose with the main story? There's no connective tissue with this, and just enough (though added not from the Hobbit but from appendices that Tolkien wrote - just that word 'appendices' like an organ you don't need) with Gandalf on his separate quest which will figure in to this whole SIX film epic at hand.

There's enough well-filmed action and peril to keep things moving along not briskly, but in a manner that I at least didn't fall asleep... well, I did get annoyed by a barrel chase for technical reasons (sure, throw in a low-quality go-pro camera in the river chase while you're mostly using the highest-quality RED cameras, sure, why the hell not?) But, at least, the sequence with Smaug is perfect. It's a marvelous CGI creation that ironically brings back together from Sherlock Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices and also does the motion-capture work for the dragon of the title. This is a sequence fraught with tension, clever dialog (much of it with Bilbo's riddles, and this is very similar to the animated film by the way), and intense action and suspense. It's what one wants to see from one of these movies, with a dollop of humor as well.

If only the rest of the film had that. Desolation of Smaug is a good movie, on the whole, but it's so uneven that it may frustrate those who aren't already super-psyched to return to Middle Earth anyway.

The Interview (2014/II)
4 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
the punk rock comedy of the year, 28 December 2014

When it comes to comedy and satire, it's all about taste. A couple of Mel Brooks quotes come to mind, one is his description of how he approaches humor - "My movies rise below vulgarity" - as well as the difference between comedy and drama - "I cut my finger that's a tragedy, someone falls down a manhole cover, that's comedy."

The Interview is presented as a howler, a scream, a laugh riot, an uncouth satire on not simply Kim Jong-Un, which is the natural assumption given the rabid media attention due to the whole hacking-of-a-corporation and then cancellation-of-release-turned-around-to-quasi-theatrical-VOD release. It pokes fun at celebrity culture, shallow interviewers, and not just obvious ones (Eminem, Rob Lowe's hair-piece), but at the outrageousness of an image. It's very vulgar at times - if you don't find jokes that involve hiding small devices from the CIA up a butt funny, then perhaps that's that - and very violent as well. But, for me, the movie rises below vulgarity, so to speak, by how Rogen and Goldberg and company go about the subject matter.

Take the Big Kahuna himself, Kim Jong-Un. The filmmakers could simply put him up as the 'Dictator of the Moment' as the subject of mockery - this, one could argue, is pretty much what Parker and Stone did with the funny but more scatter-shot Team America: World Police, which targeted the late father Jong-Il. Instead, as played with hilarity and and levels of (yes) depth by Randall Park, there's something of a crazy man-child to this character, maybe even a distinct parody by the same filmmakers who have been in that story-pool for years (Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People, This is the End, and elsewhere with the likes of Will Ferrell comedies). He is terrifying, and also by turns pathetic, amusing, wild (see all his ladies and tanks left over from Stalin days - sorry, wrong pronunciation, it's 'Stallone'), and maybe latently (or full-on) homosexual with his fixation on Katy Perry music.

In other words, the filmmakers make this subject work because they commit completely to the mockery of it all, the bald-faced f***-you to such a dictator by not making him completely in-human - as a simple murderous monster it would be too easy - but with someone who has, hell to say it, a soul of a sort. And yet this isn't all the movie has, no way. It's a delirious, awesome showcase for Rogen and Franco as a comedy pair, with Franco as the over-the-top guy who will say things too far in a conversation as celeb-show host Dave Skylark, and Rogen as his producer. The set up is pretty straightforward: in the midst of being in their tenth year on a show, as Rogen's Aaron is un-happy with the direction of the program as celeb-fluff, he finds out that the NK dictator is a major fan, reaches out, and after a bizarre meet-up (they couldn't just call of course) set up the interview, and then the CIA come with their own plot to 'take him out'.

If you don't find Franco and Rogen funny - or especially Franco who is going to town as a wild man-boy-dog-lover and threatens to steal the show from Rogen, who is and isn't the 'straight man' of these two knuckleheads - you may have difficulty getting into the flick. Right away with that Eminem scene, you'll know what you're getting into, and from there it's wall-to-wall comedy, with the occasional semi-predictable story turn. It's by turns goofy and sincere, but only sincere to its anarchic vision. And yet the filmmakers take some smart, funny chances in little things: there's a female character who comes into a major way in the story, and ends up becoming a real bad-ass character. There's no big deal of making light that it's a woman doing this - and, naturally, maybe too naturally (or just hilariously I guess) she becomes a romantic interest for Rogen - she just is.

Did I mention the movie has a lot of violence? Good God. The influence from Tarantino can't be understated, and the filmmakers run with it here as well; just when you think a scene gets splatter-ific, or something happens that is just 'WHOA!', it becomes all the funnier just by how the other characters react to it. Again, the 'falling in the manhole' principle via Brooks. Watching someone, for example, getting an appendage ripped off in a gnarly way isn't funny, but the reactions to it are. Or, for that matter, how a dictator meets his ultimate demise (I wish I could say this is a spoiler, but really the internet did that for me already).

It all comes together, ultimately, in what is both very smart and very stupid, or rather The Interview is very smart about being stupid, if that makes sense, and certainly not the other way around. Opinions may vary on how little or how much the movie's improv comedy lines (get ready for a lot of Lord of the Rings references, for me all spot-on and clever) and cartoonish violence and excess, but it's hard to say they weren't trying to didn't go balls-out, so to speak. And, yeah, see it to be a 'Free American' or about Free Speech or whatever. But the fact is, it'd still be a funny, incendiary, deranged and, at times, kind of adorable movie if there wasn't a bit of hoopla over it.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
overlong, stuffed the gills, occasionally truly, unabashedly great, 21 December 2014

Originally Guillermo del Toro was supposed to direct the Hobbit series. Whether he had two or three films at the time he was in pre-production is uncertain, but he still retains a co-writing credit on the scripts. His presence, I think, can be most felt in this film, An Unexpected Journey, which also takes the most from JRR Tolkien's original book of the title. His sense of grandeur and love for creatures - unique, big, small, darker and more disgusting and 'out-there', the better, which I'm sure jived with Peter Jackson's tastes - is there big and large here, and it helps in moments... and perhaps detracts in others when things go on, and on, and on.

Now that the trilogy is complete, I can look back on this first film and see that there was actually a lot that was good about it, at least in the sense of kicking off this new series of films starring that Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, arguably the reason if nothing else to see the movie as it's a tremendous performance for all of the little moments and gestures he gets right). Bilbo is a stubborn little guy, though not as much as the dwarfs who crash his house to eat and inform him - via Gandalf the Grey and Thorin Oakenshield, a son of a departed king - that he is to go on a journey to help them get back their gold and kingdom from a diabolical dragon named Smaug.

Of course, this was originally a children's book - not three separate ones like LOTR, just one, and the first version was not as complex as it later became with rewrites and reissues - and here it gets puffed up to unimaginable heights. Though shortened and imperfect, a 1977 animated film got the whole story in under 90 minutes. Ironic that Jackson's 'Rings' series was the best criticism of the Bakshi adaptation, where now it's reversed. His film is loaded with action and adventure, some of it well choreographed, scary, exciting, deranged, and just... long. And, as with a lot of franchises (including Star Wars) things have to tie together, even if inorganically. Hence you get appearances from Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett (albeit as actors they're never unwelcome, just sad it's this dragging material) as characters not in the book, only to serve as connecting tissue for the "Larger" threat that is really in the background of a tale of a little hobbit and the dwarfs.

The film is the definition of hit or miss, and when it misses, such as an overbearing climax that just feels too BIG for its britches, giving a massive dose of epic battle to something that isn't that big, it's a lot to bear. But when it hits, I hasten to say it was almost (not quite, but almost) worth it for Jackson to come back to this series. The highlight above all else is Bilbo's 'Riddles in the Dark' with Gollum. Though the visual effects were astonishing and groundbreaking with him years ago, here they've gotten *better* and, in just once scene, we get so much from this character all over again - a showstopper, naturally for Andy Serkis in the best possible way, playing it for comedy, tragedy, horror, everything you dig about this character - that it's a reminder how much character is paramount in these types of films. You can have all the sweeping shots of New Zealand and characters running this way and that and CGI monsters and peril... but two people having a conflict over a piece of gold is much, much more intriguing.

Indeed that one scene is a 10/10. But there's too much 'filler', so to speak, scenes that drag and characters who either have too much backstory (Thorin, the a-hole of the series and the kind of co-protagonist with Bilbo) or not enough. I enjoyed Unexpected Journey, maybe, just barely, the most out of all these new releases. But the lack of a consistent tone - some things played for much broader comedy than anything in Lord of the Rings, some things so dark that they nearly become comical, and action that feels like it's still going even after the movie ends - I don't know. It's a film where you can feel brilliance and mediocrity fighting one another.

8 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
adequate but dull, punctured by heart and awe, 21 December 2014

Peter Jackson loves his excess. The man can't get enough - as not even a storyteller but as a spectacle-producer, a showman, he is like a starving kid at a Thanksgiving day buffet. This series is an indication of that, even if it's not all of his fault (it was originally two movies, maybe too much enough, until the Tolkien estate said it needed to be three movies - the studios, I'm sure, concurred). He and his team take what is essentially a children's book (The Hobbit, that is, which Tolkien wrote for his children initially years before LOTR) and make it into a 474 minute trilogy (credit time included), which means that a character like Bilbo Baggins, the little Hobbit-that-could who finds that he can be courageous and has the 'Right Stuff' as it were on an adventure, is a bit diminished in the epic scope and grandeur of what is really, in this case, about the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield and his quest to retake the castle of his father from the dragon, Smaug.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up as a cliffhanger from the previous film - a rather uber-dramatic one at that - with Smaug getting out of the castle and set to attack a town. He does, people die and try to escape, and one man (Luke Evans, one of the more sturdier heroes of the series) fires an arrow that somehow gets through and kills the beast. One may scoff at how the dragon is so easily destroyed after such a build up at the end of 'Desolation' (and that whole set piece, by the way, was one of the highlights of this trilogy). But this is merely the set up, as it was, up to a point, in the book: armies are converging to get that treasure in the castle/mountain, and Thorin won't give it up. So, thus, we get war. Lots of it. Like, most of the film.

Thorin is an interesting character in that he is mostly defined by one trait here - until the script requires him to suddenly 'grow a pair' and lead his dwarfs out into battle with the rest of them - which is being a stubborn a-hole. Of course this can be chalked up to the 'dragon sickness', which could make him a victim in a sense. But Thorin throws this off so quickly and gets back into 'hero' mode that we're basically made to think that he can be sort of forgiven for being a stubborn a-hole for most of these films, this one most of all. And it's not that characters don't acknowledge it around him or call him out for it, far from it. But being that Thorin is more of the protagonist than Bilbo really is - or, if you must insist, co-protagonists - there isn't much to latch on to there.

Not that Jackson and company don't have other story threads to go on, one of those carried over from the last film involving the romance between a dwarf and an elf (the latter played by Evangeline Lilly, who just has those eyes that make her a good actress, even when she's tasked to play soppy melodrama). I had forgotten how strongly these two felt for each other - or how much of a sandwiched-in sub-plot it was (not in the book, but why carp at this point) - so when they have to face their struggles here in battle, I only felt a modicum of emotion for them to get back together or say 'f-you' to the haters of the other dwarfs and/or the elves (i.e. stone-faced Lee Pace).

Or maybe it was effective and I just didn't feel it, it may just be all on me for not really getting into this one, and certainly not as much as the previous two films (and those weren't much either). In 'Journey' and 'Smaug' at least I had a major set piece to hang on to - and the ones with Gollum and Smaug respectively are some of the great pieces of cinema in this whole Tolkien six-film run, to give Jackson/Cumberbatch/Serkis etc credit here. Is there one here? I'm not sure there is, despite the attack on the opening carrying over from the last film. That's merely the appetizer for the glut of CGI action that takes up MOST of the film here. And that would be fine... if it wasn't monotonous.

And perhaps it's also on me to get in or not get into this action. But at a certain point, how many times can you see an orc trying to kill someone and it doesn't carry the simplistic weight of a video game. And this isn't even to knock video games, except to say that this is a typical, adequate, mostly well-put-together but still kind of soulless video game. Jackson puts in some of the bigger orcs with features that look cool, or a moment like Legolas jumping up stairs that are crumbling under him that are just funny (intentionally or not), and yet it's all just SO much and little of it sticks.

The good news is there's a bit more Bilbo in the film, which gives more time to Martin Freeman who has nailed this character every step of the way and made him a joy to watch. He even makes latter-film scenes with Thorin count, at a point where I thought I didn't have much care for the character (not that Armitage doesn't try, but he's just... okay I guess). Overall, Battle of the Five Armies delivers TONS of effects, TONS of epic, sweeping shots of New Zealand (duh), TONS declarative moments and moments of humor that are hit or miss - and the always dependable likes of McKellan and Blanchett and so on. I just wish it left me with something more than feeling dulled by much of it.

Top Five (2014)
9 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
being funny vs having a great story to tell, 14 December 2014

There's a scene in this film, Chris Rock's latest as auteur and star, where he performs in a comedy club. It's the first time in years his character, Andre Allen, has performed and from a story point of view it seems rushed and contrived. How he gets to this point isn't exactly organic to what's been going on just before, and only makes sense in the sense that the script dictates it's here that he gets, for lack of a better phrase, his 'groove' back on stage. Nevermind that the character hasn't performed in so long - albeit some of the material, to be fair, ties back in with some troubles he's having with his fiancé, so that's fine - he kills and everyone loves it. Why do they love it really? Well, this is where it gets tricky, and why I recommend Top Five: it's funny. And Chris Rock's funny. He's a great stand up. He doesn't transcend his own problematic script, but he and the cast do much better than it could've been.

The basic premise has more than a touch of Stardust Memories - in case you can't tell, which is possible, Woody Allen is one of Rock's heroes - as Allen doesn't want to do funny movies anymore (he's been "Hammy the Bear" for three films, making this kind of a double-bill/companion piece for this year's Birdman), and has a new, serious work where he plays a Haitian white-man-killing revolutionary. He's spending this one day going around New York city, promoting the film, visiting his family, doing this and that, and he's tagged along by a journalist (Rosario Dawson, who is terrific here by the way), who wants a personal-profile scoop. He's not having it, at first, but over the course of a day and night and lots of memories of things gone wrong - he was/is an alcoholic, as she is, conveniently enough - he opens up.

Again, not a strong story entirely, though it has its moments. Really, it's actually the moments that Rock wins best at here: when he goes to visit his family (first his father, who seems to be kind of a bum but it's funny/sad seeing Allen have to haggle with him over money) and how they all rag on him, and he rags on them back, you can see the warmth and improvisation going on (how much is scripted is anyone's guess, but the tone is just right and the jokes all work in this piece). His set pieces, mostly in the flashbacks, keep bringing the comedy forward and he has many, many funny lines, but even funnier situations for his actors. Cedric the Entertainer especially steals his scenes, but the same can go for Kevin Hart, JB Smoove (to an extent, though he has really one shtick), and even Brian Regan in an uncredited cameo. And DMX... Jesus.

A lot of the film also hinges on Rock and Dawson, and despite a third act reveal (is it a twist?) that made me roll my eyes, their chemistry really sells much of the film. He has just great dialog for the two of them to play off one another, so that we can still buy *them* even if not always the story or situations that develop.

And, again it must be stressed, the movie is funny. Sometimes it's very funny - I'd be remiss to forget that Seinfeld and Adam Sandler show up at a bachelor party and had me crying laughing - and that helps it make it just an unabashed crowd-pleaser first, cutting satire second, which I think was really Rock's goal here. Whether he was trying to also make a GREAT film, I don't know. At its very best, it does come closer than any Rock film to show the sorts of topics he does in his stand up brought to a dramatic context, like the whole marriage-TV-show sub-plot with Gabrielle Union (who is also fantastic here).

But hey, for a night out - as a date-night movie it's especially adept - it works, and it'll get you thinking about your own Top Five after a while. Or if you'd ever see Rock play a Bear-cop (obviously a play on Martin Lawrence more than himself, though ironically Rock wrote the script while on set for Grown-Ups 2, so it goes).

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