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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 film posterSynopsis

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is with the underground rebel movement and is being designed as its leader.  Julianne Moore  is the rebel president.  Alma Coin (Donald Sutherland) is her foe, President Snow of Capitol.  Both rebel and Capitol forces attack each other. Katniss invents the mockingjay song as the anthem of revolution.  Her friend Peeta from Catching Fire has been brainwashed by the government and he is interviewed by impresario Stanley Tucci.  The rebels cut off Capitol’s power and infiltrate it.  Will they rescue Peeta?

Review

The first book of Hunger Games has been split in two as the franchise takes its cue from the Harry Potter gravy train.  Mockingjay appears to have jettisoned the futurism of the previous films, as decadent nabobs have scrapped the make up for the born again puritan look in boiler suits, and Katniss has settled for teen war chic as (rather approprietely with ironic intentions as to the power of film) she engages in a media image as well as an arms war.  Our heroes stroll through the war rubble like world-redeeming rock stars, posing against disaster backdrops as if telling us this is what’s happening right now in some parts of the world.  Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty good teen hero model. She has the charisma and the face for it, she is a sci-fi messiah as a feminist riposte to Paul in Dune.  The film is going for contemporary relevance not just regarding the horrors of war but also enviromental disaster.  Julianne Moore is icily effective as the iron-like president, as she and her team create a charismatic role for Katniss.  This, for me, is a canny self acknowledgement of Mockingjay’s own merchandizing power as a franchise, as it fosters luvvie delusions about being spokespersons for the world.  It appears to be distancing itself from the other teen franchises too, as it tries to be a thinking person’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Why Katniss would love someone as feeble as Peeta is a mystery since she is superior in every way.  There is an inescapable aura of sadness in this film because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death..

 

 

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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug film posterSynopsis

The second Hobbit movie in which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) try to reclaim their Kingdom of Erebor and its gold from Smaug the dragon.  On the way they’re imprisoned by the elves led by Orlando Bloom, and they get to the Kingdom ruled by Stephen Fry.  Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Bilbo must face the dragon.

Review

There is no Gollum in this, so we get no eccentricities at a tangent, just different confrontations.  The visual effects are spectacular, especially the forest.  The obvious thing about making a fantasy film is that you make it appear as unworldly as you can, otherwise it is just actors in fancy dress walking through an everyday forest. You can’t do this if your budget is restricted, but if that is the case maybe it’s better not to do it at all.  Peter Jackson of course has a limitless budget.  The elves’ kingdom is spindly and cathedral-cavernous, the only permitted tone is portentous and breathy even if you were to read out a supermarket shopping list.  The elves talk like they’ve undergone brain removal surgery but the visual distractions compensate.  The dwarves escape in barrels rolling down the river then they face the Orcs (who look like rugby players after a white mud bath), but they look scary.  The fishing village is peopled with Volvo types and their cute Harry Potter Britishness, so I was glad to get to Erebor and here the visual spectacle is breathtaking (if a little like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom magnified).  Smaug is somewhat domesticated by familiarity but the scene still holds the attention.  Martin Freeman is good as the ordinary hobbit, who could be punching above his weight if he didn’t have that peskily unsporting gold ring with him.  The dwarves are all militant rectitude, so shop worn since the glowering antics of the downtrodden, squeezed out any wit in Braveheart and it’s ilk.  Their militant hairy rectitude gets a little wearisome.  Gandalf’s talent for avoidable danger leads him into the usual perils that we know he can overcome (this plot device ultimately scuppers Harry Potter).  Good entertainment.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2014 in Family entertainment, Film Reviews

 

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The Hobbit

The Hobbit

Synopsis

The first part of a trilogy from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo Baggins entertains dwarves and travels with them and Gandalf.  The dwarves want their Kingdom back.  Bilbo comes along because he can steal.  There is a dragon, it’s name is Smoug.  They meet giant trolls, then the Brown Wizard who helps them when Orcs attack.  They have adventures in the Orc cave, elves help them, Bilbo encounters Gollum.  More fights with Orcs…

Criticism

Critics have complained that Jackson’s Hobbit is too long but this, I think, misses the point.  The forest is a place you can linger in whether or not you are a fan. Furthermore making three films from a much shorter book than Lord of the Rings might seem like using a pile driver to crack an egg, but I don’t agree, why can’t Jackson expand the original story which is hardly great literature in the first place.  This is as much Jackson’s film as Tolkein’s story.  Admittedly the dwarves’ party at Bilbo’s house does last too long but generally The Hobbit goes along at quite a pace.  The trolls are disgusting giants, there’s nothing antiseptic about this world, for all the ‘Dingley Dell’ cutesiness of the language.  I bet such giants would stink terribly.  Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman who is quite down to earth and likeable, which is a relief after those google eyed midgets from The Lord of the Rings.  Ian McKellan is a wizard for all seasons and anchors the film with his good acting.  He is like Bilbo’s father and he is his mentor, effortlessly assuming these roles.  The dwarves themselves are the usual prosthetic midgets with too much beard and anger issues.  The ‘Tolkein Scary Appearance Award’ must go to the Orcs who hound Bilbo and the dwarves.  The big King of the underground has a huge goitre and the Orc leader who chases them has a creepily detailed face.  The Orcs in Hobbit look more individualized than those of Lord of the Rings with their indistinguishably dripping wax masks.

There is general agreement that the star of The Hobbit is Gollum, played by Andy Serkis.  It’s truly entertaining to watch the latexed lemur facial expressions.  He crawls around like a white tanned anorexic in a squirming snivel, compensating for deviousness with pantomimic wit that usually runs rings (pun intended) around hobbits.  The Brown Wizard is covered in birdshit and looks like a fairytale maniac as he drives around on a sled drawn by rabbits.  We had a lot of running  around in Lord of the Rings and we got the same here, but the forest scenes are quite impressive, dense with fantasy.  The elves are a bit of a joke, they’re so pompously dignified you hope a dwarf will chuck rotten fruit at them.  Cate Blanchett looks like a fashion statement on tranquilizers, her sonorous intonations can be unintentionally funny.  It’s nice to see Christopher Lee upsetting the elfish pieties at the council table, no doubt preparing for his future as a bad guy.  The elvish Kingdom is all pre-Raphaelite spectacle.  This film is good fun.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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TED

Ted posterSynopsis

Seth MacFarlane (of Family Guy and American Dad) is the voice of the teddy bear.  The story starts in 1985 in Boston and John Bennet is bullied by other boys.  He gets a teddy bear for Christmas and it comes to life.  Ted becomes a show biz fixture until the world wearies of the novelty.  Then there is a jump in time to the 35 year old John played by Mark Wahlberg.  Now Ted is a cynical fast talking druggie.  John is in a lousy job, but has a girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) who later presents John with an ultimatum, either she or Ted must go.  Ted is kidnapped and John and Lori try to get him back…

Criticism

This is like Paul, the film about the equally cynical and wisecracking alien.  It also follows all the films that use voiced over animals or puppets, which use these totems of innocence to make cynicism and greed look even more hilarious.  The teddy bear dates hookers and leaves a turd on the floor, what else might it do?  Ted and John have a fight that gets quite nasty, it reminds me of the Family Guy fight when Pete Griffin and an oversized cockerel punch the living daylights out of each other.  The disparity between the bear’s cute appearance and its averagely venal behaviour is of course what makes the comedy.  When there is a grossly inappropriate match between voice and appearance (like a growling man’s voice coming from an adolescent girl in The Exorcist) then it’s usually sinister, but it would be difficult to make a teddy bear scary? John and the teddy play the usual small boys who can’t grow up, Lori is predictably the voice of responsibility and maturity.  John and Ted are fans of Flash Gordon and the actor who plays him turns up in the film.

Wahlberg and the teddy have some good comic lines, in one fast talking exchange they go through girl’s names.  There are the shrewd and witty put-downs you would expect from the writer of Family Guy (Susan Boyle gets an unflattering mention).  The alarming moment in Ted is when the film gets serious when he thinks Ted has died – it’s only a teddy bear?

The film does not avoid the pitfall of sentimentality and plot predictability but that doesn’t really matter because the script makes it zip along.  We don’t get the stripping of illusions that we got in Toy Story, and there is no role reversal, or sinister ventriloquism, or fantasy compensation, or an invisible rabbit, just a mostly funny bear and his mate!

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man posterSynopsis

Goes back to the original story after the Toby McGuire films.  Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker plays a science student who has lost his father (Richard Parker), a colleague of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who is a leading herpetologist who dreams of growing back his arm like lizards can regenerate limbs.  Peter is in love with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) whose father is the police chief.  Parker lives with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  Parker gets bitten by lots of spiders in a science lab and he tries out his powers on the class bully and then tries to find the robber who has killed Uncle Ben.  He is seen as a vigilante, and the police are after him.  He duels with Curt Connors who has become a giant lizard after falling foul of his corporate bosses…

Criticism

This Spiderman is less of a nerd who has to prove himself and more the victim of a self contempt liberated by his new found powers.  He becomes an unaccountable bully seeking revenge, but conceals this to himself by thinking that he pursues justice for the weak.  He simply repays the victim in his own coin, to the bully he is a bully, and to the greedy or cynical he is a cynic with superpowers.  Garfield’s Parker is much more smitten with his girlfriend than Toby McGuire was with Kirsten Dunst, indeed Garfield’s character goes on being himself with the distraction of arachnid aerobatics.

Like Molina’s multi-armed baddie in the McGuire Spiderman film, Curt Connors starts out by wanting to do good but the obsessive Faustian pact with techno power always ends badly.  The conception is total, but then there is eleventh hour repentance.  Garfield’s Parker also has to learn self knowledge through the use of his powers.  I wonder if the writers of these comic books were trying to teach simple lessons about the abuse of American military power in the mid 20th century.  Garfield’s Peter Parker is no nerd glancing over his shoulder at comic book purists, he doesn’t do a Clark Kent (the civilian identity of Superman) and pretend to be a decent wimp in order to enhance by contrast the spell of his superpowers.  This time the powers are acquired quickly as a fun jaunt that might end any time.  The spun webs keep Spiderman from the airy nothing of just flying about, his powers depend on the use of buildings.  In Spiderman gravity is aestheticized so it makes his use of space more like a techno circus stunt.  He’s a sort of glorified base jumper who recognizess the limits of his powers as enmeshed with the city, it’s almost a sort of CGI performance art in a daft spandex outfit.  Good fun.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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John Carter

John Carter posterSynopsis

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, it stars Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, a confederate cavalryman who has suffered family loss and then gets into conflict with the Apache in 1881.  He finds a spider amulet that takes him instantly to Mars or (‘Bharsoom’).  There he can exploit its lower gravity so he can jump high.  He meets with Tharks, an alien species involved in a struggle with shape shifting Mark Strong and Dominic West.  There is a princess of Helium who is under attack from West and Strong.  Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy also uphold the forces of good.  Carter has to fight white apes in the arena and helps save Helium against the baddies.  The young Edgar Rice Burroughs inherits Carter’s story along with his estate…..

Criticism

The critics have gathered to pan this film and one ought to sympathize.  The star, aptly named Taylor Kitsch (sic), is laughably wooden and so is the Princess of Mars, and so are the other big name British actors who ponderously try to out do Brian Blessed’s hamminess in Flash Gordon.  Calling the city Helium is asking for trouble, one thinks of squeaky voices.  In this film, Mars has two large moons whereas Phobos and Deimos are asteroid size.  Visually, the film shows obvious debts to Mad Max, Stargate, Star Wars, and Avatar.  The space ships are the usual Dan Dare legoized computer games.  For all their alien appearance, the Tharks show human expressions and so do not go beyond the usual anthropomorphism of popular  sci-fi.  The Tharks look like anorexic turtles with tusk problems, and they are built like basket ball players with four arms.  There is the usual predictable noble savage sentimentality of their referring to humans as ugly, so we’re in danger of getting into Dances with Wolves or rather “Dances with Turtles”.  However, after acknowledging all that, I do not concur with the critics about the film being overlong and tedious, I enjoyed it, largely because of the Tharks.  There is an obvious debt to the aliens in Avatar and there are hints of a better film in the details of Thark life:  for instance in the way the small Tharks are hatched and taken in (reminders here of Enemy Mine).  If the film could get away from humanizing aliens then we could get more imaginative sci-fi.  The desert landscapes are shot in Utah, all  toffee coloured rocks in marvellous desert landscapes.  Furthermore, for all the bad acting it was fun, like watching a hi-tech She, all Saturday morning matinee thrills.  This is where I part company from the critical consensus, its very faults are what makes it likeable.  This is after all written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan.  What do you expect, intelligent dialogue?  It’s comic book material, so it’s silly fun.  Expecting more would be like expecting Desperate Dan or Dennis the Menace to give us insight into life (though some pompous film critics make those very claims for other comic book japes).  This is Beano or Beezer with rayguns and it’s a good larf, so I like it and no, it doesn’t go on too long.  The critics are wrong.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 posterSynopsis

Ralph Fiennes leads a Capone like committee of baddies who are out to get Harry Potter.  We see H.P. himself at his house and he must escape from Fiennes’ pursuit. Lots of pals assume H.P.’s appearance to throw pursuers off the scent.  H.P., Ron and Hermione  disguise themselves as adults to get into the Ministry of Magic where they take a locket. Then they go from place to place and camp out in a tent  Ron gets jealous and quits, leaving H.P. and Hermione to bond. Then H.P. and Hermione turn up at his parents’ on Christmas Eve and are attacked by a snake. Then they’re in a forest and H.P. gets a sword from a frozen pond and he’s rescued by the returning Ron.  They then chat to a sorcerer in his lonely house who tells a story of three brothers.  Then they’re attacked by Snatchers and taken to H. Bonham Carter’s jail where Dobby rescues them and he’s killed by Helena B.C.  Then R. Fiennes steals Michael Gambons’ wand, and we wait for Part 2.

Criticism

If you try to critcize H.P. you feel like a mosquito trying to topple a brick wall.  There are a few enjoyable scenes:  the tale of the three brothers is done like an Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, it reminds me of Regers’ 1950’s fairy tale silhouettes.  The scene in the forest is quite atmospheric, the Forest of Dean in the middle of winter.  The rest is underwhelming.  The three leads are charisma deficient, prolonged scenes with them are an ordeal.  I watched this with a couple of H.P. fans and they told me that new material has been interpolated, other scenes have been changed from the book.  This is curious, since J.K.R. is known as a control addict, one of the reasons she split Book 7 into two films is to get the details from the book.  It seems the romance between Hermione and Harry threatens to elbow aside any fidelity to the text, not that it’s any great loss.

I think I’ve alluded to this before, but the curious thing about a story dependant on magic is that it can undermine narrative development because it pre-empts conflict and its resolution.  When you know you can always escape a situation, then is there any reason for engagement in the first place?  The scenes are disjointed from an overall incoherence so that they do not achieve the cohesion of successive episodes.  They are more like set pieces embellishing the real interest in the story:  the sexual tension between the three adolescents.  After all, the childhood audience for H.P. has grown up with these three leads so that’s the central concern, isn’t it?  If (like me) you don’t read the books then this film does not stand on its own.  There’s cross referencing and reporting back from the other books but the viewer hasn’t got that luxury if he/she watches this on its own.

Another problem with this and other films is the comfortable familiarity of the scenes.  We either get modern British houses, public school Gothic in Hogwarts (but not in this film though) and a lonely ramshackle house in the middle of a bleak moor, a real forest and the Ministry of Magic entered by toilets.  We get jumps from place to place without any underlying continuum (which we get in the Alice books).  There is rationed visual novelty in each scene and what inventiveness there is, gets repeated in all the films:  the moving paintings and newspaper pictures, the Dr Who hi-tech wands, the oversized python.  There is plenty of gloominess which surrounds the eruption into hi-tech jinks which are merely frenetically extra contextual.  The Ministry of Magic looks like a mixture of a Victorian municipal palace and a posh toilet.  Dobby the elf looks like Vladimir Putin as a garden gnome

What. H.P. can offer is the chance for a well known actor to inject some of their own skill into the scene, and that can be a pleasure, although John Hurt only gets a few minutes.  There’s a real shrewdness and sharpness in some of the group dynamics but it gets spoiled by the three leads dumping their amateur acting across scene after scene.  Finally it’s all too much an expression of Britishness in the naughties, and those limitations will become starker as time goes by.  Arthur Mee with 21st century knowingness.

 
 

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