Film #143: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

hobbitDirector: Peter Jackson
Language: English with some Sindarin, Quenya, Black Speech
Length: 144 minutes
Watched on: 12 Jan 2015

Ever the completionist, I obediently made the trek to see the latest Hobbit movie back in January. Like Gravity a year ago, I decided it was worth going to see it in Imax 3D. Unlike Gravity, I wasn’t hungover, so decided it was worth going there by bike, which resulted in a frantic rush as I mistimed it. But I didn’t miss the beginning of the film, so it was fine in the end.

As for the film itself, I feel like I’m probably going to parrot what I said in my review of the second film – after all, Martin Freeman is still a pompous, self-righteous waste of space. The film is rather ramshackle in its structure, and it’s been pieced together using what I think, from my scant memory of reading the book as a child, can’t comprise more than about five pages of the source material.

Visually, as we ought to expect from Peter Jackson, the film is stunning, and the setpieces are fantastic. They also reek of CGI, however, and can be a bit soulless. Most of the film depicts a long battle scene, and most of the effort of special effects went into making the endless armies act realistically.

I couldn’t really work out what the purpose of this movie was in the end. Many analyses tend to focus on Thorin Oakenshield, driving himself crazy over not being able to find the sacred MacGuffin that will allow him to rule the mountain – it seems to be his film, attending carefully to his character development. If by character development you mean stoic delivery, then yeah, I guess. I wasn’t so interested in his arc. I actually preferred watching the scenes taken from The Silmarillion, for example Galadriel coming to Gandalf’s aid near the beginning, as I haven’t actually read that book, and its contents are new to me.

The other problem here is that the scene with the dragon at the start of the movie is very brief, like only fifteen to twenty minutes or so, and this initial scene serves only one purpose, which is to resolve the cliffhanger left by the previous movie. This kind of brazen sequel hook and structure would be much better suited to a television serial, rather than a big budget Christmas blockbuster. I think the fact that the second movie didn’t finish properly really irked me at the time, so the fact that this one doesn’t really begin properly either is just as bad.

I suppose this just paves the way for marathons, though. Despite being underwhelmed by this film, I’d certainly be up for the challenge of marathoning the extended editions of The Hobbit followed by The Lord of the Rings. I’m thinking it’ll take about 24 hours overall, if each extended edition is about four hours each, so no mean feat!

Film #142: My Old Lady (2014)

molDirector: Israel Horovitz
Languages: English and French
Length: 107 minutes
Watched on: 7 Jan 2014

This was the last film I watched while I still had time to kill on the way back to Japan this January. It had a good review, as far as I could tell, but I want really sure what to expect from it.

In the story, Maggie Smith plays an old French lady, and the American main character inherits her house from his father – but he also inherits the strange and uniquely French viager arrangement, which means he only has the right to the house after she does, and until then has to pay for her pension, or something. It seems like a very strange system to me.

The film is adapted from a play, and this shows: in particular, it’s heavy on the dialogue and features three characters – and the setting, though it’s important that it’s Paris, is entirely incidental. But I think that it was adapted fairly well, despite being blatantly theatrical – perhaps it helps that the director of the movie also wrote the play. It’s also deft in the way it sets up narrative expectations early on and fulfils them later. Character is a recovering alcoholic? Guess what he drinks in act two! Character’s origins or relationships are unclear? We’d better get to unearthing them, then! Chekov’s gun is very much in full force in this movie.

The acting is pretty good too. I can’t remember who the main guy is – perhaps I hadn’t heard of him before. But Maggie Smith is definitely strong in this movie, and I’m starting to feel like it wouldn’t be a French movie about sad middle-aged people without Kristin Scott Thomas – she’s really carved out a niche for herself.

But that leads me to my main problem with the movie: although it’s leagues ahead of the second-rate American comedy of This Is Where I Leave You, the main subject matter is almost exactly the same: the main character’s father dies, and as a result, he goes through a midlife crisis. For me personally, I think I need a bit more life experience in order to relate to it.

That said, I think this movie, unlike the last one, is good enough to recommend. Just be sure you’re happy with saying something solidly theatrical and you should be fine with this. Oh, and if I remember correctly, there are no subtitles, and while you don’t need French to appreciate this film, as it’s told from the point of view of the monolingual American character, it probably helps. It’s not for everyone, I suppose.

Film #141: This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

leaveDirector: Shawn Levy
Language: English
Length: 103 minutes
Watched on: 7 Jan 2015

I felt cheated by this film, to be honest. When you’re on a plane without access to the internet, you sort of have to rely on the promotional leaflet “review”, if it can be called that – you can’t simply log on to find a Kermode review or a rotten tomatoes rating, or check the IMDB for a more neutral assessment. Thus I clicked on this film, it having been advertised as a comedy starting Tina Fey and a bunch of other comedians. I think it stretches the definition. Well, ok, it was labelled comedy-drama, but who’s counting?

The premise of the story is that a largely estranged family is brought back together by the death of their father. They’re called back to their hometown to fulfil a Jewish mourning tradition (that I’m unfamiliar with and couldn’t name to save my life), despite then technically not being Jewish because their mother isn’t. In the same week, the main character’s wife leaves him. Later a tepid romance blooms between him and a woman who I think he used to go to school with or something.

The comedy of the comedy-drama label is constituted by some crass humour, slapstick, and light bullying of some characters by others. I didn’t particularly click with its sense of humour, suffice to say, and by the second half of the movie they weren’t even trying to make it comedic, and it turned into full-on middle-aged angst mode, something that I don’t quite have enough patience for at this stage of my life.

Anyway, the main character was boring, the other characters were unlikable to the last, and the film was a waste of good talent, especially Tina Fey, and a waste of my time. The mother was funny, though. Gotta throw it a bone there.

Film #140: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

gotgDirector: James Gunn
Language: English
Length: 121 minutes
Watched on: 7 Jan 2015

I haven’t watched that many of the Marvel movies – indeed, I’ve been rather ambivalent about most of them. I’ve watched most of the X-Men movies, but have entirely avoided The Avengers. I’d seen this film, and its characters and lines quoted a lot throughout last year, and had also been ambivalent about seeing it. But eventually, pop culture gets the better of me, and I ended up watching this when I had the chance on the plane coming back to Japan this January.

The story is that of based on a not very well-known comic from the 80s – it concerns Chris Pratt’s character, who is kidnapped by aliens as a kid and grows up as a bounty hunter or bandit of some kind in a futuristic world. It’s fairly standard wish-fulfilment fare in that regard, and the movie plays it up with an 80s soundtrack. Pratt, in his lovable rogue role, teams up with several other misfits and they chase after a MacGuffin.

I guess I didn’t think it was that special, personally. Not that I didn’t like it, but it seems to have struck a chord with the mainstream nerd population, and for me, it was a fairly run-of-the-mill sci-fi-action film.

I liked the inventive races in the story – perhaps the most interesting were the team of the talking raccoon and his strongman walking tree mate Groot. Groot is the only character whose name I remember, and that’s because his only line is “I am Groot” – actually a unique character trait, but one that I didn’t fully understand the reasoning behind.

But aside from that, while the movie was fun to watch, it was a confusing mess of factions and races, and I lost track while watching it. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours though.

Film #139: Holy Motors (2012)

holy-motorsDirector: Leos Carax
Language: French with some English and Chinese
Length: 111 minutes
Watched on: 1 Jan 2015

I had quite a movie-filled holiday this year: this was the second movie I watched on New Year’s Day, at my friend’s enthusiastic recommendation. He called it one of the most intelligent recent movies he’d watched. I’m not sure I’d be quite so gracious, but I certainly enjoyed it.

It’s French and has very self-conscious arthouse sensibilities. In the movie we follow around a guy in a limo, who is taken from place to place, whereby he has to dress up and act out a short scene, spurred by instructions from his mysterious employers.

The scenes are very diverse – they include the one pictured above, where he, as a dishevelled homeless man, disrupts a funeral and kidnaps a woman to take her down to his underground lair. The scene ends with the image of him lying there with an erection while his victim sits looking majestic in a veil. Then there’s a scene where he meets his twin (somehow) and they engage in bloody battle. Then somehow he meets up with Kylie Minogue, who looks nothing like she used to in the 90s, and apparently speaks French. It was almost like watching a compilation of short movies – I’m reminded of Paris, je t’aime, at least by setting if not by tone – but we also get to see the main character going between each role over the course of a day.

Trying to explain the movie is almost like a chore – it doesn’t really make sense. What I think, in my cynical way, happened, is that the filmmakers came up with several images or scenes first and then found a way to link them together. What especially made me think this is the way the film lingered on the image of the crazed homeless guy with his cock out, saying clearly that everything else in that scene had been a build-up to that.

I do also think it’s uncharitable to just think that, though. I think they’ve managed to create something that is reminiscent of even greater French works from la nouvelle vague and its ilk. I think they’ve managed to create something thought-provoking and not simple.

To illustrate that, on the one time we hear from the man’s employers, off-camera, they make reference to the man’s viewers – indeed, who are these viewers? Are we in some dystopian future, making comment about the voyeuristic nature of reality TV? Or are we ourselves the voyeurs, behind the proverbial fourth wall? There were also the parts in between the scenes, which blurred more and more into the main scenes too – it became very unclear where one finished and the next started off.

So it was nice to see something that had a bit of depth to it. While I didn’t quite agree that the movie was the most intelligent thing I’ve seen recently – I think it relied on shock value a little too much for my liking, for one thing – I think it would stand up to a repeat viewing (especially because I’ve gone and done the thing where I lag behind with my reviews and have forgotten many of the details), and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in French arthouse cinema.

Film #138: Persona (1966)

personaDirector: Ingmar Bergman
Language: Swedish
Length: 80 minutes
Watched on: 1 Jan 2015

I went through a brief spate a few years ago, fuelled by friends and family members who had the DVDs, of watching Bergman films. I still hold Fanny and Alexander, at five hours long the longest film I’ve ever seen, up as one of my favourites and one that I would definitely rewatch if I had the time.

Somehow, though, I managed to miss Persona, which is usually down on the lists of recommended films as Bergman’s tour de force. But I finally got to it this New Year.

The film is about two women, one famous and the other taking care of her. The famous one is either mute or just doesn’t talk for the entire film, leaving the other one sometimes practically doing dialogue for two.

It’s now been too long for me to recall many specific images from the film -many of these are fleeting and unrelated to the plot anyway – but I do remember a particularly expertly crafted film, particularly when it came to the ending, which had just the right balance of weirdness and confusion.

As a result, I’d happily recommend the film on that basis alone. It reminded me how good cinema can be, and that unlike a lot of the drivel I watch most of the time, being weird or incomprehensible doesn’t mean one has to sacrifice quality. A good start to a new year.

Film #137: Skyfall (2012)

skyfall05Director: Sam Mendes
Language: English
Length: 137 minutes
Watched on: 31 Dec 2012

I was never into James Bond as a kid, to be honest. I think this is the first time I’ve basically watched a whole one, except even then, I didn’t find it interesting enough to retain any details in memory about the plot.

I also had a weird time understanding some of it because of the way the Bond series has progressed: evidently, the series was rebooted with Casino Royale, meaning that Bond is meeting a lot of characters for the first time, like Q, who I’d assumed was a regular fixture of the series already. This is compounded by the fact that all the actors have been replaced since the reboot, except, weirdly, Judy Dench’s character M. I still don’t really get it – like, is it now a different timeline? Are they prequels?

Am I thinking too much into it? I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to think about Bond films – not that I think that’s an agreeable or healthy attitude to have towards films of any sort.

It’s probably kind of sad, then, that I watched this on New Year’s Eve, but only three months later any other details, except for a creepy-gay villain who tries to seduce Bond, completely escape me. It’s probably sad, for that matter, that I keep leaving it so long to write these reviews. Anyway, I guess I’m not cut out for this series. Maybe next time.

Film #136: Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter_IslandDirector: Martin Scorsese
Language: English and some German
Length: 138 minutes
Watched on: 28 Dec 2014

I had the plot of this movie described to me before I watched it, and I correctly predicted the plot twist immediately. I don’t know whether this is because I’d heard about the movie before, or if the plot is just too archetypal and simplistic. I’m leaning towards the second.

In the movie, Leo DiCaprio arrives as a private investigator onto an island to investigate a mysterious murder. The island happens to be a mental asylum, so Leo has to interrogate several mental patients and wander round eery corridors. I feel like I’d be insulting someone’s intelligence if I assumed that they couldn’t guess the big twist.

Much of the movie is Leo having standoffish scenes with Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo, in a very typical straight men smouldering masculinity way. The other part is flashbacks and dream sequences about Leo’s former life, which I thought were visually evocative and creative.

The film definitely has a particular style to it, as it’s set in the post-war period (or possibly interbellum), and many of the mental patients are suffering PTSD after the war. It takes place in a lot of dark rooms, under a perpetually cloudy sky. This works well for the film, although it risks getting bogged down by itself.

In the end, it also gets confusing on a minute level, as it becomes ambiguous in different ways. Personally I don’t think this was executed particularly well, as there quickly become too many threads to keep track of, and actually I suspect that it is supposed to sound profound and give Leo a chance to prostate himself on-screen. The performance was definitely overdone, especially from him.

In general it was fine, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it, on balance. There are better things out there to watch!