Monday, November 18, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The second part of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy will arrive in about one month, so I am revisiting my experience watching the first movie in the theatre. An Unexpected Journey is entertaining but bloated and frustratingly familiar. 

The story follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) years before his younger cousin Frodo's adventures in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo's mentor, drops by one day to take Bilbo on an adventure. More than a dozen dwarves join them in an attempt to reclaim their treasure and homeland from a greedy dragon. Jackson doesn't just follow J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit. He adds tidbits from other Tolkien books to flesh out the story.

The film's ambiance is jarring, alternately somber and colorfully childish. The latter is the more endearing, mainly because it is more original. Many shots and scenes come across as a worn imitation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Action scenes are repetitive and confusing, while other scenes drag on. Cutting a good 45 minutes might have improved the pacing.

That said, revisiting Tolkien's work is nostalgic. Its ominous tone, including a glimpse of the dark "necromancer," foreshadows the increasing perils in The Lord of the Rings. The characters are charming. Bilbo is more mischievous and developed than the movie-version's saintly Frodo (Elijah Wood). (It is still nice to see Frodo again.) The dwarves, though stereotypes, including Richard Armitage's Thorin, are nicely acted and likable.

There is something enjoyable about talking monsters. Their humor SLIGHTLY humanizes them. Unfortunately, a white, giant orc is given a very cheesy role as Thorin's nemesis. The film dwells far too long on how evil this creature is. We had three movies to discover how bad orcs are. I didn't find this plotline compelling.

Perhaps the best scene of the film occurs between Bilbo and (SPOILER ALERT) Gollum (Andy Serkis). It is one of the most subtle moments in a loud, heavy-handed movie. The encounter between the former hobbit-like creature, a currently mad Gollum, and the inexperienced but crafty hobbit Bilbo is genuinely suspenseful.

The cinematography and music are lovely, but all derivative. It feels more like a copy than an ode. The Hobbit could have been a truly resonant, enchanting movie instead of a trilogy. The makers could have distinguished this film from its predecessors. But the lure of gold, as Smaug the dragon would agree, is strong enough to justify one movie for the price of three.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Graceland (pilot episode)

USA Network's summer television show "Graceland" airs June 6, but viewers can watch the pilot episode on VOD (Video on Demand) from April 29 to May 12. The series follows a group of undercover FBI, DEA, and customs agents who live under one roof in Southern California. Their house, confiscated from a drug dealer and Elivs fan, is an expansive beachfront home dubbed Graceland.

Brand new agent Mike Warren's (Aaron Tveit) abrupt arrival initially causes some tension. He is eager to be trained by the legendary Agent Briggs (Daniel Sunjata). Though very green, Mike's innovation and book-smarts impress the others. He wonders how the once driven Briggs turned into a surfer dude, and Briggs privately puzzles over why Mike was suddenly sent to Graceland, against his request. Other house members include the easygoing Johnny (Manny Montana), and Dale (Brandon Jay McLaren), the only customs agent.

Unfortunately, the heavy-handed writing is mostly expository. The creators appear to know as much about undercover life as I do, which isn't good. The plot is more diverting than intense, and the straightforward dialogue doesn't crackle.

What works is an engaging sense of camaraderie between these young agents. The actors do what they can to make their characters believable. Also welcome is the diversity. Mike is the only white male dwelling in the house, and the two women, Charlie (Vanessa Ferlito) and Lauren (Scottie Thompson), are more than just token females. The flirtatious and competent Charlie is especially appealing, and Dale.

In the end, in spite of the lackluster writing, the cast of characters and their relationships indicate that "Graceland" has potential.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reservoir Dogs

I only recently saw Quentin Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs. More focused than most of his movies (but by no means a tight narrative, this being Tarantino), Dogs follows a group of criminals. The story slowly unfolds, using flashbacks to tell the audience important--or just diverting--information. All we know for sure is that a heist went terribly wrong. 

The men only know one another's code names. The shrewd (or paranoid) Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) suspects there was a betrayal, but Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) lives by an older creed, and finds it difficult to imagine that any of the men he worked with are less than "honorable." Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) has been shot and will bleed to death if he doesn't get medical attention. The rest have either died or scattered. 

Needless to say, the movie includes trademark graphic violence, artful cinematography, and moments of pathos. Scenes are long and self-conscious, full of dialogue both relevant and random. The recognizable cast fit their roles perfectly, from Michael Madsen as the crazy Mr. Blonde to Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, son of big shot Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). While they are all varying degrees of lowlifes, make no mistake, they have no problem murdering policemen or people who get in their way. Yet several appear to hold genuine, even tragic, affection for another comrade.

Reservoir Dogs is recommended viewing for Tarantino fans and one of his funniest and most emotional pieces.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Master

The Master is an uncomfortable piece of cinema. Characters are irritating, pacing is slow, and the plot is pieced together through flashbacks and the occasional hallucination. The movie will frustrate some and absorb others, but the gorgeous cinematography, evocative music, and fantastic acting make it a film worth seeing. Though much of the movie may be baffling, it raises valid questions about the human condition.

The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic and addled veteran of World War II. He stumbles across philosopher Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his group of followers. Lancaster, everything Freddie is not, takes him under his wing and teaches him about "The Cause," a way of living which includes acknowledging past lives.

Phoenix is astounding as Freddie, an embodiment of the id. His poisonous moonshine exacerbates his mental disorders. Unusual for the movies, he is completely unglamorous. Freddie's hunched over, thin form and gnarled but enthralling face contrast with Lancaster's paunchy figure and composed expression. Hoffman is, of course, excellent. Amy Adams (or her character) is slightly over-the-top as Lancaster's uncompassionate and creepy wife Peggy.

Freddie's existence disproves Lancaster's mantra, "Man is not an animal," which may be why Lancaster is so drawn to him. Freddie is by and large loyal to Lancaster, dangerously so. Their relationship is a strange love story of sorts. In the end, though, Freddie is his own man, a chaotic force of nature. Will the brainwashing techniques of The Cause work on him?

Deep, dark colors emphasize a sense of post-war paranoia, and the unique cinematography and music emphasize how strange people are. Everyone is searching for some kind of truth, be it through control or a connection. The Master may be full of symbolism, but its oddness makes one thing very clear: humans are silly and fascinating creatures.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Hannibal: Apéritif (Episode 1)

NBC’s new television series Hannibal opens with a stylistic reenactment of a double murder. Music pounds, time reverses and speeds forward, and deep red splatters white walls. The audience watches criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) put himself in the mind of a killer. We literally see him shoot two people. The scene hints at what is to come: intense visuals, Grand Guignol violence, and heavy-handed direction.

Viewers will recognize Will Graham from the movies Red Dragon and Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris’s crime novels. At the beginning of the pilot, Will already appears to be falling apart. Dancy plays him with twitchy intensity, too much so, as one wonders where he will go from here. While Will is lecturing a class about empathizing with murderers, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, apparently bored) approaches him about a string of abductions. Women have disappeared, but no bodies have been found. Jack wonders about Will’s methods, but Will assures him that he is more autistic than sociopathic.

The show tells us over and over that Will is special, a savant on the edge of madness. Minor characters exchange glances and comment on how “different” he sees things. Will reluctantly joins Jack and interviews the latest victim’s parents at their home. With his powerful skills of perception—his ability stretches credulity, as we hardly see his process—he divines that this young woman was taken from her home. He asks to see her bedroom, and, lo and behold, there she is! The kidnapper tucked her corpse back into bed.

Once again, Will reenacts her death. The scenes of violence are artful and purposefully gratuitous. How many times are we going to watch as a woman is graphically murdered? A fibers specialist (Hettienne Park, mostly subtle) interrupts his intense reverie and eventually asks if he is unstable.

Burdened by his gift, Will drives home alone. He spots a dog on the side of the road, which he slowly woos, takes home, cleans up, and introduces to his other dogs. It’s a nice way of showing how Will has a hard time connecting with people, but, like anyone, needs some form of comfort. At night, his dreams make him sweat so much, he sleeps on towels.

In a bathroom at work (he yells that a fellow employee should use the ladies’ room), Jack confronts Will about the case. Since their explosive conversation takes place about a third into the episode, it feels rather unearned. Will tells Jack that the culprit might not be a psychopath because he appears to feel empathy for at least one of his victims. He kills them “mercifully.” The way Elise was put back in her bed makes Will think that she was an apology. In fact, he may have even tried to heal her.

At the lab, the same forensic scientist who spoke with Will finds a metal shaving on the body. Cut to: a young girl who resembles Elise (slender, brown hair) waves at a construction worker.

Jack speaks to Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Will’s psychologist colleague. Jack wants her to keep an eye on Will, but she states that she never studied him because she wants to remain his friend. She makes Jack promise that he won’t let Will get too close to the case as Will, interestingly, is driven by fear, which comes from having a good imagination.

Back in the lab, the scientists conclude that the young woman was pierced by antlers (of all things) post mortem. Her liver was also removed and sewn back in. Will correctly gauges that there was something wrong with the “meat;” it turns out, she had liver cancer. Why “meat,” you ask? Well, our killer is a cannibal! Cut to a certain someone delicately eating a scrumptious looking meal. In the episode’s most meta moment so far, this dimly illuminated man looks straight at the camera. While over-the-top, the scene is a welcome surprise.

Not surprising is that this is our titular Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), most famously played by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, also based on Harris’s novel. His character is the poster child of a monster with a human mask, as intellectual and cultured as men get, but as savage and heartless, too. Though I couldn’t catch every word from Mikkelsen’s mouth, his calm, urbane presence is a blessed relief from the more blunt minor characters.

Dr. Lecter advises a client about his anxiety, telling him that there is no lion in the room—and if there is, he will know. (Lecter has some of the stranger but more original lines.) As the client leaves, Jack visits Lecter’s immaculate office and expresses great admiration for his work. Jack asks if he can use his expertise to help with a psychological profile. Apparently, Alana Bloom recommended him. Lecter’s face is impassive. Everyone must assume his uncanny suaveness is due to being European.

He and Jack meet Will to discuss the investigation. Lecter initially asks about confessions but soon begins to size Will up, prodding him about eye contact, dreams, and barriers. Will walks out when he realizes that he is the one being psychoanalyzed here. Lecter tells Jack that Will has “pure empathy.” Jack asks for a more delicate approach next time.

In blazing daylight, in the middle of a field, a naked woman’s body is mounted on antlers in the middle of a field. Will arrives and avows that this is completely different from the others. The man they’ve been seeking is, in his mind, “loving.” He tries to consume women, not destroy them. This copycat is mocking everyone involved. He viewed the woman as a pig. Will miraculously deduces that the original killer has a daughter who looks like the victims and is leaving home. The murderer wants to connect with women. (Never heard of a serial killer like that before, but I guess that’s why this is fiction.)

He doesn’t have hope for finding the copycat. Her lungs were cut out when she was alive. This man is an intelligent sadist. He is motiveless and probably traceless. Meanwhile, Lecter is at home, slicing up and flambéing some lungs. He eats them with amusing smugness. They actually look pretty tasty.

The next morning, Lecter visits Will, bringing him eggs and… lung sausage? Over breakfast, Will tells him that the recent murder was a twisted gift because it showed him everything the first killer was not. On another note (supposedly), Lecter wonders if they’ll be friends, but Will replies that he doesn’t find him that interesting. “You will,” Lecter replies. He says that Jack views Will as a delicate tea cup, but he views Will as a mongoose that hides under the house while snakes slither by. Will is initially amused, but then puzzled and possibly disturbed.

The two of them visit a construction site that uses the same kind of metal which was found Elise. They go through employee records. One didn’t leave his address and missed several days of work at a time. While Will is preoccupied, Lecter calls that employee and warns him: “they know.”

The secretary manages to dig up an address, and our duo finds the killer. Unfortunately, he cuts his wife’s throat right on his front steps and retreats to the kitchen to cut his daughter’s throat. Will riddles him with bullets. Horrified by the turn of events, Will ends up covered in blood trying to save the wife and daughter, who is taken by an ambulance. Lecter watches everything with cool detachment. Er, was Will just too distraught to notice Lecter’s lack of reaction?

Elsewhere, Alana scolds Jack for letting Will get too close. Will visits the daughter in the hospital. Lecter appears to have been there all night, as he dozes next to her, holding her hand. How comforting.

Hannibal is dreamlike and visually interesting, but somewhat slow and awkwardly paced. The dialogue is occasionally poetic but mostly clumsy. Its graphic violence diffuses the tension, drawing attention away from the plot to the beauty of bloodshed. While the pilot feels off kilter, the cast is strong, particularly Mikkelsen as the seductive Lecter. Hopefully the story will fall into a rhythm, and the relationship between the impenetrable Lecter and the perceptive Will can build into something truly intriguing. Though it might bore and repulse many viewers, the series will likely delight fans of aesthetic carnage and of the notorious and memorable Hannibal Lector.

Bryan Fuller’s (Dead Like Me, Pushing the Daisies) Hannibal airs on Thursday nights at 10 on NBC.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Top 10 movies seen in 2012

I usually see only two or three movies that I really love per year. Last year, I saw about five. (Some of these movies were released in 2011, but I wasn’t able to see them until 2012. I saw or will see several 2012 films in 2013.)

1. Damsels in Distress is unique, especially if you’re not acquainted with writer and director Whit Stillman, which I wasn’t. The characters speak as though from an articulate subconscious.This comedy includes not only one of my favorite characters of all time, it feels like a strange expression of my life and thoughts.

2. The Avengers made me feel like a kid again. I had to restrain my nerdy glee as superheroes overcame their differences, embraced their flaws, and worked together. I expected much less.

3. Moonrise Kingdom is a beautiful, humorous, and fanciful tale of two twelve year olds who run off together and the adults and peers who try to track them down. The soundtrack and art direction are gorgeous.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy classic, an opaque, bleak, and intriguing piece set during the Cold War, based on John Le Carre’s novel of the same name.

5. Queen of Versailles is a hilarious and disturbing documentary about an extremely wealthy family going through the recession. The film manages to raise questions and shed light on a lot of issues, both on intimate and national scales.

6. The excellent Polisse follows numerous cases and officers in Paris’s child protection unit. In spite of its harrowing subject matter, it is both dramatic and believable. This film stuck with me for some time.

7. Django Unchained can feel like a very long (but awesome) music video. This funny and graphically violent blaxploitation/Western/revenge tale is deliberately offensive, and actors like Jaimie Foxx and Samuel Jackson create gripping characters. The movie skewers slavery’s premise that people are property.

8. Though a bit muddled, The Dark Knight Rises feels like a rousing and dark finale to a great trilogy. It brings the story full circle, making me want to revisit the other two films.

9. The Master is an odd but beautifully shot film about a wild man who stumbles into a cult in the years following WWII. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as the addled veteran, a kind of unglamorous character I’ve never seen before.

10. The Deep Blue Sea is a simple adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play. Drenched with angst and sadness, the movie theater director said of this emotional story of a woman’s obsession with her lover, “Don’t marry a mama’s boy and don’t run off with Loki.” (Tom Hiddleston played the boyfriend.)


Gorgeous production values, interesting themes, and Michael Fassbender’s fascinating performance couldn’t save Prometheus’s Planet 9 From Outer Space plot. Most disappointing here was its potential.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Maiwenn's excellent police drama Polisse follows the Parisian Child Protection Unit, expertly weaving officers' personal and work lives. Maiwenn plays Melissa, a quiet photographer who is more of a cipher than a fully drawn character, but she serves as the audience's eyes. The force is filled with more dynamic characters, including Joey Starr's passionate Fred, Karin Viard's insecure Nadine, and Marina Fois's bitter Iris.

The workers are dedicated professionals, but that isn't to say they are patient or polite. Often more intimate with their peers than their lovers, they are more reliable parents than spouses. Plagued with alcoholism, depression, and neuroses, there is a sense that our heroes could explode at any time. In fact, many of them do, and their rants about the trials of their job are repetitive but believable. In spite of the numerous storylines, careful editing and naturalistic, sometimes unbearably raw, acting distinguishes the various characters.

This work is neither easy nor cut-and-dried. Suspects range from tearful to unrepentant, and the young victims sometimes don't want to be torn away from their abusers. Relationships between the officers are also intense and complicated, whether they are platonic friendships or romances, repressed or consummated. In spite of the harrowing subject matter, characters often mask their pain as humor, and there are rare moments of relief and pure jubilation.

While some plots are underdeveloped (this would have been a fascinating miniseries), the film manages to follow quite a few stories as well as touch on broader issues such as bureaucracy and cultural clashes. The conclusion is simultaneously inconclusive, heavy-handed, and effective, suggesting that these prickly workers struggle through life and sacrifice themselves for the children. Aided by hand-held camera work, the gripping Polisse feels real.

French with English subtitles.