Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Martin Freeman mulls "His Precious".

Martin Freeman mulls “His Precious”.

(2014) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Jed Brophy, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Richard Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage. Directed by Peter Jackson

Since I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein as a boy, I was hooked not only on Middle Earth but on fantasy films in general. From Tolkein, I went on to read the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, Melanie Rawn, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and many others. I became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player in college. In short, I became a fantasy nerd.

When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy I was in fantasy nerd heaven. All three of the movies were standout films, epic in scope and yet humanized by Frodo and Sam who ironically weren’t human but Hobbits. I looked forward to the new Hobbit trilogy eagerly.

The first two movies I enjoyed but less than the LOTR films; the third one I enjoyed less than the first two. Essentially what happens here is that the Dwarves led by their new King Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) have taken Erebor back and the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) has gone on a rampage, taking out Laketown with fire and destruction. At last Bard (Evans) the Archer with most of the city fleeing for their lives takes out Smaug.

However, the damage has been done. His town is no longer habitable and his people are refugees. They’ll need assistance in rebuilding their lives, and so Bard approaches Thorin to get a share of the mountain’s treasure which Thorin had promised, but Thorin – now mad with greed – refuses and turns his back on them. He also refuses to return to Elven King Thranduil (Pace) artifacts which belonged to him. With little choice, a battle looms between the three armies.

This is where Gandalf (McKellan), who has been a prisoner of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch again) until rescued by Galadriel (Blanchett), Elrond (Weaving) and Saruman (Lee), arrives to warn all the parties that a massive orc army is approaching. When it arrives, the dwarves are in for the fight of their lives, even aided by Dain (Connolly) a cousin of Thorin’s. When a fifth army arrives from an Orc stronghold, it appears that the Elven, Dwarven and Human armies may be annihilated. However, the courage of a special Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) may be the turning point for the entire affair.

Lots of fans have groused at the adding of new material that wasn’t in the original source material in the first place, particularly of Tauriel (Lilly) an Elf created by the filmmakers to have a romance with Kili (Turner). I can only say that while much of the material served to pad out the book which would have never supported three films on its own that for the most part enhances the original material somewhat. I blow hot and cold myself on the matter but it is at least interesting to see Jackson’s take on the background of the book although I still wish that he’d found some way to shoehorn Beorn into the movies. C’est la cinema.

The biggest gripe I have with the movie and the reason why I have given it the lowest rating I have given any of the Middle Earth films is that it is mainly one long battle scene. Everything in the movie is either battle or leading up to it, beginning with the fight with Smaug at the beginning, Thorin’s battle with his own morality and of course the major battle scene that concludes the film which lasts not quite an hour. Sure, there was an extensive battle sequence at the conclusion of the first trilogy, but that film also had the quest of Frodo and Sam interweaving in to relieve the nonstop clanking of swords.

That said, the CGI effects continue to impress, particularly at the increased frame rate and in IMAX 3D which as I’ve said before, is a rare upcharge that’s actually worth it. Also worth it are the performances of Armitage, who is plagued by demons of greed and at last realizes that he is not that guy, and Freeman who is the heart of the Hobbit and at last demonstrates it. At times throughout the series we have seen that there is more to Bilbo than what we see on the surface and never more than in this film. Freeman is a superb actor – those who saw his performance in the Fargo mini-series earlier this year will agree. He is finally coming into his own after years of being stuck in character actor purgatory. I look forward to seeing him continue to get expanded roles in important projects.

While the movie goes full circle in linking to the original trilogy with some off-hand remarks and essentially reuniting Gandalf and Bilbo as the preparations for the party that began The Fellowship of the Ring are underway, in many ways the links to that trilogy are more assumed than anything else. I would have wished for a little tighter of a bond between the two trilogies.

This will be Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth and in that sense, we do get some closure, saying goodbye to a film series that will always remain close to my heart as a fan and as a critic. It is not the best movie to go out on and really shows quite graphically how the decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit was not a good artistic decision although it must be said it was a sound financial one as the second trilogy will have generated close to three billion dollars U.S. in box office by the time all is said and done.

Still in all, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to be worth seeing if just for the special effects, although those who didn’t care for the first two films in the trilogy or for fantasy in general will continue to dislike this trilogy. For the rest of us, it is a bittersweet occasion as I will miss our trips to Middle Earth and the company of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards.

REASONS TO GO: A pretty solid farewell to Middle Earth. Freeman and Armitage do solid work. Terrific effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much battle which gets numbing after awhile. Lacks relief from the constant battle scenes.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence mainly of the fantasy warfare sort, some scary monsters and other frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee Pace, who plays the father of Orlando Bloom in the film, is actually two years younger than Bloom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Into the Woods

New Releases for the Week of December 19, 2014


The Hobbit The Battle of the Five ArmiesTHE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

(New Line/MGM) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Jed Brophy, Stephen Fry, Ian Holm. Directed by Peter Jackson

The journey of Bilbo Baggins comes to an end as the greed of Thorin Oakenshield puts the fragile peace of Middle Earth at risk whilst in Mordor a shadow stirs, awaiting the presence of the One Ring. In the meantime, with Smaug wreaking havoc on Middle Earth, armies of orcs, elves and humans converge upon the Lonely Mountain. Can the three races unite to defeat the forces of darkness,?

See the trailer, clips, interviews, footage from the world premiere and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)

Annie

(Columbia) Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne. A painfully cheerful and terminally optimistic orphan literally runs into a cynical New York City billionaire who is also running for mayor in a hotly contested race. Realizing that his association with the plucky little girl is helping his cause, he decides to spend more time with her. But gradually she wears him down and pulls from inside him the best part of who he can be. Based on the 1982 movie which in itself was based on the hit Broadway musical.

See the trailer, clips and a music video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some mild language and rude humor)

Night at the Museum: Curse of the Tomb

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson. The wax figures that come to life after the New York Museum of Natural History closes are in big trouble; the magic that animates them is beginning to fade. Desperate to save his friends, Larry the security guard races around the globe to find out what’s happening and reverse it before the magic is gone forever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for mild action, some rude humor and brief language)

PK

(UTV) Aamir Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anushka Sharma, Boman Irani. A mysterious stranger comes into the city, asking questions nobody usually bothers to act. He has a strange, child-like quality that is endearing to some and troubling to others. His journey will take him into a world of love, laughter and letting go.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Point and Shoot

(The Orchard) Matthew Vandyke. An American who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eager to find what adventure is left in the world gets on his motorcycle and takes off to North Africa. His road trip takes him to places and situations he could never have prepared himself for, including fighting in the Libyan Revolution – and being captured and held prisoner for six months.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Wild

(Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman. Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose heroin addiction, reckless behavior and sexual promiscuity led to the destruction of her marriage. Having hit rock bottom in every sense of the word, she impulsively decides to hike the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail despite having no experience in it and being woefully unprepared. Channeling the memory of her mother, she sets out with only the force of her will to see her through. Witherspoon is considered a lock to garner a Best Actress nomination for her performance here.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Oviedo Mall and other local theaters
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language)

Into the Storm


They're not in Kansas anymore.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

(2014) Disaster (New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, Jimmy Groce, Linda Gehringer, Keala Wayne Winterhalt, Maryanne Nagel, London Elise Moore. Directed by Steven Quale

In this era of climate change and super storms, we have seen Mother Nature’s fury at levels unprecedented in our lifetime and scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. That may send a chill through most of us but through Hollywood filmmakers it might be classified as more of a thrill.

Silverton, Oklahoma is very much like many small towns its size throughout the United States. High school seniors graduate amid what pomp and circumstance their towns can muster. Teens suffer from a feeling that their parents don’t listen to them. Lovelorn boys work up the courage to talk to beautiful young girls. Video projects get corrupted and need to be redone. Redneck idiots get drunk and do stupid things all for the sake of YouTube glory. And sometimes, bad storms cause havoc.

Gary Morris (Armitage) is the vice-principal at Silverton High School and both of his sons – Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend the school. Donnie is something of a video nerd, president of the school’s audio-visual club and charged with recording the graduation ceremony. He has also been assigned by his father the making of a video time capsule to chronicle his high school years to deliver to himself 25 years later (an excellent idea by the way).

Pete (Walsh) is a storm chaser and documentary filmmaker who is frustrated with the lack of success this storm season. His funding is on the verge of being pulled and his meteorological expert Allison (Callies) has been spectacularly unsuccessful at using the weather data to predict where tornadoes might appear. However, a super cell has formed and there is hope that it will generate enough tornadoes to finally get Pete the shots he needs to complete his documentary. Taking the armored vehicle TITUS which has the ability to lock into the ground and withstand winds of up to 170 MPH, Pete, Allison, cameraman Jacob (Sumpter) and technicians Daryl (Escarpeta) and Lucas (Whitaker) head to where Allison believes the tornadoes will form – Silverton, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Donnie overhears Kaitlyn (Carey) being told that her video project had to be turned in that week for her to be considered for a summer internship, even though the video was hopelessly corrupted and needs to be reshot. Prompted by Trey, he offers to help reshoot footage at the abandoned paper mill some 20 miles out of town, even though it will take place during the graduation ceremony he’s supposed to film. Trey isn’t happy that he is now responsible for filming the ceremony and feeling the wrath of Dad.

A couple of knuckleheads named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep) – think of them as a real life Beavis and Butthead – are doing the usual; getting drunk, trying stupid stunts and dreaming of fame and fortune on the Internet when they see the TITUS whizzing by. Sure that something big is up, they follow, hoping to grab some storm footage of their own.

What nobody knows is that the storm that is beginning to form over doomed Silverton is like no other in history and the destructive power more than anything that they could prepare for. While a desperate father searches for his son, the storm chasers bear witness to an American town being wiped systematically from the map.

The good news first. The storm sequences are very well done with no two tornadoes ending up being too alike. Several strike during the course of the film and all with differing results and creating different types of danger. As eye candy summer movies go, Into the Storm delivers.

However, what happens between the storms is what weighs this movie down. The characters in the movie are given little development and exist essentially to be buffeted by wind and debris, to drive maniacally as tornadoes form around them and to wistfully call home and talk with their angry 5-year-old daughter (in Allison’s case).

The movie starts out going the found footage route, mainly using the footage that the storm chasers shoot as well as from Donnie’s video time capsule. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way through the movie, the filmmakers abandon this approach in favor of traditional cinematic forms to tell the story and then return to the found footage thing for a post-storm coda. It’s a bit jarring, and tells me that they didn’t have the courage of their own convictions to stand by one form or another. Commit to it or don’t do it.

Armitage, so good in The Hobbit trilogy and Callies who turned heads as Lori in The Walking Dead sleepwalk their way through this one. Both in their previous roles showed that they are compelling performers but there is nothing compelling here. Perhaps if they’d been given more to work with. Then again, one has to look at the writing credit to realize that the guy who wrote this also wrote Step Up: All In opening the same weekend to realize that this isn’t a screenwriter who specializes in people stories.

In a disaster movie, it’s not just about the disaster; it’s about those put in harm’s way. We have to have a rooting interest in them to survive and we just don’t here. Kudos to the special effects teams for the CGI storms that are breathtaking but this could have been so much better if they’d put in as much care and craft into writing characters that we care one way or the other whether they survive the storm.

REASONS TO GO: The effects work is worth seeing on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: The characters are essentially an afterthought. Feels like a theme park attraction more than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of tornado destruction and mayhem, some teen peril, a smattering of foul language and sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to keep their spirits up during a wet, tiring and miserable shoot, the extras would often spontaneously break out into song. A favorite was the Styx classic “Come Sail Away.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: What If

New Releases for the Week of August 8, 2014


Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES

(Paramount) Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

New York City is in trouble – but then again, when is it not? In this instance, the dreaded Foot Clan, led by the insidious Shredder, has complete control – an iron grip on the cops, crooked politicians and crime. The city needs heroes and it’s about to get them. Rising from the sewers, four brothers – superbly trained and honorable, trained by their sensei Splinter will fight for justice and peace aided by an intrepid reporter. These are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Bay-style.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a promo and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

About Alex

(Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter, Max Minghella, Maggie Grace. When a member of a circle of 20-something friends suffers an emotional breakdown, his concerned buddies decide to reunite for a weekend in a bucolic lakeside cabin. Despite their efforts to keep things light, years of unrequited passion, petty jealousies and widening political differences brings an already volatile cauldron to a boil.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and drug use)

Deepsea Challenge 3D

(National Geographic) James Cameron, Frank Lotito, Lachlan Woods, Paul Henri. The famous film director and noted marine biology junkie decides to dive to the deepest place on Earth using an experimental submersible. The dive is extremely dangerous and if Avatar fans knew he was making these dives before he’d finished writing the sequels they would have been raising a stink.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: PG (for language and brief disaster images)

The Hundred-Foot Journey

(DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon. When an Indian restaurateur settles in an idyllic French village, it sparks open warfare with the patrician owner of a Michelin star-rated bistro across the road. However, the extremely talented young son of the flamboyant Indian finds that good food can bridge any cultural gap. This is the latest film from acclaimed director Lasse Halstrom.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and premiere footage here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality)

I Origins

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey. The eye is like a fingerprint – no two humans have the same one. However, a molecular biologist makes a startling discovery that turns all our thoughts about the subject on its ear and in the process challenges long-held spiritual beliefs as well as scientific theory.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language

Into the Storm

(New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep. A small town is hit by a storm of epic proportions, one in which tornadoes self-regenerate and the worst is yet to come. Think of this as a political test – Climate Change deniers will undoubtedly shriek that this is propaganda while ecology freaks will call this prescient.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Disaster Movie

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense destruction and peril, and language including some sexual references)

Magic in the Moonlight

(Sony Classics) Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden. The latest from Woody Allen is set on the Cote D’Azur in the 1920s and is concerned about an English sleuth brought in to unmask a possible swindle. Sort of Woody Allen does Agatha Christie.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

New Releases for the Week of December 13, 2013


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG       

(New Line) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Peter Jackson

Continuing on their journey to reclaim the Lost Kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and thirteen stout and true dwarves must navigate the gloomy Mirkwood, take on swarms of giant spiders and Beorn the skin changer and the dangerous Wood Elves before coming face to face with the most fearsome foe they could imagine – the dragon Smaug. It will take all their courage and camaraderie to survive these obstacles.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Nebraska

(Paramount) Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacey Keach. A man decides to humor his cantankerous old dad and accompany him to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize the man suspects is a sham. Along the route he will see his father through different eyes – and maybe become a better man in the process. Acclaimed director Alexander Payne shot this in beautiful black and white.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some language)

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Kathy Najimy, Chad Michael Murray, Tika Sumpter. Madea reluctantly helps a friend make a surprise visit to her daughter in the country during the holidays. When they get there, things aren’t at all what they expect and in typical Madea fashion she must give out massive doses of her own brand of Christmas spirit or kick some serious booty – sometimes both.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opening Thursday)

Genre: Holiday Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references, crude humor and language)