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The Week in Movies

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

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To begin, I really wanted to like this movie. I’ve read the book about 10 times in my life and consider myself a solid fan of the work. Unfortunately, this movie diverts so far from the book and into the realm of vapid uber-action flick that it’s really got nothing to do with its predecessor at this point.

On the positive side, as usual the visuals are incredible. The depiction of Smaug is everything you could hope for and the scenery and backdrops are amazing. Technology continues to make it hard to go to a movie and not see something interesting. Any collection of dwarves as varied as this one is always a treat and the guest appearances by the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) were a wonderful mid-movie wake up. These and the other characters were crafted very satisfactorily.

Unfortunately, the negative begins when you look at what these well-drawn characters actually did. Even forgetting a moment that there ever was a book, the action sequences were appalling in their defiance of any reasonable logic about how the world actually works. At one point I thought for certain I was watching a clip from Super Mario Brothers as Mario jumped about stomping on the heads of his enemies. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see someone grow to twice their size after eating a colorful mushroom. Lastly, as artfully as these characters were portrayed it would have been nice if they’d picked a single personality and stuck with it throughout the film.

In summary, as a fan of the book this movie is a tragedy. The story line is mangled and wouldn’t really be recognizable as having anything to do with The Hobbit if not for the names. Sadly this is probably unavoidable when you turn a book that takes about 6 hours to read (including a break for elevensies) and turn it into three movies that take 8+ hours to watch. If you disregard the book entirely you still end up with a hollow and rather silly movie. All that said though it still earns 3 stars because it was nice to look at. As long as you don’t accidentally think about it too much you’ll be fine.

American Hustle

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I saw this movie, as I usually do, by just showing up at the theatre and watching whatever movie is playing next knowing not a single thing about it.

On the positive side, the setting is 1978 and the clothes, music, cars all were done wonderfully. I love a historical piece and this one didn’t fail to show us some of the best and some of the worst from fashion in this era. The soundtrack is diverse and appropriate and doesn’t just stick to the same 20 songs we tend to hear from the late 70’s. Also, as story lines go this one was reasonably well executed and held my own interest for most of the 2+ hours. I saw this one in a VERY crowded theatre and the audience seemed attentive and responsive to the 15-20 comedic bits. In fact one woman in the front row very nearly choked to death on a piece of popcorn that happened to hit the wrong spot just as something funny was going on.

To the negative, the movie did have some continuity problems and the middle hour or so was a bit of a yawn-filled drag. It seemed like a movie that was cobbled down from about 5 hours to 2 as characters made unexplained transitions between emotional states; I suspect an extended version might make slightly more sense but likely end up being fairly unbearable.

In summary, not the best movie I’ve seen in the past few months but it was amusing enough to justify the time spent. Any movie featuring a comb-over as complex as the one in the opening scenes of the movie deserves at least 4 stars.

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire
Seldom have I watched a movie based on a book that so accurately translates what was on the printed page. At several points I thought I must have seen the movie before because the image was so familiar but later realized that the movie just got it so right that I only imagined it.

It’s also worth remembering that the movie is a children’s movie based on a children’s book and despite the fact that it deals with some fairly violent subject matter, it does it in a very child-friendly way. Adults who are accustomed to the usual gore Hollywood likes to spew out will notice a much tamer take on the subject.

Additionally, I’ve read the books but I can’t imagine this movie would suffer terribly for those who hadn’t. The whole thing is fairly straightforward with no great complexity so it would be difficult to get lost even without previous experience in the texts.

Lastly, the thing that makes me like this series most is its strong underlying social commentary on the plutocracy in which we live in this country. For kids reading the book today, they’re probably not seeing the parallels but once they get older it’s just possible they’ll see echoes of this in their own government and the social stratification that we live with every day.

Saving Mr. Banks
As always, no spoilers whatsoever in this review because that’s just plain inconsiderate.

Saving Mr. Banks is a dual narrative portrait of the author of Mary Poppins and the creative team at Walt Disney that worked to bring it to the big screen. In one thread (1961) we have the curmudgeonly author behaving like a stark raving… well, curmudgeon as she tries to exert control over the creative process. In the other thread (1906, Australia) we unwind the story of her grim childhood that makes her a curmudgeon in the first place.

This movie has a lot of things to say not the least of which is to cast an entirely different light that beloved American classic of childhood. Mary Poppins ain’t quite what you think it’s about as a kid (but then what good movie IS what you think it’s about when you’re a kid). It’s also a powerful demonstration of how our childhood influences us as adults sometimes in ways that we don’t quite grasp until we look back on them from a great distance.

It’s also interesting to see behind the curtain of the creative process. Avoiding spoilers, the author’s primary objection is that Mary Poppins and the Banks family have become, in truth, her family over the years and sharing that vision and letting someone else have a piece of them is frightfully difficult. It does make a person wonder if all authors have this same struggle when crossing mediums.

Lastly, I’m a sucker for sentiment but this movie had the audience blowing its nose and audibly sniffing for a good hour. It’s an incredibly intimate portrait. However, the kids won’t think much of it and the group in the theatre with me was 50+ for the most part. All that said, highly recommended for anyone with a sentimental streak. Best movie I’ve seen in a month or more.

PS: The patient who sit through the credits will be treated to some photos from the movie’s production and a section of the recorded conversations between the author and the production cast.

Anchorman 2 – The Legend Continues
Firstly: No spoilers here. That would be pretty inconsiderate.

I don’t think there is any single moment in this movie that people will completely lose it over but for two hours the movie quietly pounds away in absurdity. I watched this in a fairly full theatre of college kids and there was a consistent level of positive reaction. About 80% of the attempted humor got a laugh and that’s not a bad based on recent experience.

Part of the joy of this movie is that it has so many threads of story to appeal to so many. The older set will enjoy the wonderfully archaic fashion (it made me want to find some of those delightful polyester pattern shirts) and numerous period references, though some of these seem anachronistic given the movie is set in 1980.

At times the film echos Zoolander as macho professional archetypes square off in hopelessly absurd duels for dominance of the stage. The film’s closing melee is star-studded and from a story perspective, somewhat of a letdown, but I was too busy trying to figure out all the cameos to realize that until much later. My primary observation from that scene is to note that a lot of famous people are starting to look really old. Yow.

Lastly, the thing that really sticks out for me about this movie is that like all comedies, it goes through that mandatory dramatic shift about 2/3 of the way through but Anchorman 2 somehow survives and continues to be funny. Perhaps that’s because the movie’s poignant moments aren’t all that poignant but nevertheless, the movie manages to deliver laughs even after the usual serious interludes.

PS: If you do happen to sit through the movie’s massive credits, there is a brief additional scene. It’s not worth missing your dinner reservations for but it is there for the intrepid and the absurdly patient.

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