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Warm winter

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
★★½

Despite the title, this movie is not about The Winter Solider. Surprisingly, he plays a minor part in this movie

What it is about is a fairly smart take on our current fear of omniscient security. This movie is definitely in tune with the times, which is a little surprising for a popcorn superhero action film. The script is stronger and more consistent than Captain America: The First Avenger… though it never reaches the high notes of the predecessor.

We’ve seen most of the leads in their roles before, but a new addition is a turn by Robert Redford (?!) Again, surprising for a superhero movie to get someone like him.

The action sequences are excellent, and I loved how they captured Cap’s unique fighting style. He uses his shield much more than in his previous films, and it works well.

P.S.—When the credit start to roll, stay to the very end!

Part two in two parts

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
★★½

It’s difficult to review middle films of trilogies, but the second film in The Hobbit trilogy particularly so.

The first two thirds of the movie, which are discursive and too long. Still, it’s not exactly boring. There are exciting, well choreographed fight scenes where Peter Jackson’s penchant for excess and trying to top himself is put to good use.

Then we have the last third of the movie: the promised confrontation with Smaug.

Holy crap.

Now this is the sort of stuff I go to the movies for. Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is an amazing, spectacular creation. I love dragons, and Smaug is one of the best ever put on screen. And the party’s confrontation with Smaug is thrilling and something you just could not experience in real life.

I am hoping that the third film can be as exciting as the third part of the second film. It ends with a cliffhanger that promises more a lot more Smaug, and that is an exciting prospect.

P.S.—I saw this in the “high frame rate” version. I was surprised at how different it looked. It didn’t look bad, but it looked like video and not film. I think any push to higher frame rates will rekindle a “digital versus vinyl” debate, with one side arguing, “The quality is objectively better,” and the other saying, “It just looks warmer.”

Related post

No reason to be Smaug

Frill ride

Walking With Dinosaurs
★★½

Walking with Dinosaurs is not a good movie.

There’s an unnecessary framing sequence (though Karl Urban is always welcome). The narrative make annoying stops for pronunciation of Latin names. And giving the dinosaurs the personalities and voices of teens from American television sitcoms is, well, strange.

But you know what? I don’t care.

First, the dinosaurs look great. Second, enough of the jokes landed for me that I was laughing throughout the movie. I just had fun.

Walking With Dinosaurs is light entertainment; heck, very light entertainment. But once in a while, that’s all I want from a movie.

Cold hands and warm hearts

image

Frozen
★★★½

I admire a film that can surprise me.

But I love a film that can surprise me twice.

Frozen is no doubt poised to be a big merchandising money-maker for Disney, as it features not one, but two, princesses. We have the elder princess, Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel, who is brilliant), who is born with powers to create ice and snow. But Elsa keeps these secret from her younger sister, Anna (voice of Kristen Bell), causing the two two become estranged.

When she finally comes of age, Elsa opens her castle for her coronation, but all the problems she was trying to prevent come to happen. But Anna is determined to make things right.

This being a Disney movie, there are some great songs. “Let it Go” is an absolute showstopper, musically and visually. It gets bonus points from this scientist for being the first song in a movie that I know of to incorporate the word “fractal” in its lyrics. And it is stunning in 3-D.

You also have comedic sidekicks. Most work, though I wasn’t won over by snowman Olaf.

But the film, already good, hits its stride and becomes great in its unforgettable third act. The climax is, as mentioned, surprising but it’s just wonderfully satisfying on an emotional level.

P.S.—Make sure to stay until the very end, for not one, but two little surprises!

Game, interrupted

imageThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire
★★

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not a complete movie.

It’s understandable how this adaptation fell into a trap. The first instalment winds up fairly tidily. The writer may not have been sure there would be a second book, but leaves it open to the possibility of more. With the success of the first, the third instalment is ensured

Here, we have the second part that moves the plot along nicely. At the end of the previous movie, I felt frustrated that there seemed to be no acknowledgement of the political unfairness that led to the creation of the games. That is in full force here, with political ferment aplenty. And it’s interesting. In fact, putting Katniss back in the Hunger Games feels contrived and a bit of a distraction from the main story.

The middle film of some trilogies manage a decent climax and winding up plot threads developed in the film, while still promising the big finale ending is promised in the next instalment.

But Catching Fire doesn’t end. It just stops. 

And no matter how many good things there are in this film, like Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent performance, it will feel unsatisfying until it’s bundled into a DVD box set and you can go on to the next movie immediately.

Missed myth

imageThor: The Dark World
★★

It was the lasers that did it for me.

Lasers and spaceships… in Asgard? Asgard, the world of Norse gods?

The more I watched Thor: The Dark World, the more it felt like a refugee from the 1980s. Space (okay, Asgardian) battles, a weapon to destroy the world, a countdown to a rare celestial event… I’d seen it all before. It just felt tired.

The characters could have save it, given that you have a great cast. But Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman) have scenes stolen out from them by Loki (Tome Hiddleston) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). Loki and Darcy are so much better written and interesting than the leads, and they shouldn’t be.

And I don’t Erik Selvig’s (Stellan Skarsgård) character at all, We’ve seen Selvig in other films, and he was never crazy like in this one.

On the plus side, I gained new respect for Chris Eccleston in this film. I’ve watched Eccleston a lot, mostly in Doctor Who. I did not recognize him. At all. It wasn’t until the name rolled by in the credits that I realized he was in the movie. He is completely transformed and unrecognizable as lead bad guy, Malekith.

Thor: The Dark World was entertaining enough to watch, but I wouldn’t ever want to watch again.

P.S.—Do not leave when the credits start to roll! Stay to the very end!

Down with the ship

imageCaptain Phillips
★★

I couldn’t get into this film.

This is a true story of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a commercial shipping captain who is making a routine voyage around Africa. His ship is taken by Somali pirates and Phillips is taken hostage.

As a true story, there are limits to what Captain Phillips can do with its narrative. And part of that limitation is that the film feels slightly unsatisfying because more often than not, Phillips is pulled through events more than he is shaping them. Similarly, the film’s second half is probably already a condensed version of events, but it still slows feels long and slow.

I spent much of the film wondering why Tom Hanks had been cast in it. For much of it, Hanks gives a performance that seems distinctly ordinary. He seems to be playing it with a New England accent that seems to come and go, for one.

But at the very end, Hanks reminds you of why he is such a respected actor. Hanks’s  performance of Phillips after he is rescued, and is coming down after his ordeal, is powerful and moving.

Play harder

imageEnder’s Game
★★★

This is a movie about strategy.

To be successful, the audience has to understand the conflict. What are the rules of engagement? What are the positions of the sides? And, most critically, what is your opponent trying to achieve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Ender’s Game struggles to make the audience understand. Sometimes you understand the games well enough to understand what Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is doing; sometimes you don’t. It generally works well at the personal level, but when it moves to larger scales, the movie sometimes tends to fall back on sound and fury.

This might not be so noticeable except for the fact that the film opens with a memorable quote from the book about how Ender wins by understanding his opponent completely and utterly. And you keep waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for how Ender is going to figure out something about the alien invaders he is training to beat. The movie sometimes lacks the clarity it needs to tell its story well.

Still Ender’s Game is consistently interesting to watch, thanks largely to a cast that delivers unerring performances across the board. Every note rings true. Asa Butterfield’s Ender is an astonishingly layered character, alternating between conflicted, desperate, angry, and compassionate. It is surprising how much of an actor’s movie this is.

The production values are high, and I also liked Steve Jablonsky’s music score.

But while always interesting, the movie is rarely exciting. It shows its literary roots: it doesn’t have a movie’s pace, and largely lacks a sense of building to any climax.

One final note: I came into this movie having never read the book. I saw it with someone for whom the book is an all-time favourite. We both agreed: Ender’s Game is good, but could have been oh so much better.

A lockbuster movie

Escape Plan
★★½

“White hat hackers” are people who try to get into secure computer mainframes, not to break the law, but to test the level of security before anyone with malicious intent manages to break into secuirty.

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a white hat hacker for prisons. He gets locked into them and tries to break out. It’s a clever premise, and Escape Plan does justice to the premise.

It does so in large part due to the performances of its leads, Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. No, really. These guys, who have both been typecast as the heavy hitting but not too bright action hero, both come across as intelligent in this movie. They’re both very good. Add in a fastidious warden, Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), as an equally intelligent opponent for the two leads, you have a film that rises above a lot of expectations you might have.

The clean and simple premise gets a little muddied in the film’s third act, but Escape Plan is a well crafted action film. And it’s great to see the two veterans leads finally working together in a good movie, instead of dodgy bulletslingers like The Expendables.

Exposé

imageThe Fifth Estate
★★½

As a film about Wikileaks, a lot of the success or failure of the film hinges on its protrayal of its most public and visible spokesperson, Julian Assange. Benedict Cumberbatch does well with what he’s given, but what he’s given is a script that reduces Assange to a wannabe revolutionary who sprouts bumper sticker slogans. Say what you want about Assange, but when I have seen interviews with him, he seems considerably more well-spoken articulate than he appears in this movie.

The reason to watch this movie, then, is not for Benedict’s Assange, but Daniel Brühl’s portrayal of Assange’s less well-known partner, Daniel Berg.  Brühl delivers a low key but compelling performance that is consistently excellent.

Director Bill Condon also deserves some credit for taking what is not very visually exciting or easily intelligible – people sitting at keyboards managing websites, servers, and files – and creating visual metaphors that are understandable and interesting.