Saturday, 29 December 2012

Fun in -11-12

I'm currently in the process writing my top movies of the year list. But as you may realize, putting just good films on a list after one another doesn't give out the full story of the year. We will have to wait for years to know which films will capture the zeitgeist and what not. However, it has been established that popular, big-budget films can have staying power regardless of quality. People remember when they have fun.

I realized recently, that I have very nostalgic feelings on early 2000s movies, since I saw them in my teens. So I held the first Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Minority Report and even a lot stupider films like Die Another Day in special accomodation since I had fun watching them in a particularly influence-heavy age. Today, there probably are future film freaks that watch these movies and have similar feelings a decade later.

I should mention that while these films are all 2012 theatrical releases in Finland, many of them premiered in 2011 in the United States. But since I didn't do this retrospective last year, it hardly matters. So here's a look at blockbusters from these past 1,5 years.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson

So Peter Jackson has made another Middle-Earth trilogy for us to enjoy. Stretching a simple story we all already know into three movies with a lot of kid-friendly whimsy, talking and setting things up for the main event, and featuring some uncomfortable technical processes that do more harm than good. The whole thing started to feel quite a lot like Star Wars prequels before opening. But while The Hobbit wobbles a bit on the dangerous path, I ended up quite enjoying it.

Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1930's children's novel, The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a simple hobbit living a lazy countryside life. But the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) deems him a worthy addition to join an expedition party, much to the little guy's chagrin. So Bilbo meets with 12 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakshield  (Richard Armitrage), who plan to free their conquered city of Erebor from the hostile giant dragon Smaug. Bilbo does decide to join the party and is given the duty of working as a thief, sneaking around silently, since he's so little and hard to notice.

As was expected, stretching a 300-page story into three 2,5 hour films means a lot of padding up. In this case, Jackson has decided to vow the story more tightly into the events of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. So, we have extra orc attacks and cameos from old favorites (Ian Holm narrating the story, Elijah Wood walking by, and a lengthy discussion scene with Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving) and a lot of mythology-building. Some new villains and threats are introduced, which will presumably become more important later on. The film's style is thus a little all over the place. But not as much as I feared.

The golden brown-colored film gives a whiff of nostalgia in many ways. The balance between deathly battles and bumbling dwarves actually reminds me of several earlier Harry Potter films. I consider The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Order of the Phoenix to be the best of that series, since they quite comfortably can blend the unnerving fear of death with some warmer, friendlier and more humoristic parts. As with Jackson, the balance isn't always the most smooth, but it works in maintaining audience interest.

As a Tolkien fan, I must also say that I might find it more enjoyable to follow endless historical discussions and mythology-creating speeches. But the film offers hefty action scenes as well. I would advise to avoid the HFR 3D version, though, since it makes the whole thing look speeded up. The overly clear contrast also reminds more an electronics store HD TV demo than a proper film.

Finally, what pushes the film to work are the performances. Freeman is a perfect Bilbo. He presents the stuck-up englishness the hobbits seen previously in Jackson's films have lacked. But there's also his dry sense of humor and perfect comic timing, which I would've liked to see more. Ian McKellen's Gandalf seems a bit odder, coming off as unbalanced, this time around. But in the grand scheme he works as a balance to the soft power weilded by his zanier, animal-loving colleague Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the hard power and authority of Saruman the White (Lee). Who, by the way, comes across as a real blow-hard but not as a real evil force to be dealt with.

Finally there's Andy Serkis's Gollum, who has never seemed more tragic, lonely and corrupted than now. It helps that the final seams of his CGI presence have been fixed (perhaps the dim lighting of his cave helps too).

So for those yearning another trip to Middle-Earth, The Hobbit does work okay. At the moment I understand how the story could be divided into two. But Necromancer knows what on Middle-Earth could be included in the third part.

Film: ★★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Director: Brad Bird

It's always a tell-tale sign of the state of Tom Cruise's popularity at any given time seeing as how big a role he gets in his flagship franchise. It's not so hot nowadays, since the latest Mission gives the most room for the Impossible Mission team outside of Cruise's stunts. As with Bourne Identity and The Avengers, Jeremy Renner is carted in to fill in as a probably candidate to take over the franchise. There never was just one.

When an operation is botched in Moscow, resulting a major bombing, the government shuts down the entire Impossible Mission Force (or I.M.F.). Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and a few of his fellow trusted agents must go on their own to find the culprit. It turns out to be professor Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a dangerous left-wing terrorist who threatens to start a nuclear war between the United States and the Sov Russia. They attempt to track the place where Hendricks and his lackeys attempt to do the launch.

The action is not overplayed and looks great. As with previous films, Tom Cruise had once again done his own stunts in a major scene. This time around, it's a hair-raising climb in Dubai's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The banter with Hunt and eager younger agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and veteran agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) keeps things interesting. Guessing Renner's William Brandt's motivations, less so.

The film loses to its predecessor in one major point and it's by not having a good enough villain to pose a credible threat. The Cold war Bond film-like missile launch just doesn't cut it. Nyqvist is a burly middle-aged man, not nearly as cut and fit as Cruise. So the final beat-down scene actually makes the viewer feel sorry for the villain. The finnish Samuli Edelmann does a lot better as Hendricks' main henchman, who gets a lot more screentime. Since his Wistrom talks little, his job is mostly to look intimidating.

For animation director Brad Bird this seems like a move to finance a more personal live action project next. Cruise always could choose the right directors at any given M:I episode. But since the film is treated as just a bit o' fun, the attempts to bring any gravitas to it are automatically failed. The continuity-laden final scene is made all the more aggravating by this kind of shoehorning.

Film: ★★★
Fun: ★★★

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Director: Guy Ritchie

Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock movie emphasized the Victorian literature hero's fighting skills and explosions. The sequel comes from the more-of-the-same construction line. At times it feels like the film's script is aimed at slash fiction writers, since the homosexual tensions between Sherlock and his sidekick Dr. Watson go so over the top. It's not innuendo any more if topless and made-up Holmes falls Watson on the ground, saying "lay down with me".

Tensions between Europe's superpowers, France, Germany and England are building. Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) soon deducts that these politics are manipulated by the criminal genius Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). At the centre of the fiend's nefarious plot seems to be a fortune-telling gypsy Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) and her family. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is about to marry his fiancée Emily, but Holmes insists on him to return to his aid for one last case. As Moriarty intends to hit Holmes where it hurts, Watson and his bride are targets, so the good doctor has no choice but to accept.

As with the first one, the film is shaped by it's talented cast. Harris, best known for his role as Lane in Mad Men, brings gravitas and unexpectedness to his Moriarty. He strongly holds his own in a role that could have gone to any more famous British thespian or even Hollywood super star. On the other end is Holmes' brother Mycroft, played with a warm humor by Stephen Fry. As opposed to most adaptations, Mycroft is now even more eccentric than his younger brother. Fry seems to have great fun in his flamboyant role, but we do get to see perhaps a bit too much of him.

As for the plot, it is, in its essentials, so simple that its hardly a proper mystery at all. The flashy Hollywood sensations overcome any good deductions or brain-twisting riddles. The action is passable, even if it is so large in scale, it's hard to take any threats to our heroes' lives very seriously. They ability to shoot, run, jump and dodge bullets seem unnatural most of the time. However, the fight scenes with Holmes deducting his next moves are as fun to watch now as ever before.

Film: ★★★
Fun: ★★★

Director: Peter Berg

In the absence of a loud, rude and infantile Michael Bay summer toy movie, producers at Hasbro decided to go to the closest alternative. Basing a film on a licensed board game must be the stupidest thing to base a blockbuster on, so now Pirates of the Caribbean is excused. You don't even need Hasbro's game board to play, just a pencil, piece of paper and some imagination would do. But imagination isn't something that's big in Hollywood these days. So now there are aliens involved.

Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) used to be a slacker, until his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) convinced him to join the Navy. As a marine, he's a big screw-up (like one would imagine), and one war game away from getting kicked out. It doesn't help that he has fallen for the Admiral's (Liam Neeson) daughter Sam (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker). Alex hopes to get dad's permission to marry her. But then, everything changes as Aliens navigate to Earth through a seabed homing beacon or something. The marine-based alien vessels begin a war with the Navy ships.

Having a kid-friendly Michael Bay Light product is all well and fair, but at least then the movie's length should be adjusted accordingly. As of now, there's far too much similar scenes of Aliens and the Navy taking turns in shooting each other. The lack of proper Bay-like exploitation, ruthlessness and sheer bad taste make the viewing go smoother, but there's a feeling that something is missing.

It's a loud, infantile movie with plenty of American flag-waving and AC/DC playing as ships sail into action. Explosions are pretty, but they tend to get boring after about an hour in. The script is at times dire or outright ludicrous. The salute to veterans is a particularly cheer-worthy scene in all its cheesiness. A lot on the quality of acting in the film can be summed by saying that Rihanna gives one of the best performances. She actually makes it seem as if she worked for a living. The pop star also gets all the best lines. Like "Boom".

Film: ★★
Fun: ★★★

The Expendables 2
Director: Simon West

A lot can be said about The Expendables 2, but at least it fixes up several of the first one's unforgivable problems. This time around, they don't have a Mickey Rourke crying scene to clinically insert some ham-fisted drama into a stupid boy's night out -movie. This time, the incomprihensible Jason Statham's romance plotline is sidelined to a few phone call-scenes. This time, the action is clearly shot, easier to follow and more explosive. There's blood! These are improvements you get when switching from the director of Rocky IV to the director of Con Air. Unfortunately, they should have also hired some screenwriters, not just apes in front of typewriters. And a proper cinematographer.

This movie looks really cheap for a multi-million dollar production.

The leader of the secret covert operations team Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is approached by the mysterious CIA man Church (Bruce Willis) to do a job to repay an old debt. The Expendables are sent to the former Soviet Union to retrieve something hidden inside a crashed plane. But it turns out that the ruthless Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) also wants the contents, and kills of one of Ross's team to gain it. The chase turns personal and Ross with his team will stop at no ends to have their vengeance on Vilain.

Shot mostly in a cold and barren landscape, The Expendables 2 looks like one of those cheapo straight-to-dvd Romanian-shot action films cast members like Dolph Lundgren excel in. Most of the money from the film's production has gone to the salaries of it's major stars. And once you hire Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you have to have your monkeys say their famous lines. The cavalcade of worn-out one-liner clichés gets tired quite fast.

But there's also charm in the film's idiotism. Chuck Norris appearing out of nowhere, killing everyone around without breaking a sweat, is an internet joke so daft it turns back to being funny. Lundgren's grumbling and potentially dangerous guy, who is at the same time an chemistry genius and a total meat-head. The character is played by the Swedish muscleman with the necessary gravitas, with irony only hinted at the seams. As a cherry on the top, it is also funny to see Van Damme kick Stallone in the head. There should be more of this. So while the film isn't that good, it does offer some old circus tricks that the viewer actually does want to see.

Film: ★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★ 1/2

The Avengers
Director: Joss Whedon

The most fun of the year's blockbusters was also such a big hit in the box office, it will change the game on movie releasing. Marvel's gambit of introducing characters in their individual films and bringing them all together to a major big brawl isn't that special in the realm of comics. But in the world of huge Hollywood movies such a thing had never been attempted before. And it payed in bucketloads. The film made more than a billion dollars, not counting all the merchandise, DVD's and the profit for the individual films.

The secretitive world safety organization S.H.I.E.L.D. has the possession of the mythical Tesseract from Odin's treasure chamber (used by the Red Skull tp try to conquer the world in Captain America: The First Avenger™). The Tesseract allows to create worm holes from one point in the universe to another. Thor's vengeful brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston, banished from Asgard in Thor™) sees this as an opportunity to take over the world with the help of his intergalactic army. He starts by possessing the minds of several key S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, along with Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and blowing up the agency's facilities.

This makes S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assemble a team of superheroes. He calls his #1 field operative Natascha Romanova a.k.a. (Scarlett Johansson) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), specialized in super hero watching, to help out tracking them. From nervous, anger-controlling gamma radiation specialist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), thawed out super soldier Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) to self-obsessed billionaire industrialist and robotic suit wielder Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), all have to work together to stop Loki. But even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has his own ideas on how to deal with his brother.

As in the comics, the superheroes presented here are deeply flawed characters. They do not work well together at first, and their larger-than-life personalities are on a crash course for course of the whole film. Thanks to Joss Whedon's script, the banter and teasing between the characters, as well as the tension-building works quite well. Mark Ruffalo in particular is the best screen version of the Incredible Hulk, with his good-humored responses hiding the fact he's struggling to control his immense raging id all the time. 

As a life-long fan of superheroes, both on comics and on screen, the critique requires a bit of trying to figure the film from an outsider's point of view. The film's pacing doesn't work as good as it should. The lengthy scenes of exposition still don't cover that much of what's going on (you need have seen at least Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America). Action scenes are even a bit rare until the final battle, which lasts forever. The hoardes of attacking Chitauri are quite boring as villains, and there would have been a lot of more interesting alien races from the comics to use.

The film balances the characters exceptionally well. The only exception is the case of Hawkeye, who is a somewhat wasted opportunity. In the comics, he's the hot-headed, smartassed player Tony Stark is in the movieverse. Jeremy Renner does the best he can to make him seem like a badass, but we learn the least about his character, and he spends most of the time being Loki's puppet.

But for all it's flaws, the film is dynamic, and seeing the Avengers finally learn to work together makes the viewer giddy. "Aw yeah!" action scenes are plentiful, but not overused. The stakes are high enough for there to be actual worrying whether all the heroes will survive intact. The main message in these Marvel superhero films is that heroism is winning over the major personality flaws you have. And this film does so also within itself.

Film: ★★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★★

Stay tuned for the Best of 2012 soon!

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