About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Picking up where the previous film left off (with no reminders of the previous film’s events, mind you), Hunger Games winners Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to play up a romance and tour the various districts. However, the President (Donald Sutherland) and the new games master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are sensing that Katniss is inspiring a rebellion amongst the people, and the President is keen to keep his power. It is decided that at the next Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta will face only former Hunger Games champions (Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer among them), hoping that Katniss’ chances of survival are miniscule. That’s the plan, at least. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, and a hopefully well-paid Toby Jones reprise their roles from the previous outing.

 

This 2013 sequel to the hit YA fiction adaptation is at the very least a vast improvement on its tedious and stupid predecessor. However, that film was so bad that this film from director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”, “I Am Legend”) still isn’t nearly good enough to recommend. But an improvement it indeed is, slight or not. Scripted by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours”) and Michael deBruyn (A pseudonym for Michael Arndt, Oscar-winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”), the film’s prolonging of the actual Hunger Games has its advantages and disadvantages. Since the Games sequences in the first film were so appallingly handled, I was quite glad that the film spent most of its length away from that stuff. The downside is that for what is basically a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game”, it’s handled somewhat wrong-headedly. More than an hour is far too long for there to be absolutely no action in the film, and what it did present for those 60 minutes or so is one same note played over and over. I liked the idea that the former participants Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are now considered mentors, kind of like returning players on a reality TV show, except much less happy to be there. However, the film gives us 40 odd minutes of Katniss struggling with all of this, without the film really getting into the proper story for an exceedingly long time. “Battle Royale” showed how to do this kind of thing right (Hell, so did “The Running Man”). I also have to say that the film’s big twist calls attention to itself from a certain actor’s first scene, and the final ten minutes are abysmally clunky. How did no one notice that?

 

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the characters are much more interesting this time out, and with one major exception, they are more likeable, too. Woody Harrelson, as always is a highlight. He seems to be having more fun than anyone else in this decidedly too self-serious franchise. Donald Sutherland gets a bit more meat to chew on this time out, and is all the better for it. I’m not going to speculate on what was going on in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mind when he signed on for this film, but he certainly looks skull-fuckingly bored to be there. And yet, there’s no doubt that his character is much more interesting than his predecessor, played in the first film by Wes Bentley. I’d much rather have seen a film revolving around Hoffman, Sutherland, and Harrelson to be honest. Elizabeth Banks seems to have toned down the affectedness of her character this time out, and the character itself is also less ambiguous, which is actually a good thing. Effie is likeable and slightly less annoying this time. Liam Hemsworth gets a bit more screen time in this one, which is nice, he’s certainly more interesting and charismatic than Mr. Hutcherson.

 

The new participants in the games are a pretty interesting lot too, certainly more so than the previous film. For instance, they actually have personalities. If it weren’t for Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone would easily walk off with this film. It’s a lively, memorable performance from an actress one doesn’t see nearly often enough these days. In fact, her character should be the lead in this series if you ask me. Yes, she’s horribly unlikeable, but she’s also hilarious, entertaining, and brings an energy that others in the film lack. Director Lawrence, meanwhile has thrown Amanda Plummer a bone here, as she and Jeffrey Wright play the most mannered and affected couple of the year…and oddly enough, it works, mostly because they’re playing the most likeable characters in the entire film. Plummer in particular is perfectly cast, and possibly not acting. Weird woman. Let’s face it, mannered and affected acting is her and Wright’s thing.

 

Unfortunately, this is still the story of Katniss, and it’s still Jennifer Lawrence’s film. Lawrence did fine work in “Silver Linings Playbook”, but I’ve hated her in just about everything else, especially these films. She’s in typically sullen and unlikeable mode here. I know Katniss is being forced to do things against her will, but Lawrence really ought to have found a different way to convey that, because it comes off as sullen, and frankly a bit bitchy. She, and therefore the character, come across as impossible to like, and for a supposedly heroic protagonist, that’s fatal. Katniss is just an unpleasant person to hang a movie around, let alone a franchise. Lawrence doesn’t give the worst performance in the film (that would be Patrick St. Esprit as Cmdr. Thread, who is embarrassingly over-the-top), but certainly one of the chief flaws here. Stanley Tucci once again stands out for the wrong reasons, his character is utterly ridiculous, and he plays it as though he’s on a Nickelodeon teen comedy show. He should be ashamed of himself, we all know what he’s capable of.

 

As for the action, well the cinematography by Jo Willems is noticeably steadier and better this time out, and when the action comes it’s more enjoyable than last time. But like I said, with plusses come minuses, and the action is just too late in the coming to really matter. Still, this is enough of an improvement over the first film to take things out of bad movie territory and into average movie territory. That’s something of a distinction, right?  

 

Rating: C

Review: Joe vs. The Volcano


Joe (Tom Hanks) has a boring job, an unpleasant boss (Dan Hedaya), and for the love of God will someone fix those fluorescent lights, they’re enough to give a guy a migraine! Well, a migraine is merely one of many illnesses that Joe believes he suffers from, and you can probably add hypochondria to the list too. Or maybe not, as when he goes to see a doctor (Robert Stack), Joe is told that he has a ‘brain cloud’, which although somewhat vague, is incurable and fatal enough to make Joe re-evaluate his dull, barely lived life. With only months to live, Joe quits his job and when an oddball millionaire (Lloyd Bridges) turns up with an offer: Joe can live the remainder of his life in luxury, so long as he agrees to travel to a previously unheard of island, and jump into a volcano as a human sacrifice to stop the volcano from wreaking havoc on the locals. Somehow Joe actually agrees to this lunacy. Hey, he’s already dying so I guess it doesn’t matter. Meg Ryan turns up in a number of different roles, including the secretary similarly dissatisfied with her job as Joe is, as well as playing Bridges’ two very different daughters (who are half-sisters to one another). Ossie Davis plays a chauffeur, Nathan Lane plays a native of the island, Amanda Plummer is the first-mate on a ship, and Abe Vigoda plays a tribal elder.

 

10 year-old me didn’t know what to make of this 1990 comic fantasy from writer-director John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt”), and 34 year-old me still doesn’t think it’s a total success. However, if I liked 2013’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, then I can’t really dismiss this one entirely, given that the two films seem like kissin’ cousins (look at the typhoon scene in this film, for instance), albeit the latter film is slightly stronger. It’s certainly not so bad that Shanley should’ve waited until 2008’s excellent “Doubt” to direct a film again. I actually feel really sorry for him that this flop happened to him, especially since it’s not actually a bad film at all, just unsuccessful.

 

Although initially a bit mannered, Tom Hanks is ideally cast, albeit with one of the worst mullets this side of Icehouse front-man Iva Davies. This was the first screen pairing of Hanks with Meg Ryan, who plays several roles in the film. She’s in spot-on Meg Ryan form here, so if you hate her (i.e. If you’re a jealous female), you’ll find her nauseating to multiple degrees. She has never looked hotter than she does here in her third role. She’s like Sally with straight hair. It’s also the most appealing performance in her multiple roles, and overall her performance in the film (or performances) is some of her strongest work to date.

 

The premise is obvious but relatable (at least to 35 year-old me, not 10 year-old me) and rather ambitious, and the supporting cast is excellent, if ultimately not utilised enough. Lloyd Bridges in particular is a spritely, daffy delight but underused. He seems so bonkers you’d think he’d picked up sniffing glue again. It might seem a touch on the nose for the refined, sage Ossie Davis to be cast as a limo driver here (a year after “Driving Miss Daisy” was released, no less), but the man never gave a performance with less than 100% effort. You definitely wish he had more scenes here. Robert Stack probably has the most thankless role in the film, which is a shame. Dan Hedaya, however is terrific as Hanks’ horrible boss early in the piece. Look out for a very funny and very random appearance by a hammerhead shark. There’s not enough hammerhead sharks in movies, I feel. I love them. The film is really well-shot by Stephen Goldblatt (“The Hunger”, “Lethal Weapon”, “Batman Forever”), who makes the whole thing seem more grand and expansive.

 

The main issue I have with the film is that it’s a little too quirky for its own good, with lots of little eccentricities for the sake of it. The “Walter Mitty” remake was a bit like that (and similarly not as profound as it thinks it is), but overall more successful than this film. Still, it sure beats “Prelude to a Kiss”, and underneath all the quirkiness there’s something good and worthy here hidden behind flights of fancy that just aren’t necessary. Look, the film almost works. It’s quite watchable, with a great cast of familiar faces, plus some wonderful imagery etc. However, the eccentricity eventually works against it, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack are underused, and there’s a truly appalling, cheating shaggy dog ending that I hated. It’s bound to be someone’s favourite film, just not mine.

 

Rating: C+

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


Set in an alternate 1899, he mysterious M (Richard Roxburgh) gathers together a band of Victorian-era characters for a secret mission to thwart the evil plans of the elusive ‘Fantom’, who is using highly advanced weaponry and artillery to set the world at war. However, there’s more to this plot than meets the eye. This team is named The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Sean Connery is legendary adventurer Allan Quartermain (or Quatermain if you’re a bit of a twat), Naseeruddin Shah plays Indian inventor and explorer Captain Nemo, Shane West is American Secret Service Agent Tom Sawyer (!), Tony Curran plays invisible thief Skinner (aka The Invisible Man, except not quite The Invisible Man if you know what I mean), Jason Flemyng is the troubled scientist Dr. Jekyll who has a beastly alter-ego, Stuart Townsend plays the immortal Dorian Gray, whilst Peta Wilson makes the title nonsensical, playing vampiress Mina Harker. David Hemmings turns up briefly as Quartermain’s brother.

 

Based on comic books by Alan Moore (“V for Vendetta”, “Watchmen”) and Kevin O'Neill, this 2003 action-adventure with a literary bent from director Stephen Norrington (“Blade”) is the infamous film that inspired star Sean Connery to quit the movie biz for good (He called the film a ‘nightmare’). Jesus, Mr. Bond it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s not a bad film at all (And you served as EP yourself, pal!). It’s just not quite a good one, either. Scripted by James Dale Robinson (who has a brief cameo in the film), the schlocky action and CGI aesthetics are at first a bit hard to stomach in a film that nabs several of literature’s most famous characters for the purpose of an all-star comic book adventure. However, it nearly comes off. In fact, I liked it a tad more the second time around, and don’t think it deserved to bomb at all. “Van Helsing” it ain’t. If you go into it knowing pretty much the kind of mindless entertainment the film provides (Think of it as “The Avengers” for people who don’t need pictures with their words in their literary source material), it does indeed play better as mindless spectacle.

 

The biggest flaws for me were some of the casting choices. ***** SPOILER WARNING ***** I was particularly underwhelmed by the performance of Richard Roxburgh, yet again out of his depth as a villain. His Snidely Whiplash villainy (previously misjudged in “Moulin Rouge”) is incredibly underwhelming, even if the deceit/mystery involving his character’s true identity is clever. ***** END SPOILER ***** I also found Shane West a completely bland and uninspired Tom Sawyer (a Secret Service agent? Really? And boy is he tacked-on for commercial reasons), and Stuart Townsend a mopey and dreary Dorian Gray who looks more vampiric than Mina Harker. Meanwhile, I understand that Captain Nemo was meant to be Indian, but I found it highly unlikely that he would be an extremely proficient martial artist. It’s a silly invention that in no way improves the film, and rather detracts from it. The performance by the rather cut-rate Naseeruddin Shah is nothing to write home about, either (His First Mate, however, gets the best line in the entire film. Yes, he says exactly what you think he does).

 

However, other than these issues, the film pretty much works and it’s a shame that Norrington hated this experience so much that he hasn’t directed a film since. Roger Christian (“Battlefield Earth”) I could understand, but geez, Norrington’s hardly inept. The opening 10 minutes of comic book action are especially terrific, and no matter how frustrated Connery felt working on the film (the guy doesn’t seem to like fantasy or FX-driven films from what I can tell) he lets none of it show on screen with a very professional performance in a role he is perfect for. The literary “Avengers” premise is pretty irresistible, so long as you’re expecting more “Avengers” than intelligent writing. This is a summer blockbuster kind of movie, albeit one that missed with audiences at the time. One wonders if it would fare a bit better in today’s comic-book loving climate. Aussie-born C-grade actress Peta Wilson is much better company than Townsend, and rather well-cast as vampire chick Mina Harker. Tony Curran’s cockney Invisible Man worked much better for me second time around, and although not in the film enough, he steals the show…even when not seen on camera! We also get a good performance from the underrated Jason Flemyng as the tortured Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde is actually a much better CG effect than I remembered it being in 2003, though they’ve made the mistake of turning him into a giant “Hulk”-like creature (with Gollum-esque schizophrenia to boot), which is a shame (As was “The Hulk” being so big in the 2003 film of the same name anyway). I think the reason why the effect works as well as it does is that the colours used are more realistic (Something they kind of botch with another creature late in the film that isn’t nearly as convincing). I also appreciated the cute cameo by the late David Hemmings, who used to be considered somewhat handsome, much as you won’t believe it here.

 

Another asset to the film is the strong music score by Trevor Jones (“Excalibur”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth”), giving the film a lift. I won’t deny that this film could’ve and should’ve been even better than it is. Those of you who feel that way may be inclined to take a glass half-empty approach to assessing this film. But for the mindless entertainment that it seems to be aiming for, I think it’s an OK film with a fantastic opening. It’s almost worth a good grade, actually. Almost.

 

Rating: C+

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Prisoners


Hugh Jackman plays Pennsylvania contractor, survivalist, and family man Keller Dover, who is with his family and the family of neighbour Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) for Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards they notice that Dover and Birch’s two 6-year old daughters are missing, having been outside playing earlier in the evening. Dover’s older son claims to have seen an RV parked outside at one point, otherwise there are no leads for Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, with neck tattoo and blinking facial tic) to go on. The van’s driver is arrested and brought in for questioning. He is Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a peculiar young man of low intellect, and it’s that low IQ combined with a lack of evidence that sees Jones released. Dover is enraged, as this simply won’t do, especially with time running out (The longer it goes on, the less likely it is that the girls are still alive). He is convinced of Jones’ guilt, especially since he claims Jones whispered something incriminating to him out on the street. And so he and reluctant participant Birch take matters into their own hands, kidnapping Jones, holding him hostage and plan on making him confess…any way they can. Maria Bello and Viola Davis are the men’s respective spouses, who themselves are having a hard time coping. Melissa Leo has a vivid supporting role as Alex’s formerly devout Christian aunt, whom he lives with. Len Cariou has a memorable cameo as an alcoholic priest who has a dead body in his basement, who he claims was a paedophile (but he himself may be one).

 

Although it isn’t an easy watch and ventures into areas of torture/vigilantism that I find a bit hard to swallow in a realistic context, this 2013 crime film from director Denis Villeneuve (writer-director of “Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (the underrated “Contraband”) is admirably done. Like “Here Comes the Devil”, there is undeniably that one unnecessary aspect detracting a bit, but this is the much better (and ultimately very different) film. I don’t believe torture really works, and I find vigilantism to be hard to swallow in the real world, but this film is much more palatable than others of its type. In fact, despite being a major theme in the film the torture isn’t as big of a factor on-screen as I was dreading (and I think the filmmakers agree with me on its merits/effectiveness anyway), and the only really drawbacks of the film are familiarity and cliché.

 

The film comes with a really good, oppressive atmosphere. The cinematography by the very fine Roger Deakins (“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”, “No Country for Old Men”) is appropriately rainy but still managing to be really good-looking. The lighting is especially impressive, it’s a dark film without being murky or hard to see. That’s a pitfall that is easy to fall into, but Deakins averts it. It’s a film steeped in misery and pain, and the atmosphere (and weather) reflect that.

 

Like all good films of this mystery/crime genre, it’s also just a really compelling story with a pretty irresistible premise. I especially liked the work put in to casting doubt on the Paul Dano character, despite his limited intellect. I mean, Jackman kinda has a point: How can a person with such a low IQ (that of a 10 year-old) be incapable of kidnapping two girls, yet legally drive a car, having passed the driving test?! Whether I approve of Jackman’s violent methods or not, you can see why shit like that would drive him nucking futs. I should’ve seen the twist coming, but absolutely didn’t. Bravo there, because while I picked up on crucial information, I dismissed the person in question’s connection to it, and therefore didn’t see the forest for the trees. Others among you will probably spot the twist, and that’s cool, but it got me.

 

The performances are all pretty effective, too. I’m not going to sit here and say that Hugh Jackman would be the first and best actor to play a survivalist building contractor with seething rage and violence. Russell Crowe would be a bit more appropriate in theory, you’d think, but maybe Jackman’s inherent decency helps sell this ugly material better? Still, I think he and Terrence Howard (otherwise well-cast as a somewhat weak man) seem too reasonable for these roles. Cast seedier, more redneck actors and you’ve got something much more realistic- Michael Rooker and Josh Holloway perhaps in the Jackman role. But we have what we have and I can’t deny that Jackman gives a strong and obviously passionate performance in the role. It’s one of his strongest performances to date, and he absolutely gives it his all. Good on him for trying something out of his wheelhouse, but most importantly, succeeding in giving a good performance, despite not being exactly right for the role. The man’s no lightweight, folks. Jake Gyllenhaal, as always is terrific, he really is one of my favourite actors of the last decade or two. The idiotic decision to have his character blink constantly, however, is a pointless and irritating acting choice. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gyllenhaal under-deliver as an actor and this is no exception in a role that is like a slightly edgier and much wearier version of his character in “Zodiac”, perhaps. The biggest surprises for me were Melissa Leo and especially Paul Dano. I’m not a fan of either actor to be honest, but this is without question the best and thankfully most subtle work Dano has ever done. He doesn’t look physically capable of kidnapping two girls, but he looks and acts creepy, weird and disturbed enough to work in the role nonetheless. Even when you feel someone else might be the guilty party, Dano is creepy enough that…there’s just something too ‘off’ about him for him to seem innocent. Melissa Leo might initially be hard to recognise behind some actually pretty convincing aging makeup and grey hair, and she does an effective job of playing older than she normally does, too. She really comes into her own the longer the film goes on. Viola Davis and Maria Bello don’t get a whole lot to do here, but Bello has a slightly similar character to Susan Sarandon in “The Greatest” where her character seems almost paralysed with grief and unable to function. Very strong, if brief work from the always fine Ms. Bello.

 

It’s a good, tough film, not too dissimilar from films like “Gone Baby Gone” and “Mystic River”. If those films tickled your fancy, you’ll likely find this up your alley, too. I liked it a lot more than I was expecting to, I have to say. It’s lumpy and sometimes familiar, but ultimately draws you in with its involving story, oppressive atmosphere, and solid performances. It certainly doesn’t feel more than two hours long, time flies by here.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Muppets Most Wanted


The Muppets have a new manager, a hack named Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who is shockingly a bad guy in league with a wanted criminal named Constantine who looks rather like Kermit the Frog. He has a mole and a Russian accent, however. The Muppets are touring Europe when Kermit gets arrested for being mistaken for Constantine, and is thrown in a Siberian gulag. There he is forced by prison warden Nadya (Tina Fey) to assist in the production of the prison camp musical (the prisoners are played by Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Jermaine Clement, and WWE’s resident little person Hornswoggle among others). The rest of the Muppets don’t even notice the difference in Kermit’s appearance, accent or demeanour as Constantine impersonates Kermit as the European tour is used merely as a front for the criminal activities of the froggy criminal mastermind and disingenuous Dominic (Whose last name is pronounced ‘Bad Gee’- Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh. Sigh). Ty Burrell turns up as a clueless French Interpol agent, flanked by Sam the Eagle as an FBI agent, investigating matters, in between bickering. Various other stars have cameos, mostly useless.

 

I liked the previous film “The Muppets” well enough, but I thought Bret McKenzie’s shockingly Oscar-winning work as songwriter was appalling, and that the songs were performed by the actors in a really condescending, snarky manner that rubbed me completely the wrong way. The only one that really worked wasn’t written by McKenzie- the Muppet standard ‘The Rainbow Connection’, which is just a beautiful, timeless song. Well, director James Bobin and his “Flight of the Concordes” alum McKenzie are back for this 2014 sequel…and the songs (more traditional this time around) are the only decent thing in the whole damn film. They are actually performed in a much less condescending manner than the acting performance given by a clearly bemused Ricky Gervais. Phoning it in much, Ricky? Otherwise this is a shoddy excuse for a film with woefully dated humour best exemplified by its dopey mistaken identity plot (tiny beauty spot included!) and Ty Burrell hopelessly attempting to be Inspector Clouseau. Filmmakers and casting directors need to realise that Burrell wasn’t known for comedy before “Modern Family”. He’s brilliant on that show, but that doesn’t mean he’s the next Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, or Peter Sellers. He’s horrendously unfunny in a film that comes with a stale, corny script by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, the excellent “Five Year Engagement”).

 

This plays more like the Muppets films of the 80s (“The Great Muppet Caper” especially) than 1979’s “The Muppet Movie”, only much worse. The director has apparently said that the influence was light-hearted 60s caper movies like “Topkapi” and “The Pink Panther”. That’s bullshit. Sorry, but it clearly is to anyone who has ever seen the previous Muppet movies. Things start off pretty well, with an amusing opening number that at least seems to suggest that the filmmakers know that sequels are inferior. It’s a much better song than any of the ones in the previous film, simply by not trying to be hip or snarky. It’s just funny, clever, and knowing. We also get a brilliant parody of “The Seventh Seal” featuring the Swedish Chef. Hilarious, and sadly the biggest laugh in the entire film. One of the only laughs in the entire film (the only others being an Animal drum solo that seems to go on for days, a Salma Hayek cameo and the ‘Indoor Running of the Bulls’, which is hilarious and weird). All of the songs this time out are pretty decent, and much more vintage Muppets, than snarky, condescending to the Muppets.

 

However, this is just the pits, at the end of the day. The whole Russian Kermit impostor just screams 80s cheapness to me, and not just because of the Cold War. It’s stupid and totally beneath The Muppets, as far as I’m concerned. Tina Fey’s mostly impenetrable Russian accent (and she’s surprisingly witless too) seems to suggest that no one here was really interested in the Muppets themselves, to be honest. I’m not kidding, 90% of what she said in her first two scenes was indecipherable for me, and my hearing’s not too shabby (The fact that she was working with a dialect coach may be the problem. It’s a fucking Muppets movie, Tina. Don’t condescend to it, sure, but do you really need to go all ‘method’ with the accent? Jesus). It’s a shame, because the melody of her big number was pretty catchy, actually, I just couldn’t understand any of the lyrics. Even Russian Kermit has a catchy musical number…once again, ruined by the accent. But what in the holiest of fucks is Miss Piggy doing the Macarena for in 2014? 2014! That just about says it all, doesn’t it? If not, the fact that she later sings ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (once again, in 2014!) certainly will. And then Celine herself turns up to let us know she’s still alive. Did Beyoncé ask for too much money? Statler and Woldorf aren’t actually funny here, they’re telling the honest truth! When Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Jermaine Clement can’t get a laugh playing prisoners singing ‘End of the Road’ you know something is seriously off. On paper it sounds like an hysterical idea. Liotta, by the way, is a seriously unnerving premise to have in a Muppet film. I love the guy, but yikes, I felt nervous for the little coloured felt creatures whenever he was around. And whilst Toby Jones gets a mere reaction shot, Ty Burrell’s bargain basement Peter Sellers seems to never go away! He needs to stick to playing Phil Dunphy, he’s brilliant at it. The best I can say for him is that unlike Gervais (and sadly Fey, who looks bored) he doesn’t act down to the material. No, he’s just miscast and unfunny. Meanwhile, why in the hell is Sam the Eagle working for the Feds and not on stage with the other Muppets? That’s stupid. I did, however, absolutely love the cameos by Rizzo the Rat and Tiny Tim from “Muppet Christmas Carol” (my favourite Muppet movie ever, I try to watch it annually if I can). That was a really lovely surprise.

 

I was also kind of pissed that whilst we focussed on the whole stupid evil Russian Kermit thing, the filmmakers have pretty much forgotten that they created whole new Muppet last time around, Walter. He’s back in this one, but it’s very late in the piece before anyone seems to remember that he’s an official Muppet now. Nobody even seems to talk to the poor guy for most of the film. Are the Muppets a bunch of super clique-y arseholes or what? I wasn’t the biggest fan of the guy last time, but geez, he gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop here. Nah, let’s just focus on Boris…er…Russian Kermit and his ‘moose unt sqvuirrel’ accent and fake mole, which none of the Muppets seem to notice until they make a half-arsed joke out of their cluelessness in the third act. Not. Good. Enough. It’s stupidly obvious that it’s not Kermit. He has a Russian freaking accent. Mr. Magoo could work it out (See, ‘coz he was myopic, not deaf…) Even for a family film, it’s lame, insulting, and unfunny. It takes at least 30 minutes for anyone (Walter, of course) to notice something isn’t right.

 

The songs are nice (a few too many sung in bad accents), but the film is horribly outdated, insulting, and mostly really badly performed and unfunny. This is cheap stuff. The Muppets should be above this. Way above. This one’s almost as bad as “Muppet Wizard of Oz”, their worst film to date by far. Oh, and while I get the gag, Usher’s cameo is really quite racist when you think about it.

 

Rating: D+

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: The Chamber


Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman) is about to meet the gas chamber for a bombing in the 60s that resulted in the deaths of two children. An unrepentant, but aging Mississippi racist (from a long line of Klan members), Cayhall is visited by his new lawyer just a month before his scheduled execution. That young lawyer turns out to be Adam Hall (Chris O’Donnell), Cayhall’s own grandson. Can O’Donnell find a way to save his grandfather? Did Cayhall act alone in the bombings? Faye Dunaway plays Cayhall’s long-suffering daughter who hates the sordid past being dredged up all over again. Lela Rochon and David Marshall Grant play O’Donnell’s assigned aide on the case and the smug governor who as a former prosecutor was the man to convict Cayhall in the first place. Richard Jackson plays a former FBI investigator on the bombing case, Millie Perkins plays the mother of one of the victims, Robert Prosky plays O’Donnell’s boss back in Chicago, and Raymond J. Barry plays a frightening character crucial to events from long ago.

 

This 1996 adaptation of the John Grisham thriller from underrated director James Foley (“At Close Range”, “Glengarry Glen Ross”, “Confidence”) seems to have been forgotten about over time and wasn’t terribly highly regarded on release, either. It’s far from the worst Grisham adaptation, and features excellent character work by Faye Dunaway, Raymond J. Barry, Richard Bradford, and especially Gene Hackman as perhaps the polar opposite of his character in “Mississippi Burning”.

 

I also like that the story is far more stripped down than some Grisham tales that can get bogged down in irrelevant side stories, obvious red herrings, and extraneous supporting characters (with one exception I’ll get to later). I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know whether to credit Grisham himself or screenwriters William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “All the President’s Men”, “Misery”) and Chris Reese (whose only other credit to date is the pathetic “Ghost Dad”), but I appreciated it nonetheless. In fact, if the film is any indication, it must be one helluva book. The central hook of the lawyer attempting to save racist bastard Gene Hackman from the death penalty being his own grandson is pretty awesome, so it’s a shame that the grandson is played by the underwhelming and completely unspectacular Chris O’Donnell. He’s boring as hell, though to be fair I’m not sure who else of his generation would’ve been better. Matt Damon and Edward Norton hadn’t really hit the scene yet, Brendan Fraser wouldn’t fit. Christian Slater probably would’ve been my choice (Kiefer Sutherland would be another possibility, if perhaps a tad old for it), but no matter what, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that O’Donnell just doesn’t bring enough energy or dynamism to the role of a guy with a seriously short amount of time to save his grandfather’s life. Even after Hackman angrily chastises O’Donnell’s dad for killing himself, O’Donnell fails to display any real kind of human emotion appropriate as a response to such a venomous, hurtful tirade. He also gets a great, rousing speech towards the end…and just isn’t capable of doing it justice. He holds this film back quite a bit single-handedly. Truth be told, Foley’s direction doesn’t help, the film is a touch lethargic in pacing at times.

 

The other major problem with the film is the character played by Lela Rochon. Rochon is one of the screen’s all-time most beautiful women, but her role is entirely superfluous, annoying, and seemingly tacked-on (Was the character African-American in the novel? I doubt it, but I’ll happily stand corrected if so). Rochon’s overly vivacious performance seems at odds with the otherwise dour material, and bone-coloured pants suits are decidedly not to Ms. Rochon’s advantage. A much better African-American character is the one played by professional athlete Bo Jackson as the prison guard who knows who and what Hackman is, and yet treats him somewhat well.

 

Gene Hackman was frankly robbed of an Oscar nomination in this film if you ask me. Sure, his final speech awkwardly seems to want to absolve his repugnant character (and maybe the showiness of it, plus the fact that the film wasn’t a hit worked against him), but the actor nearly makes it work, and is absolutely terrific the rest of the time. It’s remarkable that the same man who can play a bitter, sarcastic, and venomous racist in this film could earlier have played the good ‘ol boy FBI agent who despised characters like this in “Mississippi Burning”. It’s a shame Hackman has seen fit to retire in the 00s, but maybe he felt he had done everything he needed to. He was certainly a damn consistent actor, even if his film’s didn’t always quite measure up to the effort he gave to them as an actor. He consistently stole the show in many of his films; “Superman”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “Enemy of the State”, and this film too. I’ll forgive him for “Absolute Power” and “Under Suspicion”. Some might complain that Hackman doesn’t totally disappear into the role, but not everyone is a method actor. All I care about is that he’s convincing and great to watch. Although she’s a little old to be playing Hackman’s daughter (or is he a little young to be playing her father?) at just 11 years his junior, Faye Dunaway gives an excellent and rather haunted performance here. She has tried to bury the past and having it all dredged up again is clearly incredibly painful for her. She plays a woman who has done everything she can to distance herself from her terrible father, but also set up a nice life for herself. There’s a touch of Bette Davis to her in her first scene, no surprise given the Divine Miss Dunaway previously played Joan Crawford. Josef Sommer is utterly wasted in a mere walk-on (the excellent Robert Prosky fares a tad better), but character actors Richard Bradford (who almost always seems to play law enforcement guys) and Raymond J. Barry in particular steal their every scene here. Barry, who is usually rock-solid, is positively chilling in a cameo that isn’t there to show that Hackman’s not so bad, but to show that there are even worse people out there than him. It might seem like a plot contrivance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also true to life. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the contribution of the former “Anne Frank” herself, Millie Perkins in a crucial cameo. In fact, her terrific cameo is so damn strong that she makes it hard for audiences to want Hackman to live. That’s not a flaw, I don’t believe the film takes sides until Hackman’s final speech. Up until then it’s only O’Donnell who wants Hackman freed.

 

I didn’t mind the similarly themed “A Time to Kill”, but I’d argue that this Grisham adaptation is slightly better. It’s not the equal of “The Rainmaker” or “Runaway Jury” but it beats “The Firm”, “The Pelican Brief” and “The Gingerbread Man” by miles. See it for Hackman, and also savour the work by Dunaway, Barry, and Bradford. Just ignore Chris O’Donnell in the lead if you can. Helluva memorable opening scene, by the way.

 

Rating: B-

Review: The Accidental Spy


Jackie Chan stars as (wait for it) Jackie Chan, a fitness equipment salesman who attracts media attention after stopping a robbery. Before he knows it, the wealthy father he never met is requesting he travel to see him in South Korea. Dad is gravely ill, but leaves his son a crucifix and a key before he passes (He has to travel to Istanbul, mind you). Geez, what a cheap bastard! Anyway, it’s not long before some no-good types are after Chan (who always wanted to be a cop, by the way), who they believe was given something by his old man that they very much want possession of.

 

American distributors apparently greatly changed this 2001 film from director Teddy Chan (“Bodyguards and Assassins”, producer of “Black Mask” with Jet Li) for its American release, and this is the version I saw on Aussie cable TV. It’s pretty poor, I have to say, but whether its due to the cuts or if it would’ve been a poor film anyway, I cannot say. All I can say is that it gets pretty tedious after a while, and even Jackie’s celebrated stunts and set-pieces are well under par. I bet Chan had a miserable time on this one, and he gives quite a half-arsed performance.

 

The main thing here is tone, and it has been botched. Although it sounds intriguing on paper, I couldn’t really get into the plot because I sensed that no one here was taking it remotely seriously. No one seems to think it’s important, and when it finally does get serious, it’s too late and there’s still the shit English dubbing to contend with. For the most part, it’s typical Jackie Chan mugging, but with less enthusiasm than usual, and with rather subpar stunts that mostly don’t appear until the last 15-20 minutes. Truth be told, I’m not a fan. I think he’s a slapstick comedian rather than a martial artist and his films lack edge. It’s all a silly put-on, and after a while here I got bored with it, though I admire Chan’s dedication to his craft. Dude’s gonna get killed doing one of his stunts someday, one worries. It’s a film about set-pieces rather than narrative or character and that has limited appeal for me. The best stunt is near the end with a plane and a bike, and even that one is too short and just OK (Bloody dangerous-looking, though). The silly bit in the prison hospital with Jackie and a henchman using defibrillators on one another sending them loopy is fun too, but that’s about it. Well, unless you’ve always wanted to see Jackie’s bare arse. If you hit the freeze frame you might even see more than that, depending on how shy he was (I promise I didn’t look too closely myself. That’s my story at least).

 

It’s not a bad film, just dull, safe, and (in the English dub) cheap. Seriously, the English dubbing is pathetic, with even Jackie’s own dubbing horribly out of sync. That’s unacceptable for 2001, and suggests a lack of effort. It’s still far from his worst film, as “City Hunter” and “The Protector” take quite some beating. But even Jackie fans have to be pretty disappointed with this half-hearted effort. Attractive Turkish scenery and several pretty female co-stars, though, and the Chinese cut of the film (apparently much more serious in tone and about 20 minutes longer!) is probably an improvement. One would hope so. Scripted by Ivy Ho (writer-director of “Claustrophobia”) originally, the English adaptation is credited to Rod Dean (who did the job for “Armour of God”, “The Twin Dragons” and “The Legend of Drunken Master”).

 

Rating: C

Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: The Expendables 3


Third go-round sees Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and the gang (Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews) on a mission to rescue a former Expendable named Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes, who gets to make fun of his legal issues). After this, CIA man Drummer (Harrison Ford, who shows off his piloting skills at one point) hires Barney to track down another former Expendable, Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), whom Barney assumed was long dead, and who co-founded The Expendables. This, however, is not a rescue mission, because Stonebanks is an evil, amoral arms dealer currently located in Romania. For this mission, Barney eschews the other Expendables in favour of a new team of more fresh-faced recruits, with the advice of head-hunter and retired mercenary Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer!). Ronda Rousey and Kellan Lutz play the only ones you’ll need to remember. That mission doesn’t go so well, however, and so the old gang gets put together, with some extra help from the very silly but very eager Galgo (Antonio Banderas), an apparent soldier whose specialty is talking non freaking stop. Jet Li drops by for two seconds as Ying Yang, Arnold Schwarzenegger turns up sporadically as Trench, Barney’s friendly rival, and Robert Davi briefly turns up as a crook acquaintance of Stonebanks’.

 

Although it isn’t quite up to the standard of “The Expendables 2”, and I still have no idea why Jet Li bothers turning up, this 2014 film from Aussie director Patrick Hughes (the solid Aussie western-thriller “Red Hill”) is still fun. It gets a major boost from the highly entertaining performances by Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas, and although underused, Mel Gibson offers up a much more cut-throat, genuinely mean villain than the campy (but entertaining) one he played in “Machete Kills”. He plays the oldest cliché in the book, but plays it like it’s fresh. He’s actually scary, and it’s a shame he isn’t in the film more. I might even suggest he’s superior to the very fine Van Damme in the second film, and whatever personal issues he may/have had, he’s a helluva strong talent.

 

It’s just a shame they couldn’t get someone like Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, Steven Seagal, Carl Weathers, Joey Pants, or Bill Paxton in here somewhere, yet Dr. Frasier Crane gets a gig. Kelsey Grammer is a pretty decent name to put on a poster, but he’s not the first guy you’d think to put in something like this. I guess Stallone was looking after his fellow Republican (though Grammer is hardly hardcore in that respect, if you’ve ever heard him interviewed. He’s practically a Libertarian, not that it matters one way or the other to me). Action cast or not, it’s certainly the biggest-name cast of the entire series. I mean, Rocky (Stallone), Braveheart (Gibson), The Terminator (Schwarzenegger), Frasier Crane (Grammer), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Zorro (Banderas), Simon Phoenix (Snipes) Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and one of the Fratelli Brothers (Robert Davi, another Republican) all in the same film? Pretty awesome.

 

I was a bit worried when I saw the names Lionsgate, Millennium Films, and Nu Image attached, as that sounds like a Triumvirate of Kaka to me. But the early chopper vs. heavily armed train action sequence immediately put my mind to ease. The FX work is cheap (the projection work is appalling, despite an apparent $90 million budget!), but it’s a lot of cheesy fun and shot in a refreshingly stable and clear fashion by cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr (“The 13th Warrior”, “Abduction”). It looks ‘normal’ and I appreciated that. The absolutely thunderous music score by Brian Tyler (“The Expendables”, the underrated “Frailty”) is the perfect accompaniment to the ricockulous images and action on screen, giving it a real pulse. It’s fun/ridiculous as this sort of thing really ought to be, and Snipes’ first moment on screen is hilarious. It’s great to see him back doing what he does best. He’s clearly having fun, but also using the film as a reminder that he’s still around and still more than useful in the right role. And maybe as a way of apologising for “Blade: Trinity”. It’s easily the most fun he’s been since 1993’s sorely underrated “Demolition Man”, and an infectious performance.

 

Stallone seems aware of the dawning of mortality here, but he seemed that way in “Rocky V” and we all know what happened after that. Still, he gives by far his best performance of the series here. Banderas is immediately hilarious, and he might even have the edge on Snipes for scene-stealer of the film. Very funny performance (It’s like he’s playing “Puss in Boots” as a human…and as an idiot) and much better than his work in “Machete Kills”. UFC star Ronda Rousey isn’t an actress, and the ‘tough chick’ part is a tad outdated, but she’s Ronda Fuckin’ Rousey and I’m not gonna say she shouldn’t be here. She can damn well do whatever the damn hell she pleases…or else she’ll kick my arse. So she’s certainly well-cast, and unlike a lot of ‘tough chicks’ I like that Rousey doesn’t naturally scowl, she has a smug smile on her face almost the whole way through the film here. She isn’t outstanding, but she seems to have more potential than say Gina Carano.

 

I was much less enamoured with Kellan Lutz, who like Liam Hemsworth before him is here to bring in the chicks. I kinda wish they saved Scott Adkins for this film, and cast him in the Lutz role. But let’s all be thankful that the part didn’t go to Taylor Lautner. Still, I swear Lutz’s beard was painted on. The other Expendables are a bit of a mixed bag really. I’ve never liked Randy Couture or Terry Crews, Jet Li as I said needn’t have bothered turning up after the first film (and why does the martial artist only turn up to fire a BFG?), and the previous highlight of the series Dolph Lundgren barely gets anything to do or say in this one. Kelsey Grammer may seem out of place at first, but he doesn’t really get in on the action and suits his role rather well. Arnold Schwarzenegger probably should’ve made like Bruce Willis and given this one a pass for all the scenes he has here. He sure has shrunk a lot, too. That’s old age for you, I guess. Harrison Ford might seem above this sort of thing, but I gotta say that this is one of his least grumpy performances in a while. His somewhat dry, matter-of-fact and humourless delivery works for this government ‘spook’ role. He also tosses off a line about the Bruce Willis character he’s replacing that makes you wonder if Mr. Willis and Mr. Stallone aren’t on the best of terms right now (Apparently Willis demanded more money than they could offer him). The real disappointment for me is Jason Statham. He had a great fight with Scott Adkins in the previous film, but this series seems to see him dwarfed by the other stars. He never really stands out, here he’s especially forgettable.

 

Remarkably bloodless for something so incredibly violent and action-heavy, but I only noticed it after almost two hours. I was too busy having fun. Aside from the shoddy projection work, the only real flaw this film has is that it very clearly has three separate acts. It’s not a big deal, but it is definitely noticeable, especially when it’s the big stars (Snipes, Statham, Schwarzenegger, etc.) taking a backseat to the young guns, who aren’t as interesting.

 

This is closer in quality to the second “Expendables” film than the disappointing first “Expendables”, but just a shade below “2”. Still solid, silly fun. Banderas, Snipes, and Gibson alone are almost worth seeing the film for. The screenplay is by Stallone himself, along with Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (who wrote the underwhelming “Olympus Has Fallen”). I sincerely hope it was Sly who gave himself either the best or worst catch phrase of all-time (I still can’t decide): ‘I AM The Hague!’.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Carrie (2013)


Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an extremely awkward and timid teenager who has been raised by an intensely religious mother (Julianne Moore). At school she is targeted by queen bee Chris (Portia Doubleday), and her sycophants, though one of them named Sue (Gabriella Wilde) eventually breaks ranks. Although she took part in the lead-up, Sue thinks Chris has gone too far this time by posting a humiliating menstruation moment of the completely oblivious Carrie’s (Mum apparently never had ‘the talk’ with poor Carrie) on the net. Well-meaning gym teacher Judy Greer takes pity on poor Carrie, and also has Chris suspended for the incident, even banning her (and Sue) from going to the prom. Meanwhile, Sue wants to make up for her own part in taunting Carrie by getting her boyfriend to go to the prom with Carrie, since Sue obviously can’t go to the prom herself. Unfortunately, by this point Carrie- who has developed strange telekinetic powers- may be too far gone, and with Chris and her dopey boyfriend set to ruin Carrie’s prom night…everyone’s in for one bloody night.

 

Although I’m far from a Brian De Palma fan, the original 1976 “Carrie” is one of his best films, and one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King work. There was no need to remake it, and this 2013 film from director Kimberly Peirce is the second go-round with it, after a TV version and a sequel that was really more of a remake. Now we have Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore taking on the roles originally (and in my opinion, perfectly) played by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. The results are mixed and the film is definitely inferior on the whole to the 1976 film, which still works perfectly fine today. The director of “Boys Don’t Cry” doesn’t bring as much (of anything) as you might expect to this one. Maybe that’s because it was already done right the first time and there’s no new insight to add.

 

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the film is the fatal miscasting of Chloe Grace Moretz in the lead. This is a role that was originally played by Sissy Spacek. SISSY SPACEK, PEOPLE! And since the film is so closely modelled on the 1976 film, I think it’s absolutely fair to compare this to the original film over the book. Chloe Grace Moretz is all wrong in the role. Some of the mean girls are less attractive than the adorable Moretz, and a couple of them would make for far more convincing Carrie’s, one even has red hair like Spacek did! Moretz also looks about 13 or 14, instead of around 17, and it’s very, very noticeable (She was 16 at the time, but doesn’t look it). It’s her performance that really fails, though. She already looks like she should be head cheerleader instead of a social misfit and her attempts at acting mousy come off as slightly brain-damaged and cock-eyed. She also blinks more often than a meth addict for some unexplained reason.

 

The telekinesis, meanwhile feels even more tacked-on than it did in the original (Not the best aspect to the film, I have to say), and apparently Carrie’s an expert welder in this version. I wonder if she moonlights as a dancer dunked with ice water, too. Peirce doesn’t seem to have a clue what telekinesis actually is, it does not make you a blinking expert welder, I’m sure.

 

The teen bullies in this are far less goofy and annoying here than Nancy Allen and P.J. Soles were in the original. That’s one small improvement, and despite the unbelievable slap, Judy Greer is by far the best thing in this film in the old Betty Buckley part of the well-meaning teacher. Greer is immensely likeable, yet in over her head. As the regretful mean girl Sue, Gabriella Wilde is infinitely better than Amy Irving in the original, yet another improvement. However, in the crucial role of Carrie’s insanely devout and controlling mother, Julianne Moore ain’t no Piper Laurie by a longshot. She’s just OK, whereas Laurie hammed up a storm and was sensational in the very best sense.

 

One thing I liked about this film is that it captures some of the original’s discomfort. Carrie’s mother is very, very uncomfortable to watch. I just wanted more of it than I got. The film’s strongest asset by far is the cinematography by Steve Yedlin, it’s a very, very good-looking film. But the whole thing is just too tame, only going balls-out at the finale. As was the case in the original, the bloody prom climax is the film’s best part, though it’s certainly inferior. Still, it’s as nihilistic as you can probably get in a teen horror flick from 2013 hoping to rake in big bucks at the box-office.

 

Pretty much as it was in 1976 minus any of the impact. There are fine elements, but it’s not as good, graphic, or fresh as the original. It’s “Carrie” for Twi-hards, and hell the ending might be even worse than the goofy ‘shock’ of the original.

 

Rating: C+

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


After successfully navigating them away from danger, wizard Gandalf leaves his party of thirteen dwarves (and hobbit thief Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman) to attend to go off on his own mission. Now it is up to Thorin (Richard Armitage) to lead Bilbo and the dwarves to The Lonely Mountain and defeat the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), so that the dwarf kingdom can be reclaimed. Along the way they are attacked by giant spiders, rescued and then imprisoned by elves. Luke Evans plays a smuggler named Bard, whom our protagonists ask for help at one crucial point in a town ruled by a red-bearded and frankly odious Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake Town. Orlando Bloom reprises the role of elf Legolas (or a younger version of him), with Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, another elf, and Lee Pace plays the rather cold-hearted elf king Thranduil, Legolas’ father.

 

I really never got into the previous Peter Jackson adaptation of the JRR Tolkien classic, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. Unlike Jackson’s superlative “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the seams appeared to be on display in every artificial-looking scene, the makeup looked cheap, and it seemed to me like something was askew with the forced perspective photography trick that worked so well in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Well, in preparing for my review of this 2013 sequel, I discovered that forced perspective was not really used in this “Hobbit” trilogy at all, stand-ins and digital FX were instead used, because 3D and forced perspective are apparently not a good mix. The idea of not doing it in 3D at all, doesn’t appear to have crossed Mr. Jackson’s mind, which is a shame, really since 3D is a fad and a stain on 2D films. I can say, however, that the artificiality of the earlier film is less noticeable in this second film, which improves upon that film in almost every respective. It does not, however, improve enough to result in a higher score than “An Unexpected Journey”. It’s a better film, but only slightly. This trilogy is a staggering disappointment to me, I just find myself removed from the whole thing in a way that wasn’t remotely true of “Lord of the Rings”. The fact that it’s from the same director, source material by the same author, and features some characters from “Lord of the Rings” makes comparisons awfully hard to avoid, I’m afraid, and boy does this come up short. Speaking of short, I still find it noticeable that Richard Armitage’s Thorin in particular, still stands way too tall alongside the other dwarves here. He seems to look down on his brethren, due to the height difference. Even if in the source material he’s meant to be a bit taller than others, it translates confusingly on the screen. Combined with the lack of makeup on him and the absence of forced perspective, he never looks anything other than human. He looks more like Aragorn than Gimli, in other words, and it’s constantly distracting. He needed more hair or at least a round belly, to make him look more distinctly dwarf-like, whether he’s taller or not. Luke Ford’s (boring and derivative ) human character, by the way, looks the same size proportion to the dwarves that wizard Gandalf does, which is also wrong. Thankfully, the other dwarves mostly look around the same size, however, so as I said, there’s a (slight) improvement here over the first film, even if it is still a noticeable problem.

 

Unfortunately, the CGI in this isn’t very good, crushingly disappointing in fact. The orcs look phonier than they did in the “Lord of the Rings” films, especially the lousy overhead shots of orcs running. It looks like something out of a computer game, to be charitable. The FX in the scene where Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel takes down some spiders come off as seriously phony. What happened to the excellent-looking Shelob from “Return of the King”? (Yes, I know what happened to Shelob, you know what I mean). This was released about 10 years after the “Lord of the Rings” films, so it simply isn’t acceptable that the quality is lesser. “The Life of Pi” it ain’t. It’s also a sometimes murky-looking film, which I believe is an unfortunate side-effect of digital filmmaking, something that certainly wasn’t the case in the “Lord of the Rings” films. Those films were visually stunning pieces of art, but I can’t say the same of late cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s work this time. I guess what I’m saying is that I get the impression that more time, care, and thought went into the earlier trilogy than has this one.

 

I also have to say that the character of Legolas is a constant distraction here. It’s really unnecessary to have the character here, and more importantly, he doesn’t come across as a believable representation of a Legolas younger than the one met in “Fellowship of the Ring”. Orlando Bloom looks noticeably older, and casting Evangeline Lily alongside him merely accentuates this. Worse is the fact that he meets Gimli’s dad, whilst Gimli is meant to be very young. Given how…not young Gimli appeared in “Fellowship of the Ring” (not to mention that even under eyebrow-burning makeup John Rhys-Davies was quite clearly at least two decades older than Orlando Bloom), it all gets very weird. I’m not sure exactly what the aging process is for elves, but can we just agree that it was a mistake to put Legolas in this? Speaking of mistakes, Stephen Fry is simply too much of a distracting casting choice for me in an unnecessarily comedic role in a film that allows Martin Freeman’s supposedly important Bilbo Baggins to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a real problem right there.

 

Getting back to the elves for a sec, I have to say that here the elves come across as more violence and battle-loving than the dwarves, which goes against everything I’ve ever read in the fantasy genre (admittedly, Tolkien’s texts have never been my jam. Yep, just said ‘my jam’, feeling a bit awkward about it). As for the titular Smaug, he looks OK but you can barely tell Benedict Cumberbatch does the voice. His voice is electronically-altered (Why? His deep baritone is his biggest asset!), making his casting somewhat pointless.

 

Credit where it’s due, the story is more interesting and better-paced than the previous film, even though the story of Thorin going to reclaim the throne reminded me a tad too much of “Return of the King”. Pretty good music score by Howard Shore (The “Lord of the Rings” films, “Panic Room”, “Hugo”), as one might expect. I was pleasantly surprised by Evangeline Lily here. Like Liv Tyler before her, I didn’t think I’d enjoy her in this, but along with the always terrific Sir Ian McKellen, she’s the best thing here. It was also a hoot to briefly hear Billy Connolly’s voice as Gimli’s dad, who I think will be more prominently featured in the next film. I also wish more were done with James Nesbitt and the very Billy Barty-esque Ken Stott. Nesbitt just looks so wonderfully seedy as a dwarf, but he gets hardly anything to say or do. Like Armitage, Luke Ford and Lee Pace (who gives the same performance in everything) seem like cut-rate casting compared to the calibre of actors we got in the “Lord of the Rings” films (Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sir Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, etc.) And if Pace’s Elf King wasn’t meant to be super-evil, someone forgot to inform the actor of this.

 

It’s a more engaging film, but only very slightly. The FX are dodgy, Richard Armitage’s Thorin continues to be a problem, and the character of Bilbo also seems to get lost somewhere in here. It’s just not very good. The screenplay is by Jackson, his collaborators Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh (The “Lord of the Rings” films), and Guillermo del Toro (director of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”, and “Pacific Rim”).

 

Rating: C