The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ★★★★

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If you want medieval battle scenes, then you got it, the best of the trilogy in that regard. Here is a first rate action picture that delivers with passion and enthusiasm.

The plot is simple: A group of armies do battle over a palace that hides an astounding supply of gold, the most ever shown in the movies. The palace originally belonged to the Dwarves who lost their ownership after a large fire breathing dragon named Smaug took over. In the previous chapter, it leaves the palace to attack  residents in Lake City, that wonderfully imagined small town where boats are the main form of transportation. In the dragons absence, the dwarves and Bilbo the Hobbit(Martin Freeman) take over the palace as it slowly begins to cast a spell on Dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage). Meanwhile Gandalf(Ian Mckellen), Elrond(Hugo Weaving), Galadriel(Kate Blanchett) encounter Sauron the evil spirit and his ghost knights in another location.

Now there are some movie reviews that complain about how Bilbo is not given enough attention. There are also reviews that complain about how the movie is not as good as the book. However with that said, shouldn’t a movie be appreciated for what is on the screen? The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is captivating escapism.

The computer graphic imagery continues to create fantastic landscapes with battles to paste them on. The scenery is grandiose with jutting mountains, creatures that burst out of the earth, pigs used like cavalry horses, and mountain goats with Dwarves mounted on them. Their motions are fluid, the action is creative, and it’s filled with excitement. One advantage that fantasy films have is that their violence can grow into surrealism. Instead of disturbing experiences, they are spectacles of art and graceful motions. Some are inventive and funny -this may be the only movie where a Troll intentionally uses his head to break into a city wall and then collapse unconscious afterwards. All this escalates into a final battle that takes on an icy lake where the Orcs prove how dangerous they can be.

This is a film of astonishing imagery. It is difficult to fault it based on comparisons with a book. It should be a simple matter of whether the subject matter attracts you. With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, director Peter Jackson demonstrates a mastery over his vision of the subject. And it is an engaging sight from start to finish.

Exodus: Gods and Kings ★★★1/2

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Exodus: Gods and Kings is not getting the credit it deserves. Have audiences forgotten about the story of Moses? It is one of the greatest ever told and although Ridley Scott’s version may not win the award for best screenplay, it is still a magnificent retelling with effective acting.

The film runs at about 2 hours and 20 minutes. That might seem long but it’s because there are many important events. In fact, an extra 20 minutes or so of character development could have elevated this experience to excellence. As it is, it feels compressed particularly at some turning points of the story. It might have been appreciated if they had developed the inner conflict of Ramesses ll (upon discovering that Moses is not his real brother). The movie shortens that development and Moses is thrown into exile too soon.

But the performances are quite good. Despite some misplaced American accents, the portrayals of character behaviors are sound. Moses should be a very difficult part to play because of his wrenching inner-conflict. But Christian Bale evokes him quite impressively. Not many actors can combine multiple qualities in a character. Bale is able to evince a character who carries inherited pride, subtle mercy, logic, and spirituality. It is not an award winning performance perhaps. But it shows an acting range that is uncommon. Joel Edgerton as Ramesses ll is another good performance. As Rameses who becomes an enemy to Moses, his jealousy is challenged by a faint brotherly affection. He appears firm and merciless, but is still thoughtful. Other performers of this movie include John Turturro and Ben Kingsley in supporting roles where they are well placed.

Scott is a master of spectacles. The plagues that strike Egypt are executed with special effects that generate a lot of terror. The sea crossing is demonstrated with a lowering of the tides instead of a two-sided parting as depicted in other versions.  The kingdom of Egypt is given the grandeur scenery of large statues and tombs, with slaves working constantly under poor conditions of dust and dirt. Interesting so, the battles are not that interesting. Perhaps it’s because we have seen Scott direct them several times in other films. But yet, they are still well staged here.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an above average epic film. Like most films, it does have moments that feel less important. Some could have been replaced with character developmental moments. But Scott is known for fashioning his movies into action adventures. His style works here. After all, the tale of Moses is as much about external motivations as internal. And the film contains enough to explain character actions. It is both an involving and visually exhilarating picture.

Foxcatcher ★★★

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Through a narrow view, Foxcatcher is about a man who was trying to live up to his mother’s expectations. Coming from a prestigious ancestry, the protagonist John du Pont silently bears their reputation like a weight carried in his mind. His mother only appears in a couple of scenes, looking at him with dissatisfaction, and we sense a powerful influence.

Du Pont, played by Steve Carell with a partly prosthetic face, is an observing character who holds his chin up in forced pride. It appears that he has a genuine interest in bird-watching although later it suddenly shifts to Olympic wrestling. He decides to start a training camp and employs a team of wrestlers to represent America in the next Olympic event. The trainer he hires is a former gold medalist named Mark Schultz.

Schultz (Channing Tatum) is another troubled individual. He’s a winner of his sport but doesn’t behave accordingly. Something is incredibly lacking for him and du Pont’s invitation to train and live in his estate provides him with an opportunity to be motivated. Like du Pont, Mark is seeking to be more than just reputable – his caring older brother is also a gold medalist and is played by Mark Ruffalo who gives the best performance in the film.

This unusual relationship between Mark Schultz and DuPont is what constitutes the movie. Mark grows to respect du Pont not only as a benefactor but also a friend. But what about du Pont? His ambition is to be responsible for creating team Foxcatcher, the wrestling team that would secure him with another accomplishment for his family’s legacy. Apart from that, he shows little interest in befriending anyone.

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller and which is based on a true story,  is an absorbing drama that develops its events and characters at a creeping pace. It fails to maintain a consistent line of events (from the point when Mark and du Pont celebrate their victory at a convention, the next scene jumps too far forward to Marks degenerating habits). But it contains a lot of mystery and provokes thoughts on the misguided paths of human nature.

The Theory of Everything ★★★1/2

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The Theory of Everything is not about the mind of a genius. Stephen Hawking, who is most known for his theories about the universe, is portrayed here for his basic human qualities. He struggles in a very difficult way and the film is about that struggle and how it affects everyone involved.

As a young man studying in the reknowned University of Cambridge, he begins to develop a disease that impairs the majority of his bodily movements. Meanwhile and at this point, he has begun a relationship with a fellow student named Jane, who caught his attention at first sight. The timing of it all is challenging. They are both in love and Jane, in particular, is determined to make this work somehow.

The beauty of the movie is not in the general view of the relationship but how it respects and understands the complexity of the situation. Jane is admirable in her sacrifice. How she supports and cares for him. They get married and manage to have three happy children. But as time proceeds, the movie begins to observe the overall fatigue of their relationship and the movie becomes about how that fatigue is handled.

This is realized by extraordinary performances. Eddie Redmayne is a discovery. He supports a standard for acting dedication in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis. Apart from the physical expressions, he portrays Hawking with a resilient inner cheerfulness. We see him for his character rather than intelligence. Felicity Jones as Jane is another admirable performance. A bright eyed lady, she expresses a conservative woman whose countenance contains feelings and many thoughts.

But the picture quality cannot be ignored. There is a radiant effect in the colors and cinematography. The light glows and shimmers. The colors are rich. There is almost an ethereal quality to it. This is a moving picture directed by James Marsh. It is also intelligent because it gains our interest in not only admiring an already reknowned character, but by looking into the trials of all those involved in his challenge, and helping us to understand it.

Whiplash ★★★

whiplash_ver4If you are being verbally and physically abused in a training class, can that make you a better student? Whiplash says yes and tries to justify it as the grim path to success. There is a scene where a music teacher boasts about how one musician became great through cruel training (for example, a drum cymbal was thrown at him). He further explains that he is looking for a same kind of student; one who would not get discouraged and continue to endure under cruelty. But what about all the others whom he discouraged and quite possibly, damaged for life? Does he care? The film is not clear about that.

Otherwise, Whiplash is a film of gripping intensity. There isn’t much of a story as it operates like a two part device – the interaction between an abusive teacher and a determined drummer. We know the intention is to make this drummer excel to an incredible skill level. But we also hold our breath in anticipation of when he will finally lose his mind.

The teacher is actually a music conductor named Dr. Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons as if he were a madman. Edgy, unpredictable, and with a wide vocabulary of profanities. The mission is to form a Jazz band and he is very particular about getting the exact tones and beats. To say he is a perfectionist would be an understatement. His members are like minions, disciplined into playing their instruments out of fear.

Miles Teller plays Andrew who is the no-quitting drummer. It’s an interesting part, which he handles very well, because it questions whether he is a victim of Fletcher or his own ego. This creates a fascinating aspect of the film as we observe a dedicated force go up against a punishing force. In a non-traditional sense, this is a violent movie based on its energy alone.

The director is Damien Chazelle and this is his second film. The style is edgy and up-close. This is aided by the cinematography of Sharone Meir and sharp editing of Tom Cross. Together, the three of them conduct quality filmmaking like it were a symphony. We observe the technicalities of timing and scenes being skillfully interchanged between drumsticks and trumpets, sweat and blood. This is an emotional, visceral experience.      

Jupiter Ascending ★★★

jupiter_ascendingJupiter Ascending is a good example to test how much you like science fiction fantasies. Must they be dramatically involving? Or can its ideas be enough to captivate you? The narrative outline follows the template of numerous other films since Star Wars, whereby the fate of millions rests on the decisions of a handful. We have memorized these stories and their familiarities can make us immune to the characters emotions.

The film is written and directed by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix Trilogy and Cloud Atlas), and any viewer who has seen those films several times may identify the same themes. Once again, they touch upon the injustices of a social order. Once again, “The weak are meat”  mentality is given to the villains.

But in this film, it is the villains who have the best performances, particularly that of Eddie Redmayne. As the evil Balem Abrasax, he is part of an aristocratic family that rules the solar system. Redmayne plays him with an unusual kind of emotional instability. He speaks as if he’s whispering and then occasionally, bursting into a scream. It’s one of those roles that belong to Gary Oldman. But Redmayne owns it and excels, giving us the impression of a promising actor.

There are two protagonists in the film, Jupiter Jones(Mila Kunis) and Caine Wise(Channing Tatum). Jupiter is our female, a human from a contemporary earth setting, working as a house cleaner, and confessing that she hates her life. She comes from a tight nit family of russians who live together in a small home. They like to bicker at the dinning table which brings in some comedy for the film.

Caine on the other hand, is a hybrid Lychan (part Werewolf). He is noble, from another planet, a genetically engineered soldier, and also a deserter from his legion. Planet earth, we learn, is going to be inherited by the Abrasax clan who intend to use it for dreadful reasons. Caine knows this and he also knows that the true owner of planet earth is an earthling (Jupiter), who apparently descends from royal ancestry. So Caine goes on a solo mission to find Jupiter, inform her that she owns planet earth, and help her obtain an official title so that the Abrasax family cannot takeover.

Most of the film is astounding to look at and the performances are fine. Some designs are admirable like the elaborately constructed space ships. And other scenes are picturesque like Jupiter standing among a swarm of Bees; Or  the pallid, silent Balem sitting on his throne while ships battle one another outside. These are spectacles that sell themselves. But the story struggles to capture us with its emotions. This is possibly due to the scale. This is about the salvation of a planet but it is also about a family feud in an interplanetary setting. And it isn’t primarily a comedy (like Guardians of the Galaxy) or campy (like Star Wars). So it invites serious attention without having enough dramatic material to carry its weight.

This takes us back to the question: How much do you like science fiction fantasies? If the prime purpose is to view wonderful creative visions and ideas, then Jupiter Ascending will more than suffice. But if you were hoping to be invested in its characters, then this is the wrong movie to see.

Paddington ★★★★

paddington_bear_ver3Paddington is a wonderful live action family film. It isn’t an original concept. The story of a talking animal being adopted into a family has been done before. Stuart Little is one example. But Paddington looks and feels new, as if driven by a vision and yearning to make this into a fun picture.

Paddington(voiced by Ben Whishaw) is the name of a bear, that lived in the jungles of Peru with its Uncle and Aunt. They were a happy trio living in a cozy tree home. But then a wealthy British explorer finds them and through some short moments, teaches the Uncle on how to pronounce one English word. The encounter is brief and soon enough, the explorer leaves them in peace but also with a desire to learn about and live in England. And  so later in England, Paddington is adopted by the Brown Famiy whose members carry good natures, but are unique enough to be in a Wes Anderson movie.

The film is a fantasy, just like Stuart Little, whereby a talking animal neither shocks, scares, or interests human beings. In this world, bears are just looked upon as filthy. And the movies writers, Paul King and Hamish McColl, use the opportunity to create a funny scene where Paddington learns about a human’s bathroom. The sequence builds into something uncontrollable but it is very clever in how one accident leads to a total disaster. The ruckus that Paddington creates in London happens one after another. They aren’t all necessarily bad. But he does capture the public’s attention, especially the cruel Millicent Clyde(Nicole Kidman) who is a possibly insane taxidermist.

One thing that might be noticed is how the movie proceeds effortlessly. It isn’t trying too hard to be outrageous, unique, funny, or superb. It just unfolds that way through what seems to be pure belief and interest in its own story. There are certain events like the climax, that feels borrowed. But the motivations are something that is pleasant and true. This is a movie about a bear who wishes to find a new home. And the film is able to build a funny, wholesome, and entertaining story around that.