Category Archives: Movies

Watching FROZEN

Frozen

Image © Disney.

I hadn’t planned on seeing this in a theater, hadn’t read anything about it, but we’re visiting Ellen’s sister Ann’s family, and they invited us to go see it. I went in with no expectations, except that it’s a Disney animated feature, and I enjoyed the film a lot. Despite the Disney name, like “Brave” it feels more Pixar than Disney, perhaps at least in part because of Pixar’s John Lassiter directing. The story is only vaguely familiar, being “inspired” by the story “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson. All they’ve really taken is the idea of a powerful and heartless queen of ice and snow. The rest of the film is new, and while it is a familiar Disney approach with two princess sisters, two handsome young men, a loveable animal companion (above) and comic figure (also above), there are enough new twists and turns to make it seem fresh. The animation is wonderful, my only complaint is that the young women have the extremely large eyes of manga characters, much larger than the men, something I found tended to distract me from the storytelling. There is magnificent animation and artwork based around snow and ice, lots of action (perhaps a little too much at times, but that’s the way films are these days), a good dose of humor, and fine characters that “act” convincingly. All well done, and the film is preceded by a new Mickey Mouse cartoon short that is truly an amazing blend of the oldest Mickey cartoons and new digital animation. I won’t spoil it by explaining.

Recommended.

Watching THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG (No Spoilers)

DesolationofSmaug

Image © Warner Brothers Pictures.

“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien has long been one of my favorite books, perhaps my very favorite. I first read it about fifty years ago, and I’ve read it many times since. Though initially on the fence about the Peter Jackson-directed Tolkien films, I’ve come to enjoy them a great deal, but part of that enjoyment comes from not expecting them to follow the books closely. In his three “Lord of the Rings” films, Jackson did stick closely to the book much of the time. His films are epic in scale, and that book is too, so most of what Jackson added there was more screen time to the battles and action.

With “The Hobbit,” the book itself is a smaller story. Yes, it does have some epic moments, but much of the book is more intimate and personal with a relatively small cast of characters: the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are the core group. The story is lighter in feel too, with only hints of the larger troubles in the land of Middle Earth in general. Now, Peter Jackson and his writers, in deciding to make this a three-film series, clearly needed to live up to their previous trilogy as far as the epic scope and the action. This meant adding things. In the first Hobbit film the additions were most obvious in extra battle scenes and a few new characters drawn from hints in other Tolkien work, or made up whole, but I’d say it was about 75% close to the book.

“Desolation of Smaug” flips that around, I’d guess it’s about 25% close to the book. There are lots of new things in the storyline, large and small, from new characters (Evangeline Lilly makes an excellent elf maiden, but she’s new) to events that diverge from Tolkien’s narrative quite deliberately for storytelling reasons. Despite all that, I enjoyed the film, it’s a fun action-adventure ride, and Jackson and company clearly love the original books. The changes they make are always respectful and understandable, in my opinion. But everything has to be larger. More action, longer and more thrilling and more complex at every turn. I saw the “higher frame rate” version this time, and I have to say it worked really well for me. You can read about Jackson’s approach in THIS article, but I did find it easier on my eyes, especially when following quick movement. There were moments when it approached a live video feel, but that only struck me occasionally, mostly it just flowed smoothly. I’d recommend that version if you have a choice.

The middle film of a trilogy usually suffers from that placement by dropping us into and out of an incomplete story at both ends. The beginning of this one avoids that somewhat by adding to the beginning of the whole story: Gandalf’s first meeting with Thorin. The end, though, is abrupt and clearly “to be continued.”

In all, I had a fine time, and recommend the film, just don’t go expecting the plot to follow the book very much. Enjoy the ride you’re on instead.

Watching GRAVITY

Gravity2

Image © Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.

When I was a child I devoured science fiction, and dreamed of someday going out into space. Now I feel I have, through this film. I’ve seen actual video of astronauts in space, but it’s always controlled, placid, distant. This film pulls you right in the action, not just through 3D but through an immersive and intense drama that makes the visual beauty of open space as real as the dizzying dangers of free-fall without any means of controlling your own spin and movement. It makes the cluttered, claustrophobic interiors of space vehicles and the impossible fragility of man and his artificial constructs very real as well. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are excellent in their roles, but it’s Bullock’s picture. She convincingly scrambles from one thin hope of survival to another while being bombarded with both physical and mental debris and roadblocks.

Reading the science fiction magazines, as I used to do regularly, there were some like “Galaxy,” “Worlds of If,” and “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” that played with scientific ideas, but often fast and loose and far from reality. Then there was “Astounding,” later called “Analog,” that tried to keep things more real: basing their stories on proven science extrapolated a little into the future. No time warps, faster than light travel, aliens in flying saucers or fantasy. Their approach became known as “hard science fiction.” “Gravity” is the BEST hard science fiction film. I’ve ever seen. Parts of “200l: A Space Odyssey” came closest before this one, but “Gravity” is an amazing trip into what it’s really like out there. And that childhood dream of going into space? I think I’ll pass. It’s beautiful but oh, so dangerous up there!

 

Watching STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (no spoilers)

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_32Image © Paramount Pictures.

I can sum it up in one word: AWESOME. The 2009 revamp by the same team of creators and actors set things up nicely to continue the Star Trek franchise into the 21st century, and with this film, director J.J. Abrams and his writers have firmly announced they’ll take second place to no one. This film also shares some important story elements and characters from the second film of the previous era, but re-imagined in great ways to make it seem fresh and familiar at the same time. In fact, that seems to be the miracle that Abrams is able to bring to these characters. Despite a whole new set of actors, some perhaps a little better than others in the roles we know well, there is often a dual feeling of freshness and familiarity throughout the film. I saw some things coming, especially character moments and lines, but only seconds before they arrived, and it made me smile every time. Many other plot elements were unexpected and yet felt perfectly right when they happened. The overall plot is clever, complex and emotionally rich. The effects are wonderful, but never dominated the acting except here and there in moments of battle. Mostly if felt like they were tools to help tell the best and most exciting story possible, as they should be. There are echoes from the franchise’s past everywhere, visually, yet none that interfere with the story or feel dated. It’s really quite a remarkable balance of old and new.

Before this I always thought “Wrath of Kahn” was a film that couldn’t be topped as far as Star Trek movies go. This one may not top it, but comes in a VERY close second. Highly recommended.

 

Watching OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

oz-the-great-and-powerful-banner

Image © Disney.

Disney does not have a great track record with L. Frank Baum’s Oz tales. Their “Return to Oz” had some cool visuals but disappointed me in many ways, including being too dark for the true spirit of Oz to emerge. I hadn’t heard much about this film other than that it was coming, despite being a longtime member of the “International Wizard of Oz Club.” I read one review Friday that seemed mixed, and one from a friend on Facebook that was pretty negative. I was torn about seeing it, but decided that I should. It’s an Oz film. I love Oz. How could I pass it by? So Ellen and I saw it this afternoon.

I went in not expecting too much, and came out feeling I had a good time. It’s billed as a prequel, telling how the man who became the Wizard of Oz got there. The story begins in Kansas in 1905, where we see Oscar Diggs performing his magic act in a small travelling carnival, and not getting along too well, except with the ladies. An angry husband who is also the show’s strong man wants Oscar’s head, but Diggs just manages to escape him in a hot air balloon. A tornado approaches…well, you get the idea. The opening is purposely subdued, black and white and square screen. As in the MGM classic film, it opens up when Oz Diggs arrives in the land with his name, launching dazzling 3D effects and vibrant colors. It’s almost overdone at first, but as the story unfolds, Oz and Oscar both steady down and become more appealing. I felt James Franco did fine in his role, starting out as a suave but uncaring con man, and being changed gradually by his circumstances.

Three witches form an important part of the cast. Only one is familiar at first glance, Glinda, but we meet her last. Before that there are two sisters. One, Theodora, meets Oscar when he first arrives, and helps get him to the Emerald City, where everyone proclaims him as the mighty Wizard who can help them defeat the Wicked Witch. Sister Evanora shows up there too, ostensibly to help, but with her own agenda. Glinda is the one pegged as Wicked in this story, or so Oscar is told as he’s sent off to look for her in the Dark Forest. Of the three actresses in these parts, I thought Michelle Williams was best as Glinda. Mila Kunis as Theodora was not convincing to me either in her original good witch state, or later after things go wrong for her. Rachel Weisz was okay as Evanora except for her British accent, which kept pulling me out of the performance.

There are two CGI characters that befriend Oscar, a flying monkey and a china doll. The monkey is clearly comic relief, and as such I thought worked well. Zach Braff, as his voice, made me laugh a few times, and acted as a good sidekick. The living china doll voiced by Joey King was meant to bring out Oscar’s soft side, and that worked okay, though it did slow things down too much at times. Fortunately there’s enough action and excitement elsewhere to make up for it.

This film could not attempt to get too close the the MGM film visually, they didn’t have the rights for that, but clearly its heart and center is much closer to that film than the books, though things were picked out of the books here and there. Other things were added not from either. There was nothing that I found troubling as an Oz fan, though. The payoff—where Oscar puts together his greatest con ever to take back the Emerald City—was a success in my eyes. In short, I liked the film, as did Ellen. Not a classic perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable journey to a magical place, and a few hours well spent.

Recommended.