Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit". So goes one of the most recognizable openings in English literature. Back in 1937, when J.R.R. Tolkien first put pen to paper to create his sprawling fantasy universe, little did he know that it would spawn one of the biggest film franchises of all time.

Now, 11 years after first introducing audiences to his interpretation of Tolkien's world with The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson returns to helm the prequel to his epic trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid and enjoyable outing, albeit one that struggles to recreate the magic of the original trilogy. Those films -- like catching lightning in a bottle -- were a pop culture phenom that captured the imagination of filmgoers from around the globe for three years. And, with his assured direction, Jackson makes The Hobbit work, for the most part.

Set 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, we first meet Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) leading a solitary life in his small burrow in The Shire. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) appears requesting that he join him on an adventure, Bilbo is hesitant -- and rightfully so. Gandalf wants Bilbo to act as a burglar for a group of 13 dwarves fighting to reclaim their home, the kingdom of Erebor. Hobbits, being fleet of foot, are able to move about sight unseen, sound unheard -- making young Bilbo the ideal candidate for such a dangerous venture.

Having faced a ruthless invasion at the hands of the fearsome dragon Smaug, the dwarves were run out of their kingdom and left homeless. While Smaug lords over Erebor and the dwarf treasure, a plot is set in motion to reclaim their territory by any means necessary. Although riddled with anxiety, Bilbo agrees to leave his idyllic settings for unchartered terrain with a band of bloodthirsty, yet charmingly brash, dwarves.

Freeman is a natural fit for the lead role. He instills Bilbo with a nervous charisma that is as amusing as it is moving. Riding in on the coattails of the immensely popular BBC series, Sherlock, Freeman's fanbase will undoubtedly grow exponentially thanks to his spot-on characterization of one of literature's most popular heroes.

Returning in the role of Gandalf, McKellan manages to make his wise wizard feel younger and more spry than he appeared in The Lord of the Rings. He gives a thoughtful performance with a character he's already perfected.
Ian McKellan
Considering Jackson's knack for coming across talented actors who are not yet household names, the supporting cast are all top notch. It's not only a pleasure to watch the return of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and a never-better Andy Serkis as Gollum, but the new faces are a delight as well. Richard Armitage as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, in particular, is a standout.

Adept at capturing even the tiniest details of Middle Earth, it seems only natural that Jackson would return after original director Guillermo del Toro bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. For the sake of continuity and the overall look and feel, it's fitting that Jackson complete all six films himself. However, the decision to stretch a tiny children's book into three feature films is being called into question.

By the time all the expository information is laid out in the first two acts of An Unexpected Journey, the material has started to stretch a little thin. The meandering plot will likely keep true Tolkien devotees satisfied but may alienate general audiences. The film gains some traction in the third act when much of the action focuses on Gollum and then the epic battle between dwarves and orcs -- but by then the film is nearly over.

However, for all its spectacle and excellent performances, An Unexpected Journey is gaining a fair bit of buzz for the medium in which Jackson chose to film his trilogy.

Jackson made the controversial decision to film his latest Middle Earth outing with a high projection rate of 48 frames per second, which adds up to about twice the normal speed. It's akin to watching the clarity of a high-definition TV show. It will astound as many viewers as it will anger and disappoint. While there are those who will gripe about the 48 frames, there's no denying the often glorious effect it has on specific scenes in the film.

An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable piece of cinema and you'll be happy that you've returned to Middle Earth -- even if it isn't quite as magical as the first time around.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Written and directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver

Like the screwball films of the 1930s -- after which Silver Linings Playbook is styled -- the jam-packed script of director David O. Russell's latest oddity is rife with loose narrative threads that all ultimately tie together neatly in the end.

A festival darling, winning the People's Choice Award at this years Toronto International Film Festival, Silver Linings Playbook has received overwhelming support in critics circles. Applauded for its unique quirkiness, the film is based on a novel by Matthew Quick and manages to balance its darker themes with moments of levity.

When Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental health facility he returns to his childhood home to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver). Diagnosed as bipolar, Pat was hospitalized after discovering his wife in the shower with a work colleague and nearly beating the man to death. After countless therapy sessions, Pat has learned to rein in his mood swings and bouts of violent rages -- for the most part. Pat wants to be reunited with his now-ex-wife and vows that nothing will stand in his way, including a pesky restraining order. He believes a reconciliation with his wife is his "shot at a silver lining", as he often says. When his old friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) invite him over for dinner one night to celebrate his homecoming Pat is introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with personal issues of her own. As the two bond over medications and moments of depression, the two recognize a spark and embark on a rocky friendship that involves Pat trying to win back his ex-wife and a high-stakes ballroom dance competition.

In a rare dramatic lead role, Cooper has established himself as a fine actor and more than just another pretty Hollywood face. His mature performance as Pat carries a large portion of the emotional heft in the film. He even works through the melodramatic bits to create full-fledged character living on the brink; a man trying to thread his life together.

However, as solid as Cooper is in the lead role, the film greatly benefits from the standout performance of Lawrence as the grieving widow. Playing a character much older than her actual 22 years, Lawrence instills Tiffany with complex emotions that are just brimming beneath the surface. She's liable to just go off at any moment, but Lawrence brings a touching fragility to her sharp-tongued incarnation of Tiffany. She's just as lost, in not more so, than Pat. If there is one thing you'll remember after watching Silver Linings Playbook, it's her bold performance.

In a supporting role, Robert DeNiro is back in top form, portraying Pat's football-loving father who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorders but who loves his family, no matter how dysfunctional. And Jacki Weaver gives a lovely performance as the family matriarch who just wants her loved ones to be alright.

Where the film suffers at times is in its meandering plot. There are moments when the narrative struggles to stay afloat on a very thin premise. But, thanks to a cathartic, albeit cliched, ballroom dance finale, Russell's film manages to straddle multiple genres while telling an intriguing, emotional story. Despite some issues with the script, Silver Linings Playbook is an actors film, one that allows them room to breath and create unique characters that pull you into the story.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie review: The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
The Sessions (2012)
Written and directed by: Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy

Based on a true story. That sentence, so often found flashing across movie trailers and posters, usually signifies an inspiring tearjerker that will tug at your heartstrings as it works its way up the red carpet to the Academy Awards.

However, while The Sessions does have moments that will leave you reaching for the tissues, it's also a gentle comedy that touchingly delves into the most basic of human desires.

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was diagnosed with polio at the age of six and, as a result, must spend the majority of his days enclosed in an iron lung. For those few blissful hours where he is allowed to leave his prison, he's wheeled around town by a string of caretakers. However, Mark, who went on to become a successful essayist and poet, desired a sort of physical contact that many often take for granted.

The film, based on a 1990 article Mark wrote titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", focuses on his quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38. A devout Christian, Mark grapples with his religious conscience and his desire for a physical act that is deemed a mortal sin. In an attempt to come to terms with his inner turmoil, Mark regularly visits a local priest (William H. Macy) to unburden himself. After several meetings, Mark admits his desire for sexual fulfillment and his priest, in one of the standout moments in The Sessions, gives his blessing to Mark with a simple, "In my heart, I feel He will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it."

And go for it he does. He hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who is assigned to six sessions with Mark. Her goal: To not only help him in his quest to lose his virginity but to help him find comfort with his own body and sexuality. Quick to brush off any association with prostitution, Cheryl is a sex therapist who also happens to take off her clothes in order to help heal her clients. The restriction to six sessions is to prevent therapist and client from becoming too involved with one another. It's a quick and effective way to cut the strings.
If nothing else, The Sessions is a film of performances, and great ones at that. Hawkes and Hunt carry the emotional weight on their shoulders, weathering their characters' personal ups and downs with gentle humour and touching maturity. Despite its premise, the film isn't about sex; it's about those basic human desires we all harbour and how we each work to achieve them.

Hawkes is a likely Best Actor nominee shoo-in at the Oscars this year. Speaking in a higher voice and contorting his body, Hawkes is only able to use his face to convey his emotions. A versatile actor who has really come into his own in the last five years, the Oscar nominee gives arguably his finest performance to date. Hawkes doesn't make Mark a character to be pitied -- he's to be admired for his strength of character, minus the cliched trappings of many films that revolve around a person living with a disability.

Hunt returns to the silver screen after a self-imposed hiatus and she's back in full force -- just as likable and charming as ever. One of the flaws of The Sessions is the manner in which it glosses over Cheryl's life. It stands back from her rocky marriage and forces the audience to watch from a distance. How does her career choice affect her marriage? And why does she fall so hard for Mark? What is it that is missing from her life? All of these questions, and more, are left unanswered yet, thanks to Hunt's quietly commanding performance, you're still drawn into Cheryl's story.

The screenplay, written by director Ben Lewin, is a little all over the map -- changing narrative point-of-views that leave the film feeling like detached fragments and vignettes. However, The Sessions is ultimately buoyed by the two standout lead performances. You only wish you had more sessions in which to spend with them.