The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, while somewhat self-indulgent, is a better experience at the movies than the first Hobbit installment. It’s somewhat more intense, more cohesive as a story, and the acting has settled nicely.

That said, there’s a bit too much CG where there could have been creatively shot live action.

In any case, you will enjoy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug if you liked:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
John Carter

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released December 13, 2013

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien

Directed by Peter Jackson

Starring Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, and Adam Brown

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Thorin (Armitage) and his dwarves (all those guys), along with Bilbo (Freeman) and Gandalf (McKellen) made their escape from the albino orc and have made it past the Misty Mountains. Now they have to continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain by first passing through the realm of the elves. These elves are led by Thranduil (Pace), an ancient elf who has murky motivations and at one point reveals that there is definitely something amiss in his world. In Thranduil’s realm are Tauriel (Lilly) and Legolas (Bloom), who appear to have a budding romance going.

The dwarves are taken captive by these elves, although Tauriel and Kili (Turner) seem to hit it off rather well. In fact, Tauriel feels the dwarves are being mistreated. Meanwhile, Bilbo was not taken captive, since he was invisible, and so he sets about freeing the dwarves.

At the same time, Gandalf is out trying to find out what’s going on with the necromancer (Cumberbatch) and get to the heart of what seems to be a defeated enemy’s renascent power.

Soon we get to the barrel escape, which is fun and exciting, particularly considering the addition of the orcs on the dwarves’ trail. Legolas and Tauriel get to join in the fighting, adding even more fun.

Eventually our merry group arrives at Lake Town, with the help of a smuggler named Bard (Evans), who might have a heritage he is hiding. As the dwarves finally get to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo now has to find the gem that they have been seeking, while at the same time Bard is trying to keep his town safe from corruption and the evil dragon that he is sure the dwarves are going to wake in the Lonely Mountain.

Sure enough, Smaug (voice of Cumberbatch) awakes. After a truly excellent sequence in Smaug’s lair, which includes a great exchange between Smaug and Bilbo, Smaug is angered and then he heads out to go wreak havoc. The dwarves try to stop him, but– well, he’s a massive dragon.

The story pauses with Smaug’s emergence.

Critique

So, we’re back in Middle Earth– and honestly, that’s all that matters to many people. Truly, the production values and overall finely tuned experience is all kinds of fun and is exactly what most people want out of these movies.

Add in the great fight sequences, some very nice group dynamics, heroism, astonishing visuals, a great dragon, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Peter Jackson in the opening scene– and you have a fun movie-going experience.

Is it as rich and satisfying as the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies? No. Nothing can ever reach that level of power, storytelling, detail, emotional arcs, and character depth.

Does Jackson use CG too much when he could be shooting live action? Yes. There are a few scenes where you just want to see a real thing in your fantasy movie.

Do we want our elves to be less unbelievably kick-ass? Actually, yes. Legolas is a little god-like, which is clearly the intent, but some risk of failure would be great.

Are these movies a little too long? Yep. The power of the stories being told is lessened because of this indulgence.

That said, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has enough going for it that the time passes without a problem. Action, fun characters, great attention to detail–

Plus, we’re back in Middle Earth.

Content warnings: Plenty of fantasy violence, mostly without gore.

Writing: 4          Acting: 5           Overall: 4.5

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Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 returns Gru and minion fans to the people they love and offers a surprisingly effective story about fatherhood, heroism, and even romance. While not as edgy as the first, the minions take even more of a center stage role in this flick– none of us should be surprised if there’s a minion movie coming out in 2015 or soon after.

You’re going to enjoy Despicable Me 2 if you liked:
Despicable Me
Toy Story 1, 2, or 3
The first Ice Age
Wall-E
The Croods
Warm Bodies

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 3, 2013

Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Starring Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Carell, Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan, and Moises Arias

Rated: PG

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Gru (Carell) is pretty content as a dad to Margo (Cosgrove), Agnes (Fisher), and Edith (Gaier). Sure, he sometimes craves the danger and action of being a bad guy and he certainly still invents wacky machines, but he’s a great dad who wants to make sure his daughters know he loves them this big.

It’s hard to go wrong with a movie that has a character like this at its heart.

But there’s a really bad thing going on and a group of super-villain stoppers are recruiting Gru to help stop a villain from bringing great peril to the world. The agent in charge of recruiting and handling Gru is Lucy (Wiig), and Lucy is a confident, no-monkey-business, and competent agent.

So Gru and Lucy open a front in a mall so that they can monitor some people who might be the big bad guy they’re looking for. The front is a bakery. Meanwhile, the minions go about their business of keeping things under a minion-value of control, and Gru’s daughters are growing up.

When Gru and Lucy find the bad guy, the people Gru loves are put in peril and he has to find a way to outwit a guy who might actually be his biggest rival from his past.

Critique

Filled with lots of fresh, surprising, very well-timed humor of all types, as well as an unashamedly deep sentiment, Despicable Me 2 doesn’t go far wrong. The plot contrivances that set up the need for a bakery front in a mall are a bit– well– easy. Some of the jokes are a bit toilet-humor, but are mitigated by the minions’ unfailing goodness.

And we know that Gru’s going to win, of course.

But there are great sequences that will keep even adults entertained and there are moments that kids will laugh and parents will say, “Aww.”

This is a good movie. Clean, heartfelt, really, really funny, and captivating. The girls, Agnes, Edith, and Margo are just wonderfully written and voiced, making the conflicts of the movie a little deeper and impactful.

You’ll like this flick.

Content warnings: Only if you don’t like intermittent, low-brow humor.

Writing: 4          Acting: 5          Overall: 4

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Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game had so much going for it, what with a very intelligent story that is intelligently told, along with extraordinary effects, and with deeply affecting characters. Thus, it comes close to having serious impact and is a very entertaining movie.

That said, it was hurried and didn’t spend enough time on Ender’s journey. Granted, there was no real way to do justice to the incredible source material, but there were enough missteps with the film that this fan is a little disappointed.

You will enjoy Ender’s Game if you liked:
Super 8
Inception
Hanna
The Hunger Games

Here’s a trailer:

And the deets:

Released November 1, 2013

Written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card

Directed by Gavin Hood

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Jimmy Pinchak, Aramis Knight, and Nonso Anozie

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Ender’s Game takes place in a future Earth after the Formics, a race of war-like aliens, attacked and nearly destroyed humanity on Earth. A great hero beat them, but now humanity expects them to return. So they are training people from a very young age to be soldiers in the battle against these critters. Indeed, they are training children.

Ender (Butterfield) is one of these. He is insanely smart and has grown up with his brother, Peter (Pinchak) being constantly cruel to him, and with his sister Valentine (Breslin) being a source of love and friendship.

But Ender is now off to Battle School, where Graff (Ford) believes Ender will flourish. Graff is certain that Ender is the answer. Anderson (Davis) thinks Graff is too hard on Ender. Rackham (Kingsley) is the hero who beat the Formics last time.

Ender pulls together a team, notably including Petra (Steinfeld) and Bean (Knight). These are all incredibly gifted young people and Ender proves their mettle by leading them to great victories in Battle School, particularly in the battle room.

The story of Ender’s training hurtles along until we start seeing that Ender is having odd experiences with dreams and visions that involve Formics. When the climax of the film happens, this connection he’s been having helps him prepare to be in the next movie.

Critique

The filmmakers, particularly Gavin Hood, were in far too much of a hurry to capture the crucial scenes of the book and translate them to celluloid. This resulted in a movie that moves far too fast for us to really ever be in Ender’s head. We also don’t have nearly enough time with the battle room, the single coolest thing about the film. This also means that the arc that Ender goes through doesn’t have nearly the impact it needs to have.

So if the movie had slowed down a little, it would have been better.

Lost in the movie is the sub-plot where Peter and Valentine Wiggin essentially scheme to run the Earth’s political discussion. Also lost is the heart and soul.

Which means we have great, beautiful, awesome scenes that are connected by a character we don’t have time to come care deeply about.

Ender’s Game is still entertaining and at times all kinds of fun. It’s also visually wonderful. The joy in the battle room sequences makes us ache for more and the rest of the movie just doesn’t make up for that lack.

Sigh.

At least the performances are good, with standout work done by Steinfeld and Ford.

Content warnings: Some violence and some salty language.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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The Wolverine

Why are these Wolverine movies unsatisfying? Have they not gotten to his heart yet?

I don’t know.

Happily, The Wolverine is better than the first flick about this most interesting of Marvel comic book heroes. It delves into a lot of the old comic book story bits, particularly relating to Wolverine’s experiences in Japan and with Japanese culture and people. This is nice.

You will probably enjoy The Wolverine if you liked:
Any X-Men movie
Iron Man 3
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Dark Knight
2 Guns

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 26, 2013

Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank

Directed by James Mangold

Starring Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Hal Yamanouchi, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, and Hiroyuki Sanada

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Logan (Jackman) has removed himself from society, sick of being the mostly human killing machine who is also immortal and clearly broken from having to kill Jean Grey in a previous battle. He’s in a remote, northern, chilly wilderness, going into town only for supplies and booze.

Of course he gets in a fight. And of course a mysterious person shows up. Her name is Yukio (Fukushima) and she is an unusal-looking and strangely prescient Japanese woman. She also knows how to use a katana pretty well.

Yukio tells Logan that someone from his past would like to see him. We start finding out through flashbacks that Logan was a POW in Hiroshima on the day the A-bomb was dropped. We also learn that he saved a Japanese man’s life. That man is Yashida (Yamanouchi).

Yashida is now very old and he tells Logan that he can give Logan what he wants– mortality. But of course, Yashida has other plans too. Other people have plans as well, including Yashida’s doctor (Khodchenkova) and some other shady folks, one of whom uses a bow very well and who has a history with Yashida’s daughter, Mariko (Okamoto).

Suddenly, Logan is embroiled in a plot of power-plays, ninja, Yakuza, and forlorn-looking women. There’s lots of Japanese without subtitles (fun for those of us who speak Japanese) and really cool cultural stuff. There are also some nifty set-pieces which use Japanese architecture and transportation to great effect.

All leads to a showdown that most people will probably see coming. The old guy is not what he seems and Logan has got to rely on others for help.

Critique

We still don’t know why Logan hates immortality, invulnerability, and his ability to grow adamantium claws. Because we still don’t know this, the emotional impact and satisfaction level of the film is diminished.

That said, the plot is surprisingly rich and textured, with real characters populating the scenes. The acting is very nice, although Khodchenkova needs a few different snarls. The fights are good and utilized Wolverine’s abilities well. Interestingly, the writers pulled a kryptonite/Superman on this film, which hopefully does not become an overused trope in these flicks.

You’ll enjoy this movie. Hugh Jackman is convincing again and he lends a lot of depth to a character that really does need more depth– and far more clarity.

Content warnings: Plenty of superhero violence, some of it a little bloody. Some salty language.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

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