I’ll start out by assuring you that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is really good, a satisfying ending to director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit movies. Smaug is vanquished, Bilbo returns to the Shire, and the dwarves emerge victorious from the epic battle between the forces of good, the forces of evil and the greed that Smaug’s massive gold horde produces in even the least covetous.
If you’ve read the book you already know the basics of the tale, a story far simpler than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. By splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy, Jackson created lots of space for narrative discourse, for new characters (like the wonderful Tauriel), and for side stories that create an even richer and more interesting Middle Earth. All of this comes to fruition in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, ended with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of the dwarves realizing they’ve failed to kill the monstrous dragon Smaug. He’s furious and is heading towards Laketown to wreak his terrible vengeance, even as Laketown resident Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), the man most likely to kill the dragon, is imprisoned and is forced to watch the destruction through the window of his cell.
Unlike the transition from the first film — An Unexpected Journey — to the second, the switch from #2 to The Battle of the Five Armies is remarkably seamless, picking up exactly where the second ends. Smaug must clearly be killed, but once he dies, word travels quickly through Middle Earth that his massive horde of gold and treasure is up for grabs.
When it comes to back stories, there’s no work more frequently tapped than The Bible. A rich document with thousands of stories, it’s produced solid cinema, like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 1959’s terrific Ben-Hur, the silly fun of Life of Brian from 1979, and even daft reinterpretations like the recent Noah [read my review of Noah]. There’s something inherently epic about the mythic story of the origin of humanity, and the story of Exodus (from the Biblical book of the same name) has every element you’d want in a great drama.
Which is why it’s surprising how poorly director Ridley Scott did with Exodus: Gods and Kings.
In the spirit of the holidays, however, let’s start with what’s right: the look of the film is gorgeous and the visual effects are extraordinarily effective. Indeed, this is the first film where the plagues are portrayed in a horrific manner that helps propel the narrative forward and helps demonstrate how obstinate Pharaoh Rameses (Joel Edgerton) was as the God of Moses sends increasingly nasty creatures and events to the Kingdom of Egypt.
The death of the firstborn male child — a plague perhaps macabrely commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Passover — was particularly well portrayed as Rameses, a loving father to his young son, stands vigil over the boy’s bed just to fall asleep and awaken to his young corpse.
The basic storyline is compelling: it’s a dystopic future and the totalitarian government that controls everything keeps a tight lid on the twelve outlying Districts with the annual Hunger Games. Each district must send two children chosen at random, and when District 12’s choice is Prim Everdeen (Willow Shields), her big sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) courageously volunteers to go in her place. The first film in the series, The Hunger Games, is about the Games, but when Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) win, they are forced into a winners-only Hunger Games rematch: the Quarter Quell, the focus of the second film, Catching Fire.
In this third film, Katniss becomes the reluctant figurehead for the rebels, fighting the central government of Panem as led by the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The rebels are hiding out in the hardened underground military bunkers of District 13, and their life is joyless, with grey jumpsuits, minimal food rations and lots of rules. They also have video production facilities and a way to broadcast to all the other Districts. Katniss is reluctant, so propaganda expert Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the severe President Coin (Julianne Moore) must plot how to get Katniss to reprise her role as the Mockingjay, the brave symbol of the rebellion.
Meanwhile, Peeta is held prisoner in the Capital, and much of the film is about his anti-rebellion propaganda broadcasts and the pro-rebel propaganda films Katniss records in response. Peeta still loves Katniss, and Katniss loves him, but the handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth) loves her too, even as she makes it clear she’s devoted to Peeta. Does it sound like a teen love triangle? It is.
There’s surprisingly little action in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and much of the film transpires within the subterranean confines of District 13 with Katniss complaining that she doesn’t want to be the puppet of the rebellion and Plutarch trying to manipulate her into bringing her fierceness to the “propos” films needed to inspire the rebellion.
Cinema can explore the most intimate of topics or the grandest, and sometimes the stories can be connected in surprising ways. How much difference is there between our relationship to each other and our relationship with the universe after all? It’s the intersection between these two core stories that makes Interstellar one of the most powerful films of 2014 and one of the best science fiction films of a very long time.
The film is set in a dismal near future where horrendous dust storms decimate food and humankind is dying for something to eat. Wheat has died from blight, then the last okra crop is destroyed. The one remaining grain left to feed man is corn, and civilization has become focused on care-taking, not innovation, while technology is feared and discredited.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) runs a dusty, ramshackle ranch, along with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his teen son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and his bright and adoring daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Before the bad times, Cooper had been a test pilot with NASA and when Murph suspects that there’s a ghost in her bedroom, she and “Coop” eventually realize the ghostly message is map coordinates that lead them to a secret research facility. The base is the last remnant of an earlier technological age, where Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) work with a team of scientists to figure out how to leave Earth and spread to the stars.
I love the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days, a remarkable travelogue of a film by first-time producer Michael Todd, based on the terrific Jules Verne book of the same name. My kids have seen it multiple times too, and it’s become a family favorite with its action, adventure, dancing, romance and beautiful world-hopping story. One of the very best parts of the film is the manservant Passepartout, played by the popular Mexican actor Cantinflas.
But who was Cantinflas? That’s what the 2014 art house biopic Cantinflas sets out to explore. Primarily in subtitled Spanish, it offers an art-deco sensibility as we meet Mario Moreno (Oscar Jaenada), a young clown of a man who sought first a career as a boxer, then as a stage actor. It was while deflecting cat-calls from the audience one evening that a drunk tent show attendee accused Moreno of being a cantina-fly (the Spanish-language equivalent of a “barfly”). “Cantinflas? Okay, call me Cantinflas!” he says in jest, and the audience loves it.
Through a series of mishaps and a journey propelled by his ego that was certainly visually inspired by the long, slow burn of Charles Kane in the brilliant Citizen Kane, we see his gaining stature as an entertainer through the ever-increasing size of his name on the marquee and his rocky relationship with beautiful Russian dancer Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas).
Some films lend themselves to the constraints of indie films with their lower budgets, slower pace and generally more claustrophobic sensibility. You can’t create Transformers or Inception on a shoestring. Fortunately, LFO is one of the indie films where it all really works perfectly, offering up a dark, twisted and wry sci-fi parable for our times.
LFO tells the story of Robert (Patrik Karlson), a reclusive and troubled sound engineer who creates a hypnotic sound wave that instantly puts people into a passive, hyper-suggestive state when heard. But Robert is a twisted and bitter guy who has “sound allergies” to certain kinds of music — at one point he destroys their stereo because his wife Clara (Ahnna Rasch) is listening to meditative yoga music — and his thoughts turn immediately to manipulation when he realizes what he’s invented.
The primary victims are his guileless neighbors Linn (Izabelle Jo Tschig) and Simon (Per Lofberg) who are programmed in increasingly bizarre, and often amusing, ways. Unsurprisingly, Robert begins by convincing Linn that she is desperate to have sex with him, just to be surprised when she then says just that and they end up in the bedroom, naked.
War is inherently cinematic. The stark comparison between good and bad, the grey areas of moral or amoral behavior, the stripping away of the thin veneer of civilization and civilized behavior, and the historical replay — or reinvention — of heinous situations. It’s no wonder that for any given war there are dozens if not hundreds of films. No war has been covered more thoroughly than World War II, however, with its deep and profound impact on all peoples and all corners of the globe.
The grand sweep of the war has been covered effectively before, but it’s the ability to zero in on an individual, on one person’s journey through the horrors of war that makes a film most effective. It was our ability to experience the Normandy Invasion and subsequent tour of the battlefield through the eyes of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the superb, intense Saving Private Ryan that made that film so powerful.
Similarly, Fury is about the experiences of raw recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is dumped into Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt)’s platoon as assistant driver for the big tank. But Ellison’s been trained to be a typist back at HQ and he’s not combat ready. Worse, he is a threat to the safety of the other men in the tank nicknamed “Fury”: if he can’t become as callous and aggressive towards the Germans as the rest of the crew, they could all end up dead.
While the popular mythology of vampires seems to be all sparkly and romantic (to wit, the banal Twilight series) the creatures themselves have a darker past, tapping into a mythic, archetypal fear of things that stir in the dark. Modern beliefs stem from 1890’s author Bram Stoker and his sensational book Dracula, but the myth is widely believed to have been based on the life of 15th Century nobleman Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia and member of the House of Draculesti. A bloodthirsty and vicious soldier, he was dubbed Vlad the Impaler for his habit of impaling his enemies on stakes, sometimes hundreds at a time.
Dracula Untold explores a different sort of origin story for this well known villain and mainstay of hundreds of horror movies: as a boy who was torn from his family and taught by the Persians to be a heartless unthinking killer. Finally released from the service of the Sultan, Vlad (Luke Evans) goes back to his family castle in Transylvania and vows to never again let the Persians take boys from his kingdom to turn into soldiers. Ten years later, he’s brought peace to the kingdom, has a beautiful wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and a handsome son Ingeras (Art Parkinson), and is even a reluctant Christian.
Then during an Easter celebration, the Turkish envoy arrives for the customary annual tribute of silver coins. And – no surprise – an additional 1000 boys to be trained by the Turks as soldiers. Vlad travels to the Turkish camp to beg Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) not to insist on the conscription of the boys. Mehmed laughs and says that it’s now “1000 and 1″ because he wants to have Vlad’s son Ingeras by his side, not with his mother and father.
Whistle-blowers are rarely appreciated, even when we desperately want to know the story and get the inside scoop on what’s happening. It’s not just true in real life, it’s a trope of cinema too, from Cloud Atlas to The China Syndrome, if you go public with what’s really going on in your company or organization, it generally doesn’t end well.
Kill the Messenger examines one of the most shocking misuses of power to ever come out of that most corrupt of agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency: In the 1990’s, the CIA was helping Nicaraguan rebels by helping Central American drug smugglers bring cocaine into the United States.
Or were they?
That’s the puzzle that’s incompletely examined in this otherwise powerful and fact-based thriller about San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who has the story dumped on his lap by drug traffickers girlfriend Coral Baca (Paz Vega) when she gives him a confidential Grand Jury transcript that reveals the link between the CIA and the smugglers. He digs in to the story with a vengeance and finally convinces his editor Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he publishes in the SJ Mercury. And wins both a Pulitzer Prize and the award for journalist of the year.
At the brink of human destruction, with almost all of the Earth’s population killed by a massive increase in solar storms, one city remains. It’s humanity’s last gasp, complete with artificial cloud cover created and managed by the primitive Automata Pilgrim 7000 robots. Millions of them. All working to keep the last vestige of humanity alive.
In a nod to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the millions of robots in this dismal future world are ruled by two inalterable, built-in security protocols: Robots are prohibited from harming any form of life and Robots cannot alter themselves or any other robots. But what if they started modifying themselves anyway?
Automata is a dark and intriguing dystopic sci-fi film that’s just as much about Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) searching for his humanity as it is about the singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and acts upon it. With his stark Bulgarian post-industrial exteriors and harsh lighting, Spanish director Gabe Ibanez delivers a smart, original sci-fi thriller about evolution and the sunset of humankind on Earth.