Monday, 6 January 2014

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug', 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', and 'American Hustle': review round-up

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' - Dir. Peter Jackson (12A)

This second part of Peter Jackson's 9-hour adaptation of what's quite a slender children's book, 'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' has the same problems as its predecessor bar the songs. It's long, baggy, a bit twee, overloaded with un-engaging CGI chase sequences and full of pointless fan service for Jackson's original 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, with lots of business teasing the origins of things that ultimately happen in those other films. I didn't like the original trilogy - which feels like the sort of derivative, high fantasy trash Tolkien inspired rather than Tolkien itself - and I couldn't stand 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' either, so I won't spend long writing about this one. You're either a fan or not as this point, I would imagine. What I will say is that this second chapter is a marginal improvement on the first, mostly because there's a really terrific CGI dragon involved. True, you have to wait almost two hours (and sit through a lot of Orlando Bloom) to get to that dragon, but it is pretty spectacular when you do eventually get there.

On the subject of the derided high frame rate version (which plays at 48 frames per second as opposed to the usual 24), I was actually pretty impressed by the technology - even if it made this particular film look over-lit and cheap looking, like something you'd see on an HD TV channel rather than a major Hollywood movie. Perhaps the main benefit of watching the film in HFR was that I didn't get any sort of headache or eye-strain from nearly three hours of 3D movie. The other immediately noticeable boon was the fact that HFR seems to completely eradicate the motion blur which you usually get during sequences that involve fast panning shots with lots of action in 3D films. So basically, as it stands, it's a technology primarily aimed at improving the experience of 3D. I think it's also fair to say that the current cheap looking examples of the technology are far from representative of what it could potentially do if a film is lit specifically with the format in mind, as I'm guessing Jackson's films weren't (due to the fact the vast majority will be experiencing them in plain, old 24fps). I'm betting James Cameron will shoot 'Avatar 2' in this format and that's when we'll see it take off, just like 3D did back in 2009.

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' - Dir. Ben Stiller (PG)

The longest, glossiest advert I've ever seen. Ben Stiller's adaptation of 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' treats its audience with contempt, presenting itself as a completely sincere and resolutely anti-cynical movie, about living life to the full and self-improvement (in the most trite and superficial of ways), whilst bombarding the viewer with the most blatant, in your face product placement I've ever witnessed. Live life: Fly Air Greenland! Live life: order a Papa John's! Live life: eat a delicious Cinnabon! Live life: sign up for eHarmony! All movies feature product placement, of course, but 'Mitty' goes the extra mile of dedicating close-up after close-up to prominently branded drink cartons and suspiciously perfect looking airline food and by having the words "Papa John's" be perhaps the most often repeated in the entire movie with the possible exception of the character's name and (urgh) "the quintessence of life".

Most movies feature, say, a Heineken logo in the background (which this does, of course), but leave it at that. However 'Mitty' - which presumably made a high percentage of its money back from the off, entirely from these deals - folds product placement into the narrative directly and at every turn. It features two entire conversations about Papa John's (more specifically about how there's a Papa John's in Iceland, which is depicted as the only place in an otherwise barren land where people come together), a half-dozen phone conversations with an overly-friendly customer service guy from eHarmony (played by Patton Oswalt) which even features a line about how great service they provide is, a trip to Cinnabon (featuring lines like - and I'm paraphrasing - "you need a Cinnabon!" and "that's a plate of delicious, sugary goodness right there, my friend!") and many, many, many others. It's all just shots of Stiller Living Life(TM) (skateboarding, travelling, fighting a shark, looking at a rare species of leopard, playing football with tribesman etc) which marry the aforementioned products to a broadly appealing lifestyle. "Look at Mitty go", the film seems to cry, "be fun like him! Life is far too short! Travel abroad! Meet people! Buy a Papa Johns!"

These aren't the only problems with Mitty. It's not funny (an example of a 'funny line' Mitty wishes he'd said, to his boss with a stupid beard: "do you know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore." Zing!) and all the character's imagined fantasy sequences are so over the top ridiculous that there's no investment in them when they occur. The romance plot, between Mitty and Kristen Wiig's character, is perfunctory and unearned, and in many ways a little creepy - barely knowing her when he buys her a young son a gift and then dropping contact with her entirely because a man answered her door one time. Wiig, who I generally like, has the thankless task having to perform an acoustic guitar version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, with a pained expression on her face as if it's the most profound song of all time and she's just written it. Most symbolic of the film's dramatic deficiencies is the "nasty boss" stock character who shows up to downsize Mitty's workplace (played by Adam Scott) seemingly fresh from the set of a pantomime. He's so over the top mean to his employees - and Mitty in particular - that it doesn't relate to the world outside of the film at all. It's all bombast and sentiment devoid of real feeling or anything meaningful to actually say about the world outside of its relentless barrage of well-worn platitudes.

'American Hustle' - Dir. David O. Russell (15)

It's been trailed like a derivative, Scorsese-influenced crime film, but David O. Russell's 70s-set 'American Hustle' is best viewed as a black comedy. Every brilliant performance, every hackneyed line, every haircut, every sequence is a little warped, a little odd - from Jennifer Lawrence doing the housework whilst miming along to Live and Let Die to Christian Bale's pot-bellied, comb-over sporting conman seducing Amy Adams in the lost property room of his dry cleaning establishment. That doesn't mean to say it isn't a decent and occasionally tense crime film, with its share interesting twists and turns in the plot, but it reminded me more of the Coen Brothers than 'Goodfellas', being about a group of variously flawed, morality bereft shysters who are often as pathetic and incompetent as they are resolutely unlikable. It's saying something that Jeremy Renner's charismatic local mayor is the only one of the bunch with any integrity and he's the victim at the centre of the big con.

Horrible people screwing each other over for the most part, but the film's refreshingly kind to the political class, who it depicts with uncommon humanity - with the mayor, as flawed and corruptible as he is, doing everything he can to help his constituents, who he earnestly strives to serve. It's careerist cops and conniving criminals who are shown to be the baddies here (even as protagonists), when we're usually sold the idea that organised criminals represent some sort of fraternity of direct, honest, old fashioned men with a strict code, as opposed to the lying, scheming cads that run the country. Instead when Bale's middle-rung financial criminal and Cooper's upwardly mobile, increasingly unhinged cop clash, there's no code of conduct or pretense of cool - nobody is in control or charismatically playing all the angles and holding all the cards. There's only a kind of ruthless, self-interested, survival of the fittest capitalism in play - and it's conscientious, civic-spirited people who get hurt in the crossfire.

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