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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment in the trilogy that four writers, including director Peter Jackson, have carved out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Basically, it’s just more of the same (even with the ton of plot added that’s not in the book).  The story’s structure seems based on the Perils of Pauline and/or a ride at Disneyland, but the effects aren’t that special anymore (though the dragon Smaug himself has some nice moves, but, god almighty, is he in love with his own voice or what?); the characters are becoming less interesting; and I’m not even sure why people are doing half the things they’re doing anymore (why does Gandalf leave; why does the necromancer care if the dwarves kill Smaug and get their treasure back; why did they need Bilbo along on this trip—I’m sure there are reasons, but I just don’t know what they are now).  No one dies (at least no non-Orc does) because the twists and turns seem borrowed from every James Bond movie in which the secret agent is not immediately killed, but left to die so he can escape to defeat the villain de jour.  Orlando Bloom as Legolas probably has the funniest line in the film when he tells Evangeline Lily as Tauriel that if he was an Orc, she’d be dead; since none of the Orcs seem capable of killing a mosquito with an atomic bomb, this statement is highly questionable (you even begin feeling sorry for the monstrous creatures since they just can’t seem to catch a break—they’re more easily slain than the zombi in Night of the Living Dead). 
In the new movie Camille Claudel 1915, about the sculptress and ex-mistress of the artist Rodin, Camille resides in a mental institution where there are only two sorts of patients.  There are the severely, and I mean, severely mentally retarded, severely autistic, severely psychotic (who are used by writer/director Bruno Dumont both for sympathy and horror as in Todd Browning’s film Freaks) and there’s…Camille, who barely seems to have a thing wrong with here.  That’s right; there’s no Snakepit gradations of mental illness here; no highly functioning people who think they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ; no mere sufferers of nervous breakdowns; no schizophrenics on the level of John Nash.  They’ve either made a complete, in for a penny, in for a pound, break from sanity, or they’re, say, well…Camille.
I’m afraid I had no emotional connection to Camille and her situation.  I believe this was mainly because I had no context for what was happening to her.  Is she someone who is mentally unstable and can’t be left alone (she does show signs of unreasonable paranoia and does think she still has an emotional relationship with Rodin, though they haven’t made contact for twenty years), or is she a poor creature more sinned against than sinning?  From Camille’s perspective, she’s a complete victim, but since every criminal in jail claims to be innocent and everyone confined to a mental hospital thinks they’re sane, her testimony is hardly objective.  So what are we to think of her?
 In the earlier 1988 version of Camille’s story, we clearly see Isabelle Adjani in the title roll slowly losing her mental stability and achieve a complete psychotic break.  But we have no such help here.  And it seems to affect Juliet Binoche’s performance.  Though she plays the part with a ton of energy, she also seems a bit at sea, as if she, herself, is unsure whether to play Camille as someone who is seriously ill or someone who has been put away because she is an inconvenience.
This is Dumont’s seventh film.  His first two films, Life of Jesus and Humanité, seemed so refreshing in their honesty and emotional power, suggesting an exciting new talent.  But since then, his films seemed to have lost something.  For both 27 Palms and Flanders, like this movie, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to convey, I wasn’t sure why he wanted to make the movie, I wasn’t sure what interested him about the subject matter.  Sad to say, the emotional connection he had with his characters and the audience in his first two films seems to be slowly, slipping away. 
The Great Passage, the new movie from Japan written by Kensaku Watanabe and directed by Yuya Ishii, is that country’s entry in the 2013 Oscar category for best foreign language film.  It’s about the publishing of a new, from scratch dictionary and, sorry to say, is about as interesting as reading one (yeah, who didn’t see that joke coming).  The basic premise is the creation of a “living” dictionary that adds modern slang and common words with a more relaxed style to writing the definitions.  The project will take more than ten years to complete, which basically means that when the reference work is released, this “living” dictionary will be dead as a dodo and hopelessly out of date.  How you react to the movie will probably depend on whether you find the cast of characters to be eccentrically appealing on the level of a Cohen Brothers film or an Ealing comedy or not.  I didn’t.  Perhaps it’s best to say it’s no Ball of Fire and let it go at that.


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After finishing the two and a half hour The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which is still only one third of a three part movie), I was trying to figure out why the film was holding together as well it was.  Was it due to director Peter Jackson’s spectacular and thrilling visuals (backed by a superlative design team)?  Was it because of Howard Shore’s part thundering, part wistful music score?  Or was it maybe, just maybe due to Martin Freeman’s gift for the double take? By the time it was all over, I wasn’t sure, but I strongly suspect it was the double take gift thing, mainly because whenever Freeman isn’t on screen, the story tends to lag a bit at times, while at other times, it tends to lag a bit more than a bit.  But when Freeman is on screen, the movie is pretty much everything you could hope for.
The basic story, for those of you who have just returned from a trip to Alpha Centauri, is a prequel to J.R.R. Tolkein’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, which has already been filmed (boy, has it been filmed).  This time it’s the story of Bilbo Baggins, a rather well contented hobbit very satisfied with his lot in life, who is convinced by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, natch), with all the finesse of a psychiatrist with unlimited payouts from insurance, that he is actually very unhappy with his miserable lot in life and is in serious need of years of therapy.  Gandalf’s suggestion: join up with a bunch of dwarves to help them win back their gold that has been stolen by a dragon (in modern politics, if you’re conservative, that would make Gandalf the Koch Brothers, the dwarves Boehner and the Republican Congress, Bilbo the tea party, and the dragon Obama and the 47 percent; if you’re a liberal that would make Gandalf Obama, the dwarves the middle class, Bilbo the democratic congress and the dragon the Koch brothers—with Grover Norquist sticking his head in as Azog every once in awhile; but, hey, the election’s over, so there’s no point in beating a dead orc). 
In many ways and for most of the movie’s endurance, this is a pretty nifty film.  It’s not perfect by any means and its sins are mainly structural.  It tends to stop dead whenever one of two things happen: when the Dwarves start singing as if they’re an earlier incarnation of those damn Von Trapp kids; and whenever there’s a flashback to fill in some plot point or other.  In other words, from the moment that the tale is told of Thorin’s battle with Azog until the dwarves sneak off from Rivendell the movie is, well, a bit of a rough going. 
The main problem, I suspect (and this is based upon my having read the book forty years ago—yes, forty years, you wanna make something of it?), Jackson, and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, are not just trying to do Tolkein’s The Hobbit, which was a rather light and fun little read.  They are trying to tie Bilbo’s story into the larger one by saying that the events of that trilogy of books actually began not just with the discovery of a ring.  In Jackson’s The Hobbit, the evil that comes close to destroying Middle Earth can be found in a larger series of events independent of Bilbo and Gollum’s little pax de deux, with tales of a necromancer; orcs and trolls not knowing their place and encroaching on more civilized peoples; and forests dying. (BTW, it just occurred to me—why would anyone call the era Middle Earth if there hasn’t been an era after Middle Earth yet; isn’t that like calling World War One World War One before there was a World War Two?  But I digress.).
But once everyone’s on the road again, things really pick up (boy, do they pick up), the story reaching both it’s action and emotional highlights when it gets split between a breathtaking fight in the goblin kingdom (with Barry Humphries reprising his Dame Edna roll as the king, but with a smaller double chin) and the more restrained, more intimate scenes of Bilbo finding the ring and encountering the pathetic, schizophrenic Gollum (a triumph of CGI and Andy Serkis’s amazing performance).   One may be over the top (and employ every SFX known to man) and one may be more of a chamber drama (and employ almost every SFX known to man), yet both are equally exhilarating and emotionally gripping, and great credit must be given to both the writers and director here. 
The ending of this section of the Tolkein triptych is a bit clunky.  And again it’s a structural issue.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings down the first act curtain with a battle scene that comes too close to an earlier battle scene, which dilutes this second’s climactic fight.  Well, at least at first.  Once you get past the opening salvos, everything gets smoothed over and the film soars again (both figuratively and literally).   And it’s hard not to want to see what comes next.
So, my ultimate opinion?  Okay, it’s not perfect.  But in the end?  I pretty much found the whole thing to be pretty awesome.   

STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE: Reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Lovely Bones

Two films by incredible visual stylists have opened or are about to open. But though lately the prevailing wisdom is that in film visual is more important than anything else, both movies prove in many ways that being a visual stylist alone is not enough to create a satisfying work of art.

It would be almost impossible not to say that Terry Gilliam has a remarkable eye. His movies look incredible. He is an amazing visual stylist, but I have to be honest and shame the devil (played by Tom Waits in Gilliam’s latest project The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, with the name of Mr. Nick, no lack of imagination there, is there) and say I’m not quite convinced he can tell a story as well as he needs to. In fact, again to be honest, I’m not even sure what the story was in this film; I was thoroughly confused from beginning to end and found myself spending most of my time just trying to figure out the plot created by screenwriters Charles McKeown and Mr. Gilliam himself. Christopher Plummer (next to the production design the main reason to see this film) plays some sort of wizard type person (Dr. Parnassus) who made some sort of deal with the devil (the aforesaid Waits) that gave him, Parnassus eternal life. Parnassus now travels in a wagon that doubles as a theater with a couple of assistants and his daughter, who though she doesn’t know it, may have to marry Mr. Nick if Paranassus doesn’t win some sort of bet that’s never clearly defined. Enter Heath Ledger for some reason, who somehow complicates that situation and who somehow resolves it. The theater piece that Parnassus produces (which for some unbelievable reason is ignored by people passing by) has a mirror as part of the set and if someone enters it, they enter the imaginarium which shows the person something about their life, though what that is isn’t always too clear. Ledger’s character comes along and revamps the piece and suddenly it’s a hit (though it’s unclear why since the show isn’t that significantly different). The best scenes are those that take place on the other side of the mirror. Though the psychology may be shallow (a drunk falls into a pit of empty bottles and enters a bar that blows up; shopping women enter a world of oversize shoes and hats), the art direction takes your breath away. Ledger died during the making of the film and three actors (Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp) take his place whenever his character enters the mirror. This could have made sense, but it never does. Just like the movie as a whole.

The Lovely Bones is also big on visuals, while being bigger on story telling which makes it the more satisfactory movie of the two. It’s narrated, like Sunset Boulevard, by someone who is dead, here a 13 year old girl, Susie, played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan. The story is then told in two plot lines, one concerning Susie and her adventures in a land of limbo, a breathtakingly exciting place of dazzling invention where everything changes second from second. It’s an Alice in Wonderland location filled with beautiful non sequitors and with more depth of psychology than the mirror world of Parnassus’s. The second plot revolves around Susie’s family and how they respond to the daughter’s death. This is also interesting, though not as interesting as the land of limbo. But as intriguing as the whole movie is, it doesn’t quite work since the two story lines never really come together. Occasionally Susie somehow connects with the real world, but not in any significant way. The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson, who also directed, suggests that Susie has a character arc, that something happens that enables her to leave limbo and go on to what’s next, but it’s unclear what that something that happens could be. Susan Sarandon is a lot of fun as that staple of sit coms and 1970’s movies, the boozy, pill popping upper middle class pre-post-feminist woman who never learned how to wash clothes. Stanley Tucci is the rapist/murderer and he has his moments, but he does something with his voice that got on my nerves. In the end, it’s Ronan who holds the picture together.