Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

To say that I am a fan of Peter Jackson's seminal The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be the understatement of the century.  I have a connection to those films that runs deeper than most franchises (Bourne and Star Trek notwithstanding); The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the movies that got me interested in film over a decade ago.  I have been following The Hobbit for many years now; it was a veritable roller coaster of changes and updates to the project.  First the MGM bankruptcy issue (that also stalled Skyfall, The Cabin in the Woods, and Red Dawn) that ultimately forced Guillermo del Toro out of the director's chair.  Then it was announced as two films.  Then a third was added to bridge the gap between the two sagas.  Then it was scaled back into two films.  At Comic-Con 2012 it was rumored that there might be a third film again.  Just a few months ago Jackson finally confirmed the Hobbit trilogy, and that he and writer Fran Walsh would be drawing considerably from the appendices to the Rings books to flesh out each film.  And then there's the 48 frames-per-second debacle from CinemaCon this year.  Through all of this nonsense and tomfoolery, all that I can say is that I am very glad to be back in Middle Earth once again.

I'm going to try something a bit new for this review - I'm going to break it up into three distinct sections; my overall thoughts, a spoiler-ridden discussion of changes/additions/omissions from book to film, and some thoughts on the 3D and 48-frames business.

It's good to be back in Middle Earth:
That sentence pretty much sums up my thoughts on this film.  Jackson knows exactly how to tug at our heartstrings with nostalgia and references to the previous trilogy.  Starting out the film with Ian Holm reprising his role as Bilbo Baggins, our titular hero, and his nephew, Frodo (again played by Elijah Wood) was an utterly brilliant move.  Bilbo is beginning to write his book, "There and Back Again," just before his 111th birthday.  I felt immediately at home in Bag End, even if the narrative quickly shifts to a sixty-year-younger Bilbo.

Martin Freeman's turn as our hero, Bilbo, is nothing short of fantastic.  He retains some of Holm's mannerisms while putting his own stamp on the role.  Bilbo is not one for adventure (which is the case for most hobbits), but he allows his Tookish side to get the better of him and Freeman plays this part with aplomb.  Ian McKellen is nothing short of fantastic reprising Gandalf the Grey.  Richard Armitage's Thorin is the third of the main-character-trio.  Through most of the film he's fantastic but written to be a bit one-note.  Thorin broods and scowls at the misfortune his people have befallen - he ultimately blames himself for their situation and is pretty emo about the whole thing - and complains openly about Bilbo consistently.  Yet again a stand-out is the Academy Award-overlooked Andy Serkis as the memorable Gollum/Smeagol.  Weta did yet another smashing job with Gollum; his facial expressions and eye movements are truly a sight to behold.  There are several shots of just his reactions to Bilbo that are simply fantastic.

For the uninitiated, The Hobbit is essentially a children's adventure novel, set 60 years before the events of the trilogy.  And no, it isn't a prequel; Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a standalone book with no idea of the trilogy he would eventually go on to write.  "Wandering" wizard Gandalf the Grey is looking for the 14th member of an expedition and chooses Bilbo (Gandalf knew Bilbo as a young, adventurous hobbit).  The 12 dwarves that make up the bulk of this group are on a quest to retake their ancestral homeland of Erebor.  Many years prior a villainous dragon by the name of Smaug invaded their mountain fortress and took their gold and riches for himself.  The grandson of the ousted king Thror, Thorin Oakenshield, leads the charge to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.  What follows is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-dark and menacing adventure that involves orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, and wargs.  And rock giants.

The Hobbit is a long film; it clocks in at a staggering 169 minutes.  I knew I was watching a long film but it is a good kind of long film.  The pacing is a beautiful blend of action and expository dialogue that keeps the film clipping along at a decent rate.  Scenes that are uneventful in the book (during which our group is traveling for weeks and even months) are injected with some artfully-shot action that speeds up events and raises the stakes for our heroes.  There are several stand-out set-pieces and moments; an exhilarating chase scene involving hundreds of goblins, an utterly brilliant finale atop a cliff, and of course, the momentous occasion of the One Ring-obsessed Gollum meeting the "Bagginses" for the first time.  Their game of riddles is gripping and is one of the best sequences of the film.

I had goosebumps many times throughout this film...mainly due to the great score.  While perhaps not as memorable as the tremendous score for the trilogy, Howard Shore mixes themes of old with the new "Lonely Mountain" ballad that our company sings before leaving.  This new theme is blended with movements from the original trilogy beautifully; old emotions are evoked while new ones created.  There are a few moments where the old songs rise out of nowhere at pivotal scenes that just left me with chills.  And its not just music that evokes the original trilogy - characters are present in this film that weren't in the book (more on that later), and even certain shots and moments are evocative of Jackson's previous works...which in Tolkien's case that order would be reversed.  Here we get references to events that won't transpire for another 60 years.  In this fashion said references would be able to work either way, depending upon your viewing order of the two trilogies.

If it's not obvious, I loved every moment of The Hobbit - but it's not without its flaws.  I mainly take umbrage with the usage of CGI in the film; the original trilogy felt very real because of the heavy usage of prosthetics and practical effects.  More than a decade has passed since Jackson shot the trilogy and digital effects-work has grown tremendously.  As a result, where there were once actors in makeup there are now wholly digital characters on screen.  At times it works fine but others...not so much. One can only wonder what type of effects we would've gotten had del Toro remained in the director's chair...

If you stop reading here I don't blame you.  You know you're going to see this film regardless of what else I have to say.  It is important to note that The Hobbit is a children's book, and as so the film is a lot more whimsical than its predecessors at times; the gaggle of dwarves provides bits of comic relief here and there, and there are quite a few more songs than we're used to in Middle Earth.  Who knew that dwarves and goblins like to sing that much?

You...shall not...pass!
Still with me?  Okay, so here's where we get to talk about the changes that were made in the transition from book to film.  I'd like to start off by saying the I loved every single addition/change/and omission that the many writers of this film chose to make.  The many changes actually enhance the story and streamline things a bit at times and also introduce characters and ideas much earlier in the film than in the book.

A prime example of this is Azog the Defiler and his relationship to Thorin.  From what I recall Azog is merely mentioned in the book, but the film actually takes us to the battle for Moria, in which a dwarven army, lead by Thorin's grandfather, Thror, attempt to retake the mine from a horde of goblins, lead by Azog himself.  He cuts down Thror in front of Thorin, sending him into a rage that eventually leads to Azog being seemingly cut down.  We quickly learn that Azog is alive and is seeking revenge against Thorin; he and his pack of warg-riding-goblins track and attack our group throughout the entire film.  This addition adds a much-needed antagonist that was absent for almost the entire book.  Smaug is essentially the book's antagonist, but he doesn't show up until the last third.  This build-up of tension between these two characters is handled masterfully and culminates in one of my favorite scenes of the year, in which Thorin confronts Azog in the middle of raging fires while his companions dangle off the edge of a cliff.  In the book there was some tension in this scene, as the attacking wargs were fought off by Gandalf's fire, but the film ramps up the stakes by adding Azog into the mix.

There are myriad changes made to the story in smaller but still-effective ways.  The Arkenstone is introduced in what is essentially the prologue to the film, which actually shows us Dale and the dwarven kingdom of Erebor.  We get to see this thriving culture and their massive mining operation (that results in the discovery of the Arkenstone).  Thranduil the Elvenking (Lee Pace, the pie maker!)makes a quick appearance, paying tribute to Thror and his new stone.  A new subplot is introduced when Smaug shows up to wreck everyone's party; Thranduil and his elven army simply stand by as their dwarven allies are forced to flee their home.  Thranduil isn't willing to risk the lives of his kin to save the dwarves' home.  Thorin now carries with him a deep-seeded hatred for elfkin.

This brings me to another addition: The White Council.  This is only mentioned in the book, but we get to see the Council meet and discuss the trip to Erebor and another briefly-mentioned character (in the book), the Necromancer.  Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (the beautiful Cate Blanchett), Gandalf, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) comprise the group; for fans, it is great to see these epic characters on-screen together, especially knowing the events that come to pass in the Rings trilogy.  It is here than Gandalf reveals another connection to the trilogy, a Morgul blade.  Fans will recall that Frodo is stabbed in the shoulder by a Nazgul, using a Morgul blade, at Weathertop (which is a location that is briefly re-visited in this film).  The blade was given to Gandalf by another new character, Radagast the Brown.  Radagast is given only one sentence in the book, but here his character is expanded quite a bit.  He is more-or-less the protector/overseer of the forest that will come to be known as Mirkwood.  He's the first to really notice the coming evil that will end up being the return of Sauron, and ventures into the lair of the Necromancer.  He is attacked by a spirit (who is one of the resurrected Ring Wraiths/Nazgul) and procures said blade.  The addition of the Necromancer plot line will add some undoubted action to the next film, as we see Gandalf face off against him, and will undoubtedly culminate in the return of Sauron.

There are very small tweaks made that service the story in the end.  How Bilbo gets to the meeting of Gollum is different, but the result is the same.  That is the theme with all of the changes - journey may be different but the destination is the same.  Before arriving in Rivendell, our group is attacked by a pack of Azog's wargs, who are driven off by a hunting party lead by Elrond himself.  This small bit of action is injected into an otherwise-dull traveling sequence.  The group still ends up in Rivendell, but now Elrond is in battle armor (which is totally badass), and we get a bit of dialogue about how his team was tracking these goblins.  The sequence in which our heroes encounter the stone giants has been altered quite a bit; rather than just seeing the giants in the distance, throwing rocks around, our group is now directly in the middle of a three-way battle that threatens their safety.  It's little changes like this that ultimately end up making the story a more enjoyable viewing experience; in a book you can mention that the group traveled for a few weeks or months, but considering film is a visual medium, something new is required to keep our attention and allow the film to flow forward.

The board is set.  The pieces are moving.
The piece in question is the filming of The Hobbit in 48 frames-per-second.  I don't want to get too into what this exactly means, but essentially films have been shot in 24 frames for over one hundred years.  Yes, video games and certain other media have been presented in higher framerates than 24 (most games run at 30 or 60), but seeing a film on the big screen at 48 is something that will take time getting used to.

The easiest way I can describe is it that the lighting is sort of that of a day-time soap opera, and the smoothness is reminiscent of a cinematic cut-scene in a video game.  The motion blur that is present in 24 frames is non-existent with this higher rate.  More frames=smoother picture.  I was used to it after a while, but it didn't quite reach comfortability with me.  I wasn't taken out of the experience, but I was constantly aware of what I was watching.  Action scenes in particular, where the camera is speeding and swooping around, are where the additional frames are most obvious.  One downside of 48 frames is that the digital effects seem that much more unreal.  It is just a bit more obvious that they are digital creations than if I had seen the film at 24 frames.  I am anxious to check out the lower rate version to see the diffrerences.

While most people will probably walk away having not enjoyed themselves, I think this is a step in the right direction.  New technology or ways of film-making require just one person to open the door and hopefully Jackson is that person (there is already talk that X-Men: Days of Future Past will be shot in 48 frames).  The 3D in the film works fairly well; rarely-used are something-coming-at-the-screen-gimmicks.

The Hobbit is a fantastic film that gets just about everything right.  While perhaps it doesn't quite live up to its predecessors, it is most certainly a step in the right direction for this new trilogy.  Just enough homage is paid to what came before that it doesn't overshadow this new adventure and new characters.  The additional story lines and general streamlining of the book's plot does wonders in moving along the story at a brisk pace.  If you enjoyed the Rings saga then this is a no-brainer.  For the uninitiated, this film is a perfect jumping-in point.  The problem is that we have to wait a year for The Desolation of Smaug, and eighteen months for There and Back Again.

The Hobbit is a fantastic, well-executed film that just barely misses the greatness of the Rings trilogy.

The Bearded Bullet.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn: Part 2 Review

I’m glad that the Twilight Saga is finally over.  I really am.  That might sound a bit harsh, but I have absolutely no love at all for this series of films.  None of the five of them have done anything for me other than mildly entertain me at times.  The rest of the time I was subjected to lingering scenes of longing stares, bare-chested man-hunks being manly, and…sparkles.  No, I did not enjoy The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 all that much.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone who read my lovely review for Part 1 last year.

***Full Spoiler Warning is in Effect***

To be honest there were a few things that I enjoyed about Part 2, namely the final battle…that actually didn’t happen (more on that in a moment).  The only performances that entertained me in the slightest came from series newcomer Lee Pace and the always-eccentric Michael Sheen.  The former played a Revolutionary War-veteran who sides with the Cullens, whilst the latter reprised his role as the over-the-top leader of the Volturi.  It’s quite amusing to me that my favorite moments of the franchise all come from flashbacks to and discussions of vampiric actions in the past.  But I digress..
The acting from the main trio is just about the same as it’s ever been, although Bella (the stone-faced Kristin Stewart) actually got to show some emotions – more than the previous films combined.  I suppose all that sulking and emo’ing paid off in the end...continually Taylor Lautner seems to be the only one of the trio actually having any fun.  Although having fun doesn’t excuse a lackluster or stilted performance, which is what most of the cast put in on this project.

Despite loads of terribleness and buckets of mediocrity, I found myself wholly engaged in the final confrontation between Team Cullen and Team Volturi.  It is here that I must point out that I am quite the fan of action and explosions, but boy do I love me some good drama; The Artist was one of my favorite films last year.  Just because the only thing I really liked about Part 2 was an action scene isn’t a reflection of my general tastes – the actual “drama” is handled so incredibly poorly throughout the series that there was just little for me to hold on to.  But yes, the final battle was pretty intense, if not cheesy and over-the-top at times.  Vampires were decapitated and werewolves were slain.  At one point, Rami Malek’s Benjamin (who can control elements) created a fissure in the middle of the battlefield (which doesn’t really make sense – what point did that serve?) that caused many on both sides to plummet into molten lava – I highly doubt that actual molten rock is that close to the surface…but whatever.  This is Twilight we’re dealing with.  Nothing makes sense.

What I enjoyed the most about this final battle was that the stakes were sort-of high and people actually died.  Throughout the series I can’t recall many deaths, let alone deaths of main characters.  This battle saw prominent characters on both sides bite it.  When Bella and Edward tag-team Aro (Sheen) and finally rip his head off I was actually pretty stoked.  Then we find out it never happened.   
I don’t really wanna get into it here because I honestly don’t feel like expending then energy, but the whole scene took place inside Alice’s head as she was showing Aro what the outcome of the battle would be.  They decide not to fight and everyone lives happily ever after…which is a cop-out of an ending.  Now, I know nothing about how the book actually ends, but I do know good/bad storytelling when I see it.

See, in Harry Potter, people die.  I’m talking about main characters.  Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix.  Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire.  Albus f’ing Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince.  And a ton of people in Deathly Hallows.  The stakes were high for Harry and his group and the consequences were fitting.  Both series end relatively happily, but in one it’s bittersweet because of the sacrifices made for Harry to succeed at stopping Voldemort.  The Cullens did almost nothing to earn their happy ending.  Alice runs up and shows the Volturi what will happen if they fight.  What if they just come back in a week with a thousand more vampires?  Will the Cullens have time to gather more followers if Alice sees that happening?  There are so many holes in the actual ending that it sickens me.  The writers should’ve grown a pair and ended it with how the battle played out.  The ending would have that much more weight and significance if people close to our protagonists gave up their lives to save/defend them.  This issue is simply indicative of the film series as a whole – a missed opportunity.

I do have to give quick props to one specific scene in Part 2.  One of my complaints about the series in general is that Jacob never took off his pants.  Stay with me here.  He always takes off his shirt and sometimes his shoes before he transforms into a wolf.  He never would take off his pants.  Just imagine all of the jeans that kid ruined by leaving them on during the transformation.  It really bothered me.  Thankfully, in a key scene with Bella’s dad, Jacob took off his pants and most likely his underwear, before transforming into a wolf.  I literally applauded.  It took them five films to do something right.  Bravo!

At the end of the day you know what you’re getting into if you intend to see this film.  Melodrama at its worst.  Bad CGI (the CGI face placed on baby Renesmee was horrifyingly bad.  I’m talking worse-than-Wolverine’s-claws-in-X-Men Origins-bad).  Over and under-acting.  Mediocre directing.  Poor green-screen.  And an unsatisfying ending.  Wait a second…am I describing this film or the entire “saga?”  Just something to think about.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is no better or worse than the other films…so it’s awful.

The Bearded Bullet.

Wreck-It Ralph Review

Wreck-It Ralph is the best Pixar film they never made.  That is probably the highest compliment an animated film could be paid.  Seriously, everything about Ralph screams Pixar – top-notch animation, an emotional, heart-felt story, and interesting characters that you really feel for.  Not to mention that the film is steeped in video game culture of the past three decades.  All of these fantastic elements coalesce into one of my favorite films of the year.

From the opening moments of the film I was completely on board.  Ralph is set in an aging arcade (something that is virtually non-existent in today’s world) – more specifically inside one of the longest-standing cabinets in the arcade.  The game is “Fix-It Felix Jr.” and is immediately reminiscent of the original Donkey Kong cabinet that first featured Jump Man (who would go on to become Mario).  This is just one example of a reference to gaming culture that I just loved (sometimes quite obviously and others a tad more veiled).  Our protagonist is actually the antagonist of Fix-It Felix Jr.  Wreck-It Ralph is a bad guy who aspires to be more than that.

The narrative is beautifully simple; Ralph just wants to be the good guy for once.  This quest leads Ralph to accidentally cause havoc in two other arcade cabinets, “Hero’s Duty” and “Sugar Rush.”  Hero’s Duty is a riff on first-person shooters a la Call of Duty and Halo.  Sugar Rush is clearly an homage to Mario Kart – it features myriad racers (in karts), using power-ups to demolish one another.  There are references to other gaming franchises peppered throughout both games (Mario gets a name drop!) and the world in general.  Many times I wished that I could pause the film and try to pick out every character that I recognized from gaming history (Q*bert, Pac Man, Bowser, the little guy from Dig Dug and more make cameos).

***Spoiler Warning***

I adore just about every aspect of Ralph.  The voice acting is fantastic, the animation is superb, and the tone is just right, but what really stood out to be is the story.  I was blown away that Ralph is actually a Disney “princess” film.  Ralph is our protagonist, but Venellope Von Schweet’s (Sarah Silverman) story takes center stage for most of the film.  We’re lead to believe that she’s just a glitch in the programming of Sugar Rush, but in the film’s third act it is revealed that the evil King Candy (the superb Alan Tudyk) attempted to delete her code and lock up the memories of the inhabitants of the game to oust her as the princess of Sugar Rush.  This revelation, along with the fact that King Candy was actually a long-thought-dead character from a cabinet broken years ago were handled deftly and both legitimately surprised me.

***End Spoiler Warning***

Wreck-It Ralph just cannot be recommended highly enough.  Anyone who has grown up with gaming as a part of their lives will deeply appreciate the film and the world that’s built within it.  Civilian filmgoers will be able to appreciate it as well on a different level.  The animation, voice acting, and narrative coalesce into one special film.  Ralph will undoubtedly end up as one of my favorite films of the year.

Wreck-It Ralph is the best Pixar film they never made.

The Bearded Bullet.

Red Dawn (2012) Trimmed Review

I have never seen the original Red Dawn, but I am quite aware of it; the “Wolverines” have earned their place in pop-culture history.  Because of this, I was able to go into my viewing of the remake, also titled Red Dawn, with relatively fresh eyes.  While this allowed me some objectivity, I can’t but feel that I should’ve seen the original first as I’m sure that it is leaps and bounds better than this remake.

Red Dawn is okay.  Not great, not terrible, but just okay.  It doesn’t aspire to be more than its paper-thin plot allows it to be.  For some reason, North Korea decides to invade the United States with some Soviet help.  That’s literally all we get.  Oh, and they used some form of an EMP that only knocked out our electronics and not theirs.  This lack of knowledge sort of makes sense, considering our rag-tag group of teenage and twenty-something rebels are living in the woods with little communication with the outside world, but that doesn’t make up for a lack of any reasoning or rationale on the North Koreans’ part.  The entire film is essentially just a series of small action set pieces interrupted by training montages…and none of it is particularly interesting or engaging.

The acting is a pretty mixed bag – there are some great people trying to do something worthwhile amidst a crowd of mediocrity.  Chris Hemsworth (pre-Thor) really tries to make something out of his role and is the only real highlight for me.  Adrianne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson (pre-Hunger Games), Isabel Lucas, and Josh Peck don’t really bring much to their roles outside of shooting at some North Koreans and running around.  Despite all of this mediocrity, I will say that the final action set-piece of Red Dawn was incredibly entertaining, if not altogether unbelievable (literally – I don’t believe they could’ve pulled it off), and was probably my favorite scene in the film.

Anyone planning on checking out Red Dawn probably already knows what they’re getting themselves into.  If they don’t, then they’re in for a fairly mediocre-to-poor action film with a thinner plot than the first Expendables film.  I would say wait for this on Blu-ray...then rent it for $1 at RedBox.

Red Dawn is a poor-to-mediocre action film that really isn’t worth your time.

The Bearded Bullet.

Lincoln Review

I have been following Lincoln for too many years to remember…even back when Liam Neeson was set to play the titular president.  My excitement for the film built over these years, but perhaps lead to a bit of over-anticipation on my part.  After waiting so long I was ultimately left feeling cold, with incredibly mixed feelings about the final product.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I wasn’t watching Daniel Day-Lewis, I was actually watching Abraham Lincoln himself.  Somehow, Spielberg built a time machine and went back and got him for this film.  Day-Lewis wholly embodies the character (he was apparently going method with this one) and seemingly becomes the President.  His portrayal gives us a glimpse into the great orator that Lincoln truly was.  Several times throughout the film Lincoln stops to tell a story to a group of people.  They’re incredibly funny (as is quite a bit more of the film than I anticipated) and usually poignant to what is actually happening in the film or to add some levity.  These moments may come across as a bit cheesy but I absolutely loved every single one of them.  I was just in awe of Day-Lewis and his mastery of the art of acting.  Please, just don’t even nominate anyone else and just this guy the Oscar.

Right up there with Day-Lewis is the fantastic Tommy Lee Jones.  Jones deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Thaddeus Stevens.  His role isn’t quite a flashy as Day-Lewis, but he plays Stevens with a quiet reserve that boils over when it needs to.  Most of the rest of the cast puts in fine turns: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward and Jackie Earle Haley (with what little screen time he actually has) as Alexander Stephens.

On the other end of the spectrum you have Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  Now, I fully understand that Mary wasn’t necessarily the most sane person in the world and that she had some mental issues, but I can’t help but feel that Field is just a bit over-the-top with her portrayal.  Every time she came on screen I just wanted her to edited out and let Day-Lewis just talk to nothing.  I absolutely love Lee Pace, the pie maker from the ill-fated Pushing Daisies, but in this film he’s a bit of a one-note bad guy who likes to yell all the time.  Same goes for Jared Harris; I adored him in Mad Men and in his smaller roles like in Benjamin Button, but here is was quite evident that he was trying his hardest to not speak in his native accent.  It just seemed painfully evident that he was straining to maintain his American accent for the few scenes he was actually in.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting going into a film called Lincoln.  For some reason I was hoping for something a little closer to War Horse in terms of actual military action – Horse is a drama through-and-through, but there a few scenes of warfare that are gripping and just fantastic.  Lincoln, on the other hand, features one scene of combat that I can recall and it lasted for all of thirty seconds.  This isn’t a story about the war itself, but about the passing of the 13th Amendment – to abolish slavery.  The entire run-time is devoted to Lincoln’s pursuit of this Amendment and the back-door dealings and dirty politics being played to support its passage.

After I came to accept what I wouldn’t be getting from Lincoln, I settled in and began to appreciate the story unfolding before me.  Some levity is introduced with  the characters W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes), who conduct the President’s dirty dealings for him with their pursuit of nabbing Democratic votes to help pass the amendment.  And despite knowing how the scene was going to play out, the actual voting on the Amendment is one of the more gripping and intense scenes of the year…and it’s just one man reading names and hearing how they voted.

One story thread that could’ve been excised wholly was Robert Lincoln (Levitt) wanting to enlist in the army.  Abe is fully against this and rebuffs his son’s attempts to persuade him several times until he storms off after a fight the two have.  The next time we see Robert, he’s with Harris’ General Grant.  His character and the plot line didn’t add that much to the film, besides showing us that Lincoln held the abolition of slavery over ending the war.  That idea was harped upon enough in the film that we didn’t need this blatant attempt to shove it down our throats even more.

I also take umbrage with the film’s final moments.  Probably 100% of Americans know that Abe was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while enjoying a play.  Lincoln decides to show us his son, Tad, hearing the news of his father’s assassination attempt at a different theater.  We are then shown Abe dying amongst his friends and supporters, fading into a speech to wrap up the film.  This felt somewhat jarring and unnecessary.  We all know how this story ends – Spielberg didn’t need to actually show us.  There is a scene just before we see his son’s reaction that would’ve been absolutely perfect to end on.  Abe is walking down a hallway in the White House after leaving a post-Amendment-win discussion.  We all know where he’s going; there was a bit of dialogue about Mary being upset when he’s late for things.  It would’ve been perfect to fade from him walking down the hallway to the final speech at the end.  Showing his son’s reaction and then his subsequent death seemed utterly unnecessary.

I’m not quite sure I can fully pinpoint why Lincoln didn’t resonate with me.  I just felt cold; like I was being kept at a distance during the entire film.  Individual parts drew me in and blew my mind (namely Day-Lewis’ performance) and the film as a whole just didn’t gel for me.  Perhaps upon repeat viewings, having thrown away previous expectations, I can appreciate this latest Spielbergian effort.  In the meantime I’ll just go back to War Horse..

Lincoln is an incredibly well-made and-acted period drama that ultimately left me wanting.

The Bearded Bullet.

Killing Them Softly Review

I was quite excited for Killing Them Softly.  I enjoyed Andrew Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James, and Brad Pitt is just fantastic in everything he’s in.  The trailers and marketing made this film seem like a heist-gone-wrong type of film.  On the surface, I suppose that’s what Softly is about, but at its core, the film is about how American crime is similar to big American businesses and how these criminals aren’t equal to one another, just as American citizens really aren’t that equal to one another.

I really wanted to like this film.  The major issue is that the political overtones and messages are hammered into us repeatedly.  Every other scene has a radio or TV playing in the background with some politician (usually Barack Obama) pontificating about America and how we’re part of one community.  One of the first shots of the film prominently features an Obama vs. McCain billboard for the 2008 election.  The final scene of the film has two characters openly discussing the political message being broadcast on the TV.  It’s just too much.  I have no problem with a film having a deeper message than what it seems, but Softly desperately wants to you “get” what it’s going for…and they go about it a little too bluntly for my taste.

This may just be a personal problem, but I was wholly confused for most of the run-time with respect to character’s names and who people were.  This is a film where title cards with character’s names on them would’ve helped when someone new was introduced.  People are throwing around names like we’ve known them for years.  When a scene of dialogue between two characters lasts for five-to-ten minutes (which happens often in this film) and is about a third character, of which I don’t know the identity, things get confusing fairly quickly.  Dillon (Sam Shephard) is mentioned quite frequently throughout the film as a big-time hit-man and I had literally no idea who this person was.  A post-film discussion with another patron (I saw the film with a friend who was equally confused as I was) lead to my finally understanding who this faceless person was…and it turns out they were in one scene, with fewer than two minutes of screen time.  Incredibly frustrating!

Softly does have some good stuff hidden underneath the political overtones.  Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini are simply fantastic in their respective hit-man roles.  Pitt’s Jackie is the younger, less jaded of the two, while Gandolfini’s Mickey has been around this business too long and seems to be constantly drunk and disillusioned.

The opening scene of the film is quite a jarring and unpleasant experience and perhaps mirrors some of the themes at play, especially with Jackie’s penchant for “killing them softly, from a distance;” he doesn’t like to get up close where emotions come to play and his job becomes unpleasant.  After a while I warmed up to the style of Softly and grew to love and appreciate the incredibly long scenes of dialogue, some shot in one take.  Gandolfini only has two scenes, both with Jackie, and the dialogue is incredibly fantastic and engaging.  Besides these two moments, three other scenes stick with me and will probably end up being some of my favorite of the year: an insanely intense card-game heist, a phenomenal slow-motion assassination, and a brutal, visceral beating that Ray Liotta’s character receives midway through the film.  See?  I actually liked something!

At the end of the day, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Killing Them Softly.  Even if you’re a fan of American crime films a la The Departed or American Gangster you’ll probably end up being bored and confused for much of the film.  It may just be me, but I don’t think I’m in the minority on this one.  There are some moments of brilliance that shine through in the end, but the film as a whole is a little oversaturated in political themes that would’ve been better off left in the background.

Killing Them Softly is an incredibly flawed crime drama with a few redeeming qualities.

The Bearded Bullet