Monday, December 29, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: The Hobbit

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Combo Pack)

4.0 out of 5 stars The Battle of Six Films, December 29, 2014

We've finally come to the end we've all been waiting for, the one section of The Hobbit novel that really did merit a movie, "The Battle of Five Armies." It's all come down to this: Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) seeks revenge for the theft of his treasure by attacking the townsfolk of Laketown. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), incumbent king of the dwarves, succumbs to dragon sickness. And Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) uses the Arkenstone, the crowning jewel of the dwarves, as a bargaining chip between the elves, dwarves, and men. A dark army is coming to take the dwarven stronghold, and if the free peoples are to survive they will need to put aside their petty grievances and work together. If there was ever a time and place for a spectacle on the big screen, "The Battle of Five Armies" is it.

Smaug, who was the best part of the second film (SPOILER ALERT) meets his end in this one. It feels a bit anticlimactic. Smaug could have just as easily succumbed at the end of the second film, leaving it a more satisfying chapter. But the showdown between Bard (Luke Evans) and Smaug is thrilling nonetheless as Peter Jackson contrasts family values against that of the rapacious greed.

In stark relief is the real and petty grievances that move the various factions to war. Be it Tauriel's (Evangeline Lilly, an elf in real life) love for Kili (Aidan Turner), Legolas Greenleaf's (Orlando Bloom) rebellion against his king Thranduil (Lee Pace), or Gandalf's (Ian McKellen) attempts to convince mortals of the true threat of Sauron, the familiar characters in this prequel to the "Lord of the Rings" films all make an appearance. We witness the terrifying might of Galadriel glimpsed in the later film, Elrond wield a sword, and even Saruman kicks some Nazgul butt. It's a joy to watch these powerful beings who stood around giving advice in the later movies really cut loose in this one.

There are also visual flourishes that tie all the films together. The more humanoid trolls from the first film stand beside the larger trolls of the "Lord of the Rings." Goblins and orcs work together. Legolas, Tauriel, and even Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) show up to do battle. We even get an explanation for what a were-worm is. Purists may be disappointed by how much Jackson veers from the original story, but the choices made to bolster the narrative are easy to forgive.

There are two scenes where the film drags, both of them involving a character's mental state. There's also the awful Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who is a lot like Grima Wormtongue but with no character development and played for laughs. He's not funny, but it's clear Jackson felt that the tone of the film was so grim it had to be lightened by a cowardly buffoon.

The one character who has little to do in this third chapter is the titular Hobbit himself, Bilbo. J.R.R. Tolkien's narrative didn't thrust hobbits into war until The Lord of the Rings, so Bilbo sits most of the battle out. His actions have far-reaching effects on the war itself, but mostly Bilbo's there to show how incorruptible hobbits really are. Unlike his dwarven compatriots, Bilbo finds no lure in dragon gold.

"The Battle of Five Armies" isn't perfect, but it's a fitting finale to a six-part franchise. The real test will be in years to come when future Middle Earth fans view the films collectively. Will we watch them in chronological order? I look forward to finding out.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Snowpiercer [Blu-ray]

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Snowpiercer [Blu-ray] Blu-ray ~ Chris Evans

4.0 out of 5 stars Train to nowhere, December 7, 2014

This review is from: Snowpiercer [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

"Snowpiercer" is one of those sci-fi films that has a seemingly simple premise rife with symbolism. It doesn't really hold up under prolonged examination, but then "Snowpiercer" is more parable than movie.

To wit, global warming has frozen the earth, accelerated by the very attempts to halt it. The last of humanity is huddled on a massive, perpetual-motion train known as the Snowpiercer. But even in this closed ecosystem the old class struggles erupt, from the have-nots in the back to the hedonists in the front. Finally fed up with the inhumane treatment and kidnapping of their youngest children, a ragtag band of rebels decide they're going to fight their way to the front of the train and take it over. They include the reluctant leader Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), his gee-whiz second Edgar (Jamie Bell), determined mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer), security specialist and drug addict Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung).

The battle takes place car-by-car, one bloody guard at a time. Because director Bong Joon-ho is primarily interested in cinematography, logic holes open up a few cars in. Characters stand around in enemy territory (basically, any car beyond the back few) in slack-jawed awe, villains survive who should be dead, and twists are telegraphed with all the subtlety of a freight train. This is one of those films that's big on concept and short on logic.

The biggest problem is that after being betrayed by "civilians" who appeared innocent in the very first upper-class car they encounter, our heroes never learn from that lesson -- they act as if what's behind them is never a threat, only what's ahead of them, despite the fact that they leave an entire train's worth of potential enemies behind them. Of course, to do that would rob the film of its forward narrative -- it would turn into a siege rather than a desperate battle of forward attrition -- so director Joon-ho just plunges ahead and hopes you forgive him.

The logic fallacies are easy to forgive. What's on film is frequently gorgeous, brutal, and inventive. The snaking nature of a train surrounded by a hostile environment opens up a lot of possibilities for protracted combat. The conclusion is rife with symbolism of clenched fists -- the fist of the worker, the fist of the slave, the fist of the oppressor. It just takes a long, winding path to get there, punctuated by weird choices by characters who frequently appear insane. To be fair, there's a toss-off line that the only people who are still alive on the train ARE insane, but that's a bit of a dodge that robs the entire struggle of its urgency.

In the end, "Snowpiercer" doesn't have a lot of nice things to say about humanity. This is one of those movies film critics love to applaud for its edginess. It's a highly ambitious concept film that only partially succeeds. But what it does achieve is still worth watching.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Exam

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Exam DVD ~ Luke Mably

4.0 out of 5 stars A Modern 'No Exit', December 3, 2014

This review is from: Exam (DVD)

"The Exam" is a minimalist single-room film that could easily be a one-act play. When one of the characters name-checks Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, we know where this is going. For those not familiar with Sartre's play, three characters show up in the afterlife expecting to be tortured in hell, only to discover that they are stuck in a room with each other. Hell, they eventually conclude, is other people. Director Stuart Hazeldine flips the script: Hell may be other people, but it's the path to Heaven.

Instead of three characters we have eight. They are there to take a test in what can only be described as the world's worst job interview. It starts with some terse instructions from the Invigilator (Colin Salmon) about the rules: 80 minutes, one question, and they are not to talk to the Invigilator (watching on security cameras), the armed guard, spoil their paper, or leave the room. To break any of the rules is to be immediately disqualified and tossed out into the real world, which from the dialogue of the interviewees appears to be an awful place suffering from a pandemic.

The film breaks the characters down, "Reservoir Dogs"-style, into archetypes by color. There's the unctuous soldier/gambler Brown (Jimi Mistry), the icy Blonde (Nathalie Cox), the noble Black (Chukwudi Iwuji), the scheming Brunette (Polyanna McIntosh), the analytical Dark (Adar Beck), the hyper-aggressive alpha male White (Luke Mably), and the unresponsive Deaf (John Lloyd Fillingham). There's a ninth character, the guard (Chris Carey) who is perhaps more important than all of them. He takes the role of the bellhop in No Exit, a mannequin that seemingly has no purpose but is as much a part of the room as the furniture.

Nothing in "The Exam" is an accident. Every item on screen is relevant. Like No Exit, there's a paper knife equivalent that is presumably there for some other purpose but, because of humanity's basest instincts, is ultimately used for violence. "The Exam" spins conspiracy theories with glee and allows its interviewees to dive down the rabbit hole. There's nothing on the sheet, so how do you beat the exam? Does winning constitute beating the abstract concept of the exam itself, or just defeating all the competitors? Do you even have to? Is there even an exam?

"The Exam" is as much nightmare as it is scathing critique of the business world as its cutthroat worst. Or at least, that's how it seems until the very end, when it becomes clear that this is all for a more noble purpose. It is a "harrowing of hell" that has a more complete (if less existentialist) ending than Sartre's work. And that's okay. As a sci-fi film in just one room, it manages to spin more drama out of 80 minutes and eight people than most big-budget movies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Big Hero 6

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Big Hero 6 Amazon Instant Video ~ Scott Adsit

5.0 out of 5 stars Science is the real hero, December 1, 2014

This review is from: Big Hero 6 (Amazon Instant Video)

My family is well-acquainted with the Man of Action team of writers from their work on the Generator Rex, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Marvel's Avengers Assemble cartoons, so we were excited to see their movie debut with "Big Hero 6." My seven-year-old boy was not disappointed.

That said, the film isn't quite about what you might think from the trailers. It's not so much "a boy and his robot" as it is "a boy helps form a super-science hero team, one of which happens to be a robot." "Big Hero 6" doesn't refer to a person, it refers to the team of six heroes, all of them powered by cutting-edge sci-fi technology. One of the powerful and welcome messages that comes through in this film is that the pursuit of science is important, but it is only as good or bad as the person wielding it.

Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 13-year-old robotics genius who lives with his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Hiro is fond of engaging in illegal robot fighting to earn some money, which Tadashi recognizes is the wrong path for a prodigy like his little brother. He encourages Hiro to apply to the robotics lab at Tadashi's university, where the entrance exam is determined by a science competition. Hiro enters his nanobots.

Nanobots are game-changers and the power Hiro demonstrates is both breathtaking and terrifying. It's not long before a fire breaks out at the competition, a tragedy that results in the loss of the nanobots. Hiro mopes about, listless, until he accidentally stumbles upon Tadashi's crowning achievement: Baymax, an inflatable medical robot dedicated to helping people. You can see where this is going, right?

Hiro slowly unravels the mystery behind the fire -- BIG SPOILER 6! It was no accident -- and creates a team of superheroes by retrofitting Baymax and drawing on the collective genius of Tadashi's colleagues. There's Fed (T.J. Miller) the stoner who likes kaiju movies with a fire-breathing suit to match; Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung) who uses electromagnetic wheels as skates and weapons; Wasabi (Damon Wayans) who wields laser cutters on his forearms; and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) who has a purse-full of sticky goo bombs.

The heart of the movie revolves around Baymax. He is a soft, huggable helper spawned from the ideals of Tadashi -- but his armor and weapons are all Hiro's youthful rage. Baymax waffles between these two ideologies throughout the film, but it's ultimately Hiro's choice to be a hero.

The superhero tropes don't always make sense (Wasabi's laser hands seem like the worst power) but it's easy to overlook in light of the beautifully rendered, diverse futurescape that is San Fransokyo. It also features a kid who overcomes his challenges with science. My son gave it five stars.