The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012) **** (A)
So it's probably best at the start to admit that I'm not capable of approaching this objectively, given how hard I managed to nerd out on Tolkien in my early formative years (thinking 8-14 here), and how utterly successful Jackson was from 2001-2003 at realizing on screen most of what drew me to the material. So, though I can totally see what people are talking about when they find Jackson's hobbity films overstuffed, overlong, over-portentous, far too interested in fiddling around with extraneous junk and singing dwarves, I just can't feel it. See, that's the stuff I really love. Is this a four-star movie to me if I hadn't read the novels with near psychotic obsession in the mid eighties? Maybe. Probably not. But I did, and so they are. If you disagree with me, just indulge me my blind spot. The point of Tolkien is losing yourself in a world, and, for better or worse, that's what Jackson does. I don't know if Jackson 'gets' Tolkien, but he certainly 'gets' him in exactly the way I always did as a kid, and I guess I can't ever fault him for that. I think it's safe to say that whatever you thought of the LOTR movies is exactly how you'll feel about this.
THE HOBBIT is an odd duck, in that most film adaptations disappoint because they leave out the reader's favorite bits from the novel, but Part 1 of this series puts in bits that never made the novel. Most of this isn't Jackson's invention. Because of the Tolkien's copious notes and appendices, there's a lot of information surrounding the text of what was basically a children's novel, giving Jackson a wealth of extra lore upon which to draw. Much of this apocryphal source material lends added epic meaning to the narrative that is otherwise lost. I was fairly skeptical about the plans to turn a thin book into a trilogy, but if they're taking it in this direction, I think I can live with it. I'm guessing that the next installment will, for example, show us exactly why Gandalf decides to abandon Bilbo Bag-Of-Donuts and the Sunshine Band right before they're about to enter the most dangerous place in all of Middle Earth, which is more than the novel ever did.
There are, of course, some key Jackson 'value-adds', most in the areas of enhanced action (a massive Gandalf & Dwarves vs. All The Goblins) and character design (the Great Goblin should get that goiter under a CAT scan, stat), which are arguably unnecessary but probably valuable when it comes to translating page to Big Goddam Action Movie.
As always with Tolkien by way of Jackson, the primary characters are well-cast and well-acted. Freeman is a fine choice to play the fussy little man with a spine of steel. Andy Serkis shows up near the end, reprising Gollum, once again the character with the most depth and pathos. Ian McKellen is Gandalf like a mahfah, which is officially a good thing. Only about six of the thirteen dwarves register as recognizable characters, but since this count bests Tolkien by about two dwarves, it's better not to fuss. Balin in particular is well-realized, but Bifur scores some surprise points, even if he is overshadowed by his own hat. (Speaking of dwarf fashion, now that I think of it, I think there is a "Dwarf or Hipster?" online quiz that needs to be made.)
Note: This movie features a man with a lot of bird poop in his hair. A LOT of bird poop. It's worth mentioning.
Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) ***1/2 (A-)
LOOPER makes such effective and startling uses of time-travel possibilities that it ultimately doesn't matter (or at least it doesn't matter much) that the mechanic doesn't make much sense. Example: during the "missing fingers" sequence, it probably doesn't follow that slicing parts off of young Seth would cause those parts to disappear off of old Seth, since at a certain point (probably after the first finger) it's unlikely that the vivisected version of young Seth would still be somebody who would try to run in the first place, and certainly if the finger trick works, then simply killing young Seth would simply make their problem-fugitive disappear (which, in fact, we later discover is the case). And I don't care a bit, because HOLY SHIT was that scene an effective little horror set-piece. Nor does it probably follow that Abe (a fantastically schlubby Jeff Daniels) would care about preserving the timeline in little ways represented by unclosed loops, given that he's effectively running an organized crime syndicate that probably didn't occur until he came from the future and started it (though it occurs me that, despite the fact there's nothing in the 'text' of the movie making this explicit, you could probably craft a fan-theory that the real reason the Rainmaker started closing the loops was so that action hero Bruce Willis would come back and shut down Abe's operation, which MUST be screwing things up down the line). And . . . well. It goes on.
Johnson effectively hand waves the quantum inconsistencies (a character even dismisses such discussions as just "making diagrams with straws") by framing it mainly as a way to set up its nested Russian dolls of existential hypotheticals. It's only in the final moments that you realize the central importance of the early scenes showing the future's desperate economic disparity, and the way they play into questions of social accountability, personal selfishness, and the futility of burning the future to try to make the present a little brighter. Typically with a movie with these genre elements the pleasure is in watching the temporal plot elements fall into place with a satisfying click (think 12 MONKEYS). With this one, it's not the plot: the pleasure is in watching the themes play the same trick.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007) ** (C)
Totally adequate screen adaptation that basically suffers from having as source material a 900-page novel and a fan base that wants to see all of it. It's inevitable that the whole thing seems both overstuffed and over-rushed. Really, in the post-SOPRANOS world of LOST and BREAKING BAD, etc., these sorts of properties would probably be best served by seven seasons of 8-10 episodes each. Even that wouldn't change the fact that this is one of the weaker storylines, with Darth Voldemort after a MacGuffin of little real weight, plot-wise, and a conflict that essentially boils down to bad press for Harry (dour) and Dumbledore (distant). The production quality is gloomy but evocative, and there are the usual murderers row of Britain's finest thespians (Smith, Rickman, Gleeson, Fines, etc., etc., etc.) keeping things professional, but the movie only pops when pure unctuous evil Delores Umbrage trots on screen (Imelda Staunton does fine work bringing Rowling's most horrible character to life), all pink self-satisfied sadism and giggles, and a short but intense duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore that actually for the first time (in book or film) made wizarding duels seem more awe-inspiring than silly to me.
Quiddich is a ridiculous sport. There is mercifully no Quiddich in this movie; nevertheless it needs to be said.
The Artist (Hazanavicious, 2011) **1/2 (B-)
Inch wide and inch deep, THE ARTIST manages to be enjoyable and pretty as pertains to whatever is on screen at that moment, and that's about it. Commenting variously on old Hollywood, the rise of the talkies, the displacement of classic silent stars, it tries but never quite manages to find anything trenchant to say about them (the plot does superficially conjure SINGING IN THE RAIN, which...is not the best movie to put in people's heads, comparison-wise, particularly if you're going climax with a big dance number). Neither does it create characters that seem like more than placeholders for ideas. Dujardin is, you guessed it, 'breezy fun', but he never seems like he's playing somebody psychologically real. That's not a prerequisite for a great performance in a great movie, unless that movie finally decides, as does this one, it wants to be a character study with a suicidal dark night of the soul. Until he gets saved, "Timmy's Trapped Down The Well" style, by the doggie. It's that sort of movie. Upstaged by a pooch and its own pretty surface.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron, 2003) *** (B+)
Without question the most enjoyable of the series I've seen so far (I've watched the first five), largely based on a hugely improved art design and overall aesthetic. Hogwarts at last seems tangibly real instead of a place that was generated in an XBox 360, which makes a huge difference when you're trying to suspend your disbelief and enter a magical world of twee British magic. Also, I suspect, my positive reaction to this movie was the result of my desperate relief at being released, hostage-style, from two consecutive Christopher Columbus films that I watched on purpose – Columbus-to-Cuarón may represent the single biggest directorial upshift in franchise movie history, and part of me wishes that he'd stuck with the series a bit longer, but then again, he had to go make CHILDREN OF MEN, so I suppose it's important to keep things in perspective. The principals are noticeably more seasoned performers their third time out, Maggie Smith is doing Maggie Smith things, Alan Rickman is doing Alan Rickman things, Michael Gambon is a superior Dumbledore to Richard Harris, if only because Gambon captures the character's playfulness, and also wasn't 96% dead during filming (too soon?). It's just not debatable that this one of the stronger books in the series, which helps. It's a happy confluence of good material meeting strong collaborators to make a rare thing: a big franchise tent-pole movie that has rewachability.
Quiddich is a ridiculous sport. That's not part of this review, but I really need to say it.
Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) *** (B)
This movie is cute when it's not trying to be cute, and clever when it's not trying to be clever, and neither when it's trying to be either. Perhaps it's like a teenager in that way; in any event, somewhere in the rather difficult-to-swallow ersatz urban dictionary Diablo Cody cooks up, some genuine and surprising character moments can be found. I particularly found myself intrigued by Jason Bateman's adopting husband, who plays the sort of creep that is immediately believable but not usually portrayed in movies – or at least his brand of arrested-development (shout-out!) solipsism is usually played for laughs rather than understood as creepy. Ellen Page was rightly praised for finding the fear that obviously would be lurking behind Juno's no-nonsense exterior without signposting it. Simmons and Janney are also stand-outs as the parents: concerned, engaged, supportive, but not consumed only with the concerns of their kid. The film economically suggests for them lives outside of the 'parent' role and a sort of believable detachment that you see in some real-life parents (good and bad) but not usually in movie parents.
Still, that dialogue tries way too hard, and it's to the movie's detriment. Otherwise-believable people should be given believable things to say. Poor Rainn WIlson's opening "that's one doodle that can't be undid, home-skillet" scene is excruciating, and I don't think it's entirely his fault, because I can't imagine any actor being able to take those words and make them sound as if a human being would say it. That said, his caffeinated precision is exactly what the scene didn't need. (The Coens can get away with this sort of linguistic enhancement from colorful weirdos, but they are wizards.) It takes a while for this movie to recover from such contrivance. It's to its credit that it ultimately does.