Friday, January 4, 2013

The Hobbit (2012)

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy was not perfect-- it was disappointing when Faramir went through that weird evil phase or when the hobbits did not get their moment of bravery in the end, but LOTR is tricky source material. Tom Bombadil hey-derry-dolling through the Old Forest would've raised eyebrows among Tolkien novitiates. What is important is that PJ's vision and devotion to the books was true and that's what makes the trilogy eminently rewatchable (I am one of those rabid fans that rewatches it annually). So you can imagine how excited I was when there was talk about making The Hobbit into a film. I signed the "Let the Hobbit Happen" campaign; I spent hours and hours scouring TOR forums for casting news; I wrote anxious blog posts about the studios' inability to shoot the movie; I must've rewatched the film trailer a few hundred times and yes, in the darkest moments, I doubted PJ's decision to split the book into three movies.

What I am building up to is the fact that I wrote this review before the film was even made, nay, in that moment when the stars were scattered into space. I utterly loved this movie. I am sad that there will be only 3 and I have to prepare to say goodbye to Middle-earth once again. I am also a little surprised that this film only has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Too much space has been wasted on discussing the "nausea-inducing" 48 fps format (who ARE these absurd, endolymphically challenged people anyway?). Was it somewhat jarring? Yes, for about 20 minutes. It is mostly forgotten by the time Bilbo is entertaining his dwarf guests. The way these critics have been carrying on about it, why you'd think it signaled the end of the world! The only thing that makes me less angry is that history does not remember the breast-beating Luddites who rued the end of the cave painting era ("Say what you will, but papyrus just doesn't smell like cave wall").

Among the many complaints about the LOTR films was how little background was given to the sad story of the Elves and minor characters being left out. Peter heard us. This time around, he gave the dwarfs a rich and textured history. We can no longer think of them as blundering, blustering ale-quaffing comic reliefs. We also finally begin to understand why dwarfs and elves mistrust each other.

A lot has also been said about how the Hobbit is only a 200-page book and how three movies cannot possibly made. See, this is why you shouldn't trust the critics. Apart from the fact that the film draws from the LOTR appendices, what people don't realize is that, in the book there are several crucial plot points that are dealt with in less than a paragraph. Take the Necromancer for example: in the book, there is barely any discussion about him even though he is so important to the tale. Can you imagine Gandalf saying, "There's a Necromancer who has never been mentioned that I have to go defeat or something. Okay toodles have fun on your quest! Try not to get killed!" In a good book you can say, "He was evil and everybody was afraid of him." In a good movie, you have to show it without saying it.

Is it a detailed and faithful adaptation? Yes. Is it overlong and plodding? Hell no! And I don't just say this as a Tolkien fan: the movie was well paced with several exciting battles and meditative scenes which raised this film above "action flick" status. The Goblin Town escape and the rock giant scenes were superb (and looked much better in HFR format, might I add). And Andy Serkis had better be nominated for his heartrending portrayal of Gollum. I realized that I had never really understood the line "But mercy stayed Bilbo's hand," till I found myself crying in the cinema hall.

few liberties have been taken (the grave of the Witch-King and Azog, for example) but these only served to make the plot more cohesive. In fact, the film-makers' eye for detail was obvious by how well they tied the LOTR films with this movie. The best part was how this film was barely about Bilbo and rightly so, because Bilbo takes some time to fit into his role as burglar/hero.  And Thorin! What a glorious heroic dwarf! Never even in my wildest dreams did I think that some day I'd have wild dreams about Thorin. True, Thorin and Co's avarice has been slightly downplayed; their intention to return to Erebor has been made more noble but if one reads The Hobbit, one does not get a complete sense of how revered Thorin was among the dwarfs. He's not a very pleasant character; Tolkien merely refers to him as "decent folk", "arrogant" and of "Durin's line" and we never understand what that means till the end of the book. It is in LOTR that we understand Thorin's sad history so I am thankful to PJ for treating these characters with so much respect.

My only concerns are that the dwarf Rings ought to have been mentioned by now and Balin as the Venerable Voice of Wisdom, seeing as Balin was the foolhardy dwarf who rushed off to reconquer Moria with a laughably small army a few decades later. Then again, people change and there are two whole movies left so I'll save my questions for the end of the class.

I can see why some have said that this film is inaccessible to non-fans. Gondolin blades are bandied about without telling us what Gondolin is; we aren't told why it is shocking that Belladonna Took's son should good-morning Gandalf. But these little things are meant for the enjoyment of fans and do not materially affect the understanding of the plot. It is possible that the reduced plot exposition may have left some moviegoers puzzled but I don't care because PJ made this film for me. If people refuse to improve their lives by reading Tolkien's books, they don't deserve this film.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

RWB's Top Ten Films of 2012 (And Then Some)

That's right folks, it's that time of the year when RWB furiously researched IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes and tries to sound knowledgeable about movies!

2012 was a very busy year for me and I did not watch all the movies I wanted to. It was also a pretty unremarkable year in film. All the big well-advertised films did as expected, but there were such few films where you went in not knowing what to expect and came out as a different person. Still, there were plenty that thrilled. We've linked to the reviews that we wrote so you can read them again:


1. Cloud Altas: The best book adaptation of all time, and quite possibly one of my new all time favourites, there are so many reasons to love this movie. It is ambitious on a level that few films today are - whether it be in the manner in which it plays with narrative, toys with language,  or attempts to cast the same actors across six roles in six timelines and then somehow forge a connection between them. Most daring of all though, is the way it keeps its uncynical heart on its sleeve, culminating in a climax that is almost unbearingly moving. Once again, Cloud Altas is what I go to the movies for.

2. Kahaani: Satisfying in a way that few mystery thrillers are any more. A great, labyrinthine plot is aided by a constantly menacing sense of atmosphere and that fierce central performance by Vidya Balan. Throw in one of the great all-time Bollywood villains and that fantastic plot twist, and Kahaani rockets its way to cinematic greatness.

3. Damsels in Distress: If the first two movies on this list can list narrative strength as their USP, Damsels in Distress coasts by with barely a plot at all. A new girl is befriended by three strong willed women at a college. Their project: save people, and volunteer at the suicide prevention centre. Their chosen method: tap dancing, and at some point, inventing a new international dance craze. From this premise, the film just sort of coasts. But it coasts with dialogue worthy of early Woody Allen, a cast that is utterly charming and a sense of such joyous quirk that I couldn't help but grin through all of it. A trifle, but a great one.

4.  Eega: When I first saw the trailer, I knew I had to watch this movie, simply for how ridiculous the premise looked. I mean come on, guy loves girl, gets killed by another guy, is reincarnated as a fly, and exacts revenge. Also, the film was in Telegu, without subtitles, but who needed plot when all we were going to do was laugh at its inanity? Instead, turns out that Eega was one of the most inventive, witty and thrilling movies of the year, one that somehow managed to make an endearing, expressive character out of a computer generated fly and gave us a satisfyingly bloody revenge saga.

5. Chronicle: If you thought the found footage genre was done to death - and I know I did - along came this movie about three teenagers gaining telekinetic abilities that blew me away. What elevates the thrilling script is the manner in which the direction actually elevates the visual effects - as a critic noted, this movie somehow made special effects feel special again. The best example of this is a mid film sequence where a plane whizzes by our airborne heroes accompanied by the squeal of the audience.

6. Keep the Lights On: Amongst the best gay cinema I've seen in a while, the movie follows the course of a relationship that's marred superficially by alcohol dependence, but is really struggling with the larger problems of an emotional incompatibility. Dropping in on a couple at different moments of their slowly fraying relationship, there is a searingly powerful quality to the way the movie captures the growth and loss of intimacy between two men. It's the kind of gay cinema we need now, one that moves beyond a pre-occupation with questions about coming out or even homosexuality as such, but also stops short of simply inserting two gay men into a heterosexual story.

7. Ruby Sparks: What would you do if you wrote about the person of your dreams - and they came to life? Made by the people who brought us Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks starts with this interesting enough premise and then turns it into a fascinating exploration of what it means for us to even try to seek that perfect person. Its helped along by a typically low key performance by Paul Dano, and the refusal of the script to give us any easy answers.

8. English Vinglish: Sure its predictable, but it doesn't prevent this movie from being utterly charming. Anchored by a great performance by Sridevi, but also aided by the underrated and really quite fantastic ensemble, English Vinglish is a heartwarming winner.

9. Life of Pi: If Life of Pi had somehow just been about that middle hour in the sea, it would've easily made it to my top 3. These are visually stunning and viscerally terrifying sequences, aided by Ang Lee's excellent dialogue-less direction for the greater part of the hour. What isn't all that great is the faux-spirituality that opens and closes the movie, the ham-handed "Is there a God?" existentialism that we're essentially force fed, the often clunky dialogue writing. They rob a hypnotic movie of some of its power. Thank god (ha) for Richard Parker then.

10. Skyfall and  Cabin in the Woods: Two "genre" movies make my final cut, in part because they're sneakily not genre movies at all. Skyfall starts off as your typical Bond movie, but then takes a surprisingly moving detour into becoming a deconstruction of the role of intelligence agencies in general, and this man in particular. Judi Dench's M gets an extended role becoming the movie's Bond girl in a way, and the visuals - ranging from a laser light drenched silhouetted fight, to a bleak orange-fire burnished landscape finale - are stunning.

Cabin in the Woods is one of the best horror movies I've seen, mostly because it also manages to take a detour into becoming a question about why we indulge in a genre at all. With a crackling script by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods deconstructs and scares in equal measure. It also has a murderous unicorn, which single-handedly (single-horndedly?) earns it its place.

Other Mentions:

Best Movie I watched this year that wasn't released in 2012: Chungking Express

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: The Dark Knight Rises

Most Rewatched Movie of the Year: Pitch Perfect (Glee with acapella, whee!)

Best first-half that is unable to sustain itself: Prometheus

Most purely entertaining movie of the Year, that I can't objectively call "good": Aiyyaa

Worst Movie of the Year: Dark Shadows, tied with the thankfully little-seen The Tall Man

Not seen at the time of writing but would possibly make it to this list: Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty)


10. The Dark Knight RisesNever has the weak, maskless alter ego been so brutally examined in the superhero genre. While some did not think of it as a worthy successor to The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises was a fitting conclusion to Nolan's superb Batman trilogy with fantastic performances by Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard. Besides, we have this series to thank for the upcoming gritty, red underwearless Superman film.

9. Gangs of Wasseypur:  At once a hilarious take on cinema's effect on the Indian masses and a documentary of India's dark coal legacy and the dramatic tale of a family and a film that required one to carry a slang dictionary, Gangs of Wasseypur was easily one of the best Indian films this year with scintillating dialogue pulled off with ease by actors like Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the well-chosen supporting actors.

8. Looper:  Of all the things one could possibly use time travel for, trust futuristic crime gangs to use it to send their victims back in time to be murdered and disposed off. Like any good time travel film, Looper kept you on the edge of your seat and had a climax that you never saw coming. Of course it had a few loopholes but nitpicking is so passé.

7. Lincoln:  I don't mind admitting that despite its heavy-handed editing of historical events and unnecessarily dramatic courtroom scenes,Steven Spielberg's Amistad is one of my all-time favourite films. Spielberg returns to what he does best with this biopic of Abraham Lincoln's final days. Daniel Day-Lewis is precise as ever, with his deliberate speech and ability to fascinate and irritate audience with the neverending anecdotes and quotes. It's films like these that make you want to beseech god to bless America.

6. Life of Pi:  It's a common complaint that since Avatar, few films have truly captured the magnificence of 3D. Life of Pi brought the magic back with jaw dropping vistas of oceans, thunderstorms, jelly fish, whales and night skies that will make you believe the film's theist message. The dialogue may have been a bit clunky and overwrought but who's listen when your eyes are treated to such a visual spectacle?

5. Chronicle:  If this is what the superhero genre is going to look like once they run out of comic books, then the genre is in safe hands. Chronicle tells the story of three high school students bestowed with superpowers and will leave you thinking about it for days after.

4. Moonrise Kingdom:  As Wes Andersononian as a Wes Anderson film can get, Moonrise Kingdom was a delight to watch! It was hilarious, funny and touching. Yes, it was what one may call quirky, but not in that contrived Zooey Deschanel way. And Edward Norton had better get a supporting actor nomination for this.

3. Frankenweenie:  Wes Anderson and Tim Burton are two of the most scorned directors today because they happen to love certain motifs. Frankenweenie, a remake of Burton's 1984 film had all the swirls, ghouls and zombies that one expects in a Burton film but did it feel like we had seen it all before? Not in the least. This was Burton's loving tribute to the horror film genre and if anything, reminds us why Burton is still at the top of his game.

2. The Avengers:  Dark and gloomy superheroes with dead parents? No thanks. Give us lots of superheroes, explosions and side-splittingly funny lines with a side of The Hulk. Hurry up with the sequel, Marvel Studios!

1. The Hobbit:  Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth with this superb and faithful adaptation of the book. Initially, I wasn't convinced by the decision to split the book into three parts, but now I can see why it made sense and cant wait for part 2 and 3. While there has been some mixed reviews over the format and the length of the film, it remained true to the Tolkienian ethos and honestly, I don't know why anybody would want to complain about spending 9 gloriously immersive hours in Middle-earth.

Honourable Mentions:

To Rome with Love: A quintessentially Woody script that only suffered from the lack of an overarching theme. 

Skyfall: Gritty Bond is fine, but why did they just film The Dark Knight Rises with guns and Aston Martins?

English Vinglish: An adorable if mildly cliche-ridden film that was was a joy to watch.

Films that are great for a Boring Saturday Night, even if they aren't great films: 

Argo: Look, it was suspenseful and historically accurate and everything, but it is strictly watch on Star Movies at 9 pm stuff.

Men in Black 3Josh Brolin's awesome Tommy Lee impression is reason enough!

Films that could have been great, but lacked a certain je-ne-sais-quoi:

The Amazing Spider Man: It wasn't that it lacked good actors or a solid script, but this film did not manage to justify a remake so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy.

Dark Shadows: Burton sure knows how to weave the macabre with the funny but it lacked that Burton quality that makes us shiver and weep and laugh at the same time.

Film that I loved even though, in my heart of hearts, I know that it was not a very good film: 

John Carter: I've already defended this film like it was my first born, so you can just read it here

Criminal wastes of time and money for everybody concerned:

Snow White and the Huntsman: I dont want to be a part of the Kristen Stewart Hate Wagon, but my god, she's a terrible actor who did her best to commit to a godawful script.

Barfi!I didn't hate it with a vengeance immediately after I watched it. But now that I've seen what 2012 has had to offer, the fact that Barfi was India's official Oscar entry just makes me hate it with a passion.

Have a great 2013, folks! May all your Oscar bets bring you money (unless you differ in opinion from us, of course).