Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total Crap
Just Reviewed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies-December 17th
Just Reviewed Exodus: Gods and Kings-December 12th
Just Reviewed Foxcatcher and Wild-December 5th
Just Reviewed Horrible Bosses 2-November 26th
Just Reviewed The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1-November 21st
Shouldn't those giant eagles count as a sixth army? ***1/2
Okay, let’s start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room. Actually since this is a “Lord of the Rings” movie, let’s start off by acknowledging the Mûmakil in the room. Why was “The Hobbit” spread out over three movies? While we’re on the subject, why was the final “Hunger Games” split up into two movies? Why drag a series on when the story can easily be told in a single outing? Sure, it’s a brilliant method to make a couple extra billion dollars, but can’t art take precedence over money for once? Can we please get Topher Grace to reedit this trilogy into one film like he did with the “Star Wars” prequels? For the love of Sauron!
With that rant out of the way, let me clarify that none of the “Hobbit” movies are bad. “The Battle of the Five Armies” in particular is the trilogies most exciting, most character driven, and most visually stunning effort. Are there still pacing issues? Sure. Would the film have worked better as the final act to a three-hour movie? Definitely. In spite of its faults, though, it’s sad to think that this will likely be the last we see of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson has truly brought one of the great fictional worlds to life and J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation will always offer something worthwhile.
The film opens on a rousing note as Smaug attacks the defenseless Lake-town. Granted, this scene might have worked better as a finale to “The Desolation of Smaug,” but I digress. Once the dragon is out of the way, Thorin and his fellow dwarfs are free to take the Lonely Mountain and claim the Arkenstone. What they don’t realize is that the Bilbo Baggins is secretly hoarding the gem, worrying that Thorin will become consumed by greed. Meanwhile, armies of men and elves gather outside the mountain, wanting their cut of the treasure. While they start off as enemies, the three races are forced to unite when they’re attacked by legions of Goblins and Wargs. From there, “The Battle of the Five Armies” naturally plays out like one extended action sequence.
As we’ve come to expect from this franchise, the action is marvelously choreographed and set against stunning art direction. Every time swordplay starts to become repetitive, Jackson knows when to stop and have a quiet moment between the characters. The standout performance comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin, who walks a fine line between being a great leader like Aragorn or a pathetic addict like Gollum. Bilbo acts as his moral compass of sorts, although he too is at risk of one day being consumed by the ring in his possession. Considering that most dwarfs are often given the comedic relief treatment in fantasy epics, it’s refreshing to see a film that treats one like somebody out of Shakespeare.
To discuss why “The Battle of the Five Armies” doesn’t reach the same heights as the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy would be like beating a dead horse. There are still a lot of characters that serve little purpose, there’s still way too much filler, and, once again, this all could have been one movie. For what we got, however, Peter Jackson delivered a fun return to a wonderful cinematic realm and ends Bilbo’s story on a dignified, humble note.
It's Moses VS. Ramesses and this time it's personal! ***
Even if you didn’t grow up in a Jewish household, everybody knows the story of Moses either from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” or that “Rugrats” Passover special. There have been so many versions over the years that the idea of another feels like overkill. If any living director is going to interpret the Book of Exodus for modern audiences, though, who better than Ridley Scott? Of course it might have been interesting to see Mel Gibson’s take on the tale. As for Scott’s “Exdous: Gods and Kings,” it’s a sometimes astounding and sometimes underwhelming mixed bag.
It seems pointless to discuss the plot seeing how this story is already so well known. Let’s just dive into what works and what doesn’t work. The main reason to see “Exodus” is for the production values. Capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s golden age of epics, the film’s craft makes everything from the pharaoh’s pyramids to the Red Sea feel massive. Even if every action set piece doesn’t hit it out of the park, not a second goes by where you’re not blown away by the movie’s grand scale. While “Exodus” is a terrific film to look at, it doesn’t always resonate with the audience on a spiritual level, especially when it comes to the main character.
Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor and he brings a lot of dignity to the role of Moses. Whenever Bale’s on screen, however, you never really see a prophet or a biblical figure. You see a movie star with a scruffy beard. “Exodus” also puts much more emphasis on Moses the war strategist than Moses the man. That’s not to say Bale’s Moses isn’t without some strong moments of humanity, but his development as a character isn’t all that it could have been.
The same can be said about Joel Edgerton, who has several powerful scenes as Ramesses. Nevertheless, his character is a straightforward tyrant for the most part. One of the driving forces behind this timeless story is the connection between Moses and Ramesses, who were raised as brothers and destined to become mortal enemies. But their relationship is never fully fleshed out here, lacking the brotherhood and rivalry that made previous incarnations so great.
The unrecognizable supporting cast is solid with María Valverde as Moses’ wife, Sigourney Weaver as Ramesses’ mother, Ben Kingsley as Nun, and Aaron Paul as his son Joshua. That’s right, Jesse Pinkman is in a bible movie! Yet, most of them are sadly underutilized, disappearing for large portions of the film. Granted, “Exodus” doesn’t have “The Ten Commandments’” 220-minute running time, which left plenty of room to let the entire cast shine. With a still pretty hefty length of 150 minutes, though, you’d think that “Exodus” could have done more with its humongous ensemble.
By far the most intriguing character in the film is God himself. Unlike other adaptations that depict God as a burning bush, God takes on the form of a little boy in “Exodus.” Actually, the film doesn’t make it clear at first if the God Moses is seeing is even real. He could easily be an illusion brought on by a blow to the head and most of his plagues could just be natural disasters. It makes for an intriguing analysis of God’s actions, man’s actions, nature’s actions, and how they all tie together.
Whether the God he’s speaking to is real or not, Moses is convinced that he needs to return to Egypt and free his people. That being said, Moses doesn’t agree with everything God commands. There’s a particular moment in which Moses questions God’s wrath as he takes away countless innocent lives. More scenes like this might have made “Exodus” one of the most unique biblical epics ever. As is, however, the film is to “The Ten Commandments” what “Man of Steal” is to the original “Superman.” It has problems and never meets its full potential, but there’s just too much to admire to entirely pass it up.
A film with no information on how to catch a fox ****
On the surface, “Foxcatcher” might look like it’s about a wrestler and his coach. This is much more than a movie about wrestling, though. It’s a fascinating character study about isolation. Such isolation can be found in many different kinds of human beings, whether they’re a one-trick pony holding onto their former glory or one of the richest men in the world. Some people try everything in their power to inject love and purpose into their lives, but only drive themselves further away from companionship with every attempt. Real life Olympic gold medalist wrestler Mark Schultz is one of these lonely souls.
Played by Channing Tatum, Mark spends most of his days training, eating, and living alone. The only thing he really has to show for his life is his gold medal. Even with that achievement, Mark still feels vastly inferior to his brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). In addition to having a gold medal himself, Dave also has an adoring wife, children that worship the ground he walks on, and an all-in-all optimistic outlook on life. Mark believes that destiny’s come knocking when John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) contacts him. This multimillionaire wishes to sponsor Mark and give him housing while he trains for the upcoming Olympic games. Although his intentions appear sincere, du Pont might be using the wrestler as a means to fill his own empty glass.
Steve Carell is absolutely transcendent in his role here, completely making us forget that up until now he’s been best known as a comedic actor. He portrays du Pont as a weary, detached man who’s seemingly sleepwalking through life. He’s never married, never had children, and is viewed as something of a disappointment to his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave). The only thing that brings him joy is watching men wrestle. He’ll spend whatever it takes to get the best men to join his team and then force himself into the roles of their mentor, coach, and friend. But du Pont simply can’t fathom the clichéd saying, money can’t buy love.
Tatum is just as impressive as Mark Schultz. He certainly looks the part of a professional wrestler and is physically up to the challenge, being a former dancer. Bottling up his insecurities, Mark often looks like he’s going to explode unless he can find someone to believe in him or a reason to believe in himself. He has no idea how to articulate these feelings, however, and can only truly be himself in the ring.
Both Mark and du Pont tie into the film’s overarching theme of isolation. One masks his isolation with brute strength. The other masks his isolation with money and power. In the end, all either wants is what Ruffalo’s Dave has, the ability to connect with others. But what comes easy to some is like reading an alien language for others. Alien is actually probably the best word to describe John du Pont, who was always somewhat of a mystery to the public and those closest to him. Director Bennett Miller provides a captivating, atmospheric analysis of the reclusive man, whose isolation led from jealousy, to paranoia, to insanity.
Because the title, "Into the Wild," was already taken ****
Cheryl Strayed is one hell of a woman. Over the course of 93 days, Strayed solely hiked 1,100 miles through the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border if you’re not a geography expert. As hardcore as that sounds, it’s actually 600 miles less than what Robyn Davidson walked in the recent biopic, "Tracks,” which depicted her trek from the West Australian Deserts to the Indian Ocean. While Davidson walked the greater distance in “Tracks,” Cheryl Strayed’s story ventures to deeper places on filmmaking and performance levels in “Wild.”
In her best work since “Walk the Line,” Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed to perfection. Before she set off on her road trip, we see through a number of fleeting flashbacks that Strayed shared a powerful relationship with her mother (Laura Dern). After losing her mom to Cancer, Strayed’s already complicated life spiraled out of control. She became addicted to heroine, started cheating on her husband (Thomas Sadoski), and was impregnated with an unwanted child. “Wild” never gives a straightforward reason to why Strayed took on this seemingly suicidal task. Observing her past and how her memories haunt her in the present, though, you come to fully understand why.
Since it’s based on a memoir, you’d expect “Wild” to be full of monologues and explanations. But Director Jean-Marc Vallée and Screenwriter Nick Hornby wisely choose to show rather than tell. Most of Strayed’s internal thoughts are kept brief, emphasizing her desire for luxuries we take for granted like Snapple and chips. Even the flashbacks aren’t too dialogue heavy, letting matters naturally play out through imagery rather than constantly telling the audience what to feel.
Strayed comes across a number of delightful characters on the trail, including some friendly fellow hikers, a journalist who writes for a hobo magazine, and a wounded fox that will probably die on its own. However, the movie belongs to Reese Witherspoon and the monstrous pack she carries almost every step of the way. She goes beyond simply sacrificing her movie star glamor. The 38-year-old actress is physically and emotionally exhausting in her portrayal of a woman searching for purpose in life. As much as she wants to give up at times, the hope that destiny will be waiting at the trail’s end keeps her going.
Like “127 Hours,” “Into the Wild,” and “All is Lost,” “Wild” is yet another strong addition to the man vs. wild, or in this case woman vs. wild, genre. Its representation of nature is beautifully shot and masterfully edited, sometimes appearing majestic, other times appearing threatening, and always appearing vast. At the center of it is a single human being, who demonstrates that any determined individual can standout in a massive universe. That might sound like familiar territory, but you’re bound to find something profound if you’re willing to take the journey.
You're fired...oh god, did I seriously just make an "Apprentice" joke? **1/2
“Horrible Bosses” provided a breath of fresh air the same summer that “The Hangover: Part II” came out. In an ironic, yet not especially surprising, turn of events, “Horrible Bosses 2” makes many of the same mistakes as “The Hangover: Part II.” While this sequel to the 2011 buddy comedy isn’t without its moments, “Horrible Bosses 2” really only exists to recycle the same old plot and make the studio some easy money. It’d be one thing if the film knew it was a retread like “22 Jump Street” or had a huge nostalgic factor going for it like “Dumb and Dumber To,” which was also co-written by Director Sean Anders. There just aren’t quite enough laughs here to merit the film’s existence, though.
Jason Bateman’s Nick, Charlie Day’s Dale, and Jason Sudeikis’ Kurt are all back, but this time they’re their own bosses. They’ve invented a product called the Shower Buddy and are looking for an investor to help with the distribution. They find a charitable benefactor in Billionaire Burt Hanson, played by Christoph Waltz. Since Christoph Waltz can never be trusted, he naturally ends up stabbing the guys in their backs. The three cook up a scheme to get their investment back by kidnapping Hanson’s douchebag son Rex (Chris Pine). As you can probably guess, things don’t exactly go according to plan.
While they’re basically going through the motions, Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis still have wonderful chemistry together. They’re so committed to their roles that you’ll often find yourself desperately wanting to like “Horrible Bosses 2.” But instead of making these characters funnier, the filmmakers settle for just making them dumber. There’s a limit to how many times we can watch these people bumble their way into a shenanigan and still have everything conveniently work out in the long run. As a result, watching their antics ends up being more frustrating and predictable than humorous.
As for the supporting cast, Jennifer Aniston returns as the horny Julia, who’s now in sex addicts anonymous. She scores a few laughs, although her presence doesn’t contribute much to the plot. The same can be said about Kevin Spacey, who resurfaces for a brief cameo as the sadistic Mr. Harken then disappears without doing much. Jamie Foxx is also back as MF Jones, but again, isn’t nearly as memorable this time around. That’s how most of the scenes in “Horrible Bosses 2” play out. Bring back the characters we loved from the first film, but don’t do anything original with them.
So what about the new characters? You’d think Christoph Waltz would be fun given his work in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” but his villain is shockingly by the numbers. The surprise standout is Chris Pine as Rex, who’s voluntarily taken hostage by the guys in hopes of getting a cut of his own ransom. Pine has a ball playing sociopathic rich boy. Other than him and a couple one-liners, there’s nothing fresh here. If you’ve seen “Horrible Bosses,” you’ve seen “Horrible Bosses 2.”
You might be asking yourself, why does Hollywood keep giving us the same old thing over and over again. The answer is because we keep asking and settling for the same thing. After all, “The Hangover: Part II” was still a big hit despite being a retread. There’s little doubt that “Horrible Bosses 2” will follow the same path. It doesn’t matter if audiences actually like the film or not. They’ll continue to ask for more anyway like a dog that doesn’t know when to stop eating. But eventually somebody has to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”
Mock (yeah) ing (yeah) bird (yeah) yeah, yeah! ***1/2
The final shot of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” certainly left audiences pumped for the following installment. Seeing that fierce glare in Katniss’ eyes, all you wanted to do was charge into battle alongside her. Given the adrenaline rush the previous film provided, it’s a bit disappointing that “Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t the grand final confrontation. Rather, it’s more of a calm before the big storm. That doesn’t make the film bad. It’s still remarkably acted, thought provoking, and light-years ahead of most movies being targeted at teenagers. Still, “Mockingjay – Part 1” also leaves you wishing for the good old days when epic stories were told within three movies max.
Jennifer Lawrence, who’s ironically become the girl on fire in real life, returns as Katniss Everdeen. District 13 has rescued Katniss while her would-be boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) remains in the Capital at the mercy of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Julianne Moore makes her debut as President Alma Coin, who’s been building a rebellion alongside Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. They still need a poster child for their cause, however, and Katniss perfectly fits the bill. Hell-bent on saving Peeta and keeping her little sister safe, Katniss reluctantly agrees to play the role of the mockingjay.
The “Hunger Games” movies are essentially one half political commentary and the other half kickass action extravaganza. “Mockingjay – Part 1” is probably the most politically strategic film in the franchise and also the most dialog heavy. This amounts to a lot of intelligent, powerful moments in which Katniss must sell herself as the savior who will bring the Capital down. While the film shines in everything political, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is lacking as an action picture. There are very few action set pieces at all, which is a major drawback considering the phenomenal second half of “Catching Fire.”
Not only is there very little action, but there isn’t nearly as much splendor in the art direction, costumes, or makeup departments this time around either. Much of “Mockingjay – Part 1” takes place in a dim underground sanctuary and lifeless fields of carnage. Even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has been deprived of anything glamorous. Hell, the most well-fed and well-groomed individual in District 13 is a chubby cat. Granted, this is exactly what Director Francis Lawrence was going for, placing our heroes in the lowest point imaginable so they’re even more triumphant when they rise above it all. Nevertheless, this rise to victory likely would have had more of an impact if “Mockingjay” weren’t split into two movies.
At least with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” there was a ton of material to spread out over the course of multiple films. With a 309 page book like “Mockingjay,” however, it feels about as necessary as turning “The Hobbit” into a trilogy. Even if it is meandering at times, “Mockingjay – Part 1” remains a perfectly solid movie. It’s tense, smartly written, full of quiet, atmospheric moments, and does a good job at getting us excited for “Mockingjay – Part 2.” Had they not gone the double feature route, though, this could have been the tightest and most well-paced entry to the series.