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 shit
Just Reviewed The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-December 13th
Just Reviewed Frozen-November 27th
Just Reviewed About Time-November 1st
Just Reviewed All is Lost-October 24th
Just Reviewed Captain Phillips-October 11th
Bilbo Baggins, bravest little hobbit of them all ***1/2
Everyone had reservations when it was announced Peter Jackson would be splitting up “The Hobbit” into a trilogy. Do we really need three separate movies? Can’t this 300-page book be done in one movie? Isn’t this just a ploy to milk a franchise and make an extra couple billion dollars? When “An Unexpected Journey” finally came out last December, we all found that these initial concerns were pretty much spot-on.
“An Unexpected Journey” was a perfectly solid return to Middle-earth with some great set pieces and plenty of atmosphere. But the story was more dragged out than the past three seasons of “Revenge.” That’s pretty much the same case with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The awesome moments do make the movie worthwhile. Still, it’d be nice to simply see all three “Hobbit” movies edited down to a solitary three-hour epic.
Martin Freeman continues to come into his own as Bilbo Baggins, who has gotten much more confident after finding a mysterious ring. How much do you want to bet that’s going to come into play later? By Bilbo’s side are Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and thirteen dwarves who only diehard fanboys can remember by name. The original fellowship is still on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to face the dreaded dragon known as Smaug. Along the way, they encounter a number of cool new characters, including Lee Pace as the firm Elvenking and Luke Evans as a skillful bowman named Bard.
The real stars of this “Hobbit” movie, however, are the visuals. As one would expect, the effects are nothing short of phenomenal and make leeway for several jaw dropping action sequences. The best include an escape from the elf-king’s halls via barrels and an encounter with a nest of giant spiders. It does get kind of silly when the spiders actually start talking, but not nearly as ridiculous as when the CGI wolves talked in “Twilight.”
Then there’s Smaug himself, who finally immerges from his giant pile of gold coins. What can be said about him other than that he’s the single most impressive giant dragon in the history of cinema. Big, bad, fiery, sophisticated, and supplied with the deep voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug makes King Kong and the T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” look like noobs. One can only hope that the dragons on “Game of Thrones” grow up to be so badass. Smaug all but steels the show…too bad the climatic confrontation with him goes on way too long and we still have one more movie to go.
Again, that’s the major problem with doing “The Hobbit” as a trilogy. Where “The Lord of the Rings” was perfectly paced for the most part, the good stuff in “The Hobbit” all overstays its welcome. Then in between that drawn-out good stuff, we have to put up with a ton of filler. A key example in “The Desolation of Smaug” is a subplot involving good old Legolas, played once again by Orlando Bloom. Here, he’s caught in an underdeveloped love triangle with a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and a dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner). None of this was in the book, which would be fine if it added new dimensions to the story. Instead, it feels more like fan fiction that was tacked on to prolong matters even more.
If Jackson wanted to take liberties and expand upon the Tolkein universe, why not give the thirteen dwarves more distinctive personalities? Even in the original book, they were pretty much interchangeable. You’d think over the course of two movies, Jackson and company would have some fun in giving these guys more character to work with. So far, though, the only one we’ve really gotten to know is Richard Armitage as the fearless leader Thorin. As a result, our heroes never resonate with the audience like the characters in “The Lord of the Rings.”
“The Hobbit” is unlikely to go down as a classic film trilogy like its Oscar-winning predecessor. As far as prequels go, however, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “An Unexpected Journey” are at least satisfying. Both films have exceptional action, dedicated performances, creative monsters, gorgeous art direction, and even some refreshing subtle moments. Those that want to go deeper into Middle-earth are going to get what they want on the whole. It’s just too bad that there’s obviously inspiration here for a truly great “Hobbit” movie, but not three great “Hobbit” movies.
You see "Brave," this is how its done! *****
It looked like Disney Animation was dead in the water for a while there. Sure, Pixar has had the company’s back for almost two decades now. In terms of movies that were solely produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, though, it was a bit of a downhill spiral from “Pocahontas” in 1995 to “Chicken Little” in 2005. While there were some underappreciated gems in the mix like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” nothing took audiences by storm like “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King” did.
In recent years, Disney Animation has been showing a welcome return to form with one great movie after another, from “The Princess and the Frog,” to “Tangled,” to “Wreck-It Ralph.” Now with their latest animated feature, “Frozen,” it truly feels like Disney is in full-on renaissance mode. The film continues Disney’s legacy of animated fairytales while adding inspired, modern twists. As far as Disney fairytales go, “Frozen” gets it right in just about every department. The music, the characters, the story, the pacing, the suspense, the romance, the themes, the humor, and, of course, the animation, it’s all done to near perfection.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the film is naturally set in a far away kingdom where not one, but two, princesses reside. Kristen Bell shines as the awkward, plucky, endlessly appealing Anna, the younger of the two princesses. She wants nothing more than to reconnect with her big sister Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, who spends all day locked away in her room. What Anna doesn’t know is that Elsa possesses the magical ability to create snow and ice, which she has been trying to conceal her whole life. Elsa’s frozen fist only gets harder to suppress as the years go by. Shortly after her coronation, she loses control of her powers in front of everyone and retreats to the mountains in shame. Elsa doesn’t realize, however, that she’s accidentally left her kingdom in a perpetual state of winter.
Anna sets out on a daring quest to find her sister and, along the way, crosses paths with a strapping mountain man named Kristoff, voiced by Jonathan Groff. Even if this is your first Disney movie, it should be obvious that a romance is going to spark between these two. The filmmakers take a few smart, unexpected chances with this love story, though. Without giving too much away, this is the first animated Disney movie where the characters acknowledge how insane it is for people to fall in love and get engaged in one day. Disney also poked fun of this in the live-action “Enchanted,” although that was really more of a satire of fairytales. “Frozen,” on the other hand, is a flat-out fairytale and sees it through to the end.
The romance is also helped by the fact that the leads are so likable and share a genuinely lovely chemistry. But the real love story here is between Anna and Elsa, who are both utterly sincere and deserve to find happiness. It’s nice to see a family movie that not only puts an emphasis on sibling relationships, but also tackles the subject intelligently. At times the bond between the sisters feels like something out of “Wicked,” which also starred Idina Menzel as a good witch everyone mistook for a bad witch.
The supporting players are a ton of fun as well with a mute reindeer named Sven, a tribe of rolly-polly trolls made from stone, and a slimy duke voiced by Alan Tudyk of King Candy fame. The scene-stealer is a nerdy snowman named Olaf, voiced by Jonathan Groff, whose head is constantly getting separated from his upper and lowers torsos. He teams up with Anna and Kristoff to find Elsa in hopes of bringing back summer. Olaf is completely oblivious to fact that heat is a snowman’s kryptonite, however.
Much of the film’s success can be attributed to the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously wrote the songs for “Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon,” and the underappreciated “Winnie the Pooh.” Every song in “Frozen” is a treasure, most notably the delightful “For the First Time in Forever” and Elsa’s show stopping solo of “Let it Go.” Even more importantly, each song serves its purpose and beautifully propels the well-constructed plot forward. Even in a camp that includes “Les Misérables,” “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Dreamgirls,” “Frozen” stands out as the best movie musical of the past decade. Heck, maybe even the past two decades.
Lets not forget Directors Chris Buck, who co-directed “Tarzan,” and Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Wreck-It Ralph.” They’ve lovingly crafted a classic, taking full advantage of the animation medium to create a grand, icy world that feels almost inhabitable. The scope of the film is so majestic it’s like watching “The Sound of Music.” Lee’s screenplay never hits a wrong note, hooking the audience in from the gripping exposition, to an exciting climax, to a clever ending. Honestly, it’s hard to even find minor details to nitpick with their wonderful musical adventure.
Disney has yet to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, excluding all of Pixar’s wins. While Pixar also came out with the enjoyable “Monsters University” this year, there’s no doubt in this critic’s mind that the Best Animated Feature prize belongs to “Frozen.” But why stop there? This isn’t just a terrific animated film, but a terrific film overall. “Frozen” should be considered one of the year’s best pictures alongside “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” Lets just hope Disney knows what they have on their hands and give the film a proper For Your Consideration campaign. It’s simply a winner.
In love, and laughing about it in the rain ***
In “About Time,” Rachel McAdams plays the wife of a man that can travel through time. No, this isn’t a sequel to “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” but its impossible not to make the comparison. There are a few key differences between the two movies, though. For starters, this film is less about the time traveler’s wife and more about the time traveler himself. “About Time” also has the benefit of being more charming than the other Rachel McAdams time traveling romance. As far as time-related romantic comedies go, however, it’s no “Groundhog Day.”
Domhnall Gleeson, who was briefly seen as the eldest Weasley in the last two “Harry Potter” movies, stars as Tim. He’s an awkward, British ginger who’s lived a life of bumbling mistakes. After turning twenty-one, Tim learns a family secret from his dear dad, played by Bill Nighy in a funny, effective performance. Every man in Tim’s family has the ability to travel back in time. All they have to do is go to a small, dark space, close their eyes, clench their fists, and think about a certain point in their life. How this phenomenon is possible is never explained, but so what?
The considerate Tim is always open to altering the timeline in order to help out a friend or family member in need. As far as his own aspirations go, Tim plans to use his ability to find the woman of his dreams and give her a perfect life. Enter Rachel McAdams as the kind, beautiful, smart, and unrealistically flawless Mary. McAdams and Gleeson have a lovely chemistry as two people that are basically brought together through manipulate rather than fate, but are still made for each other nonetheless.
Gleeson has all the befuddled likability of a young Hugh Grant. It’s hard to find any fault in McAdams’ performance, although we have seen her play this character a dozen times before. From “The Notebook,” to “Wedding Crashers,” to “Morning Glory,” to “The Vow,” to “The Time Traveler’s Wife” as mentioned before, she’s always the standard cute, nice girl…well except for in “Mean Girls.” Of course if she plays the role so well, who am I to complain?
At times “About Time” can go through a bit of an identity crisis. The first hour is essentially a light, romantic comedy. Then in the second hour, it tries to be something much deeper and becomes overly sentimental. In addition to being occasionally inconsistent, not every joke knocks it out of the park and some of the more dramatic scenes just come off as corny. When “About Time” wants to, though, it can be a very romantic film, a very funny film, and even a very wise film. While it may be hit and miss, there are more hits than there are misses. That’s more than can be said about the Adam Sandler comedy, “Click,” which could never find a consistent tone.
As enjoyable as “About Time” can be, there is one major problem with the setup. Although the film has no shortage of conflict, there’s an easy solution to almost every dilemma. If something doesn’t work out for Tim, he can just travel back in time and change it. Even when time traveling has an unexpected negative consequence, Tim can still simply go back and try again. After the fifth time we see Tim hit the redo button and change things for the better, the gimmick kind of wears out. On top of that, the rules of time travel presented in the film can be all over the place. Then again, every movie about time travel is riddled with plot holes, even the great ones like “Back to the Future” and “Looper.”
“About Time” does recognize, however, that there are some aspects of life that not even time travel can cheat. It’s in these moments that “About Time” does shine through as a meaningful movie about looking ahead with optimism as apposed to looking back with regret. This isn’t the best work from Director Richard Curtis, whose previous credits include “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “Love Actually.” For what it is, though, “About Time” is a pleasant enough date movie for couples. Just be sure to check out Curtis’ superior films first, and “Groundhog Day” for that matter.
I'm on a boat ****
You can probably tell whether you’re going to enjoy “All Is Lost” based on the film’s synopsis. Robert Redford plays a sailor on a voyage somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Without any exposition or explanation, he wakes up one morning to find that his yacht has crashed into a shipping container. The sailor has no way to contact help and little means of navigation. Even though the sailor manages to patch the hole up, his boat won’t last long with hazardous weather conditions on the horizon.
What happens from there? Do we flashback to the sailor’s life before he set sail on these deadly waters? No, the plot reveals nothing of his past. We don’t even figure out the guy’s name. Pretty much everything the audience learns about the sailor is based on sheer observation, such a wedding band on his right ring finger. Other than an opening monologue, the sailor barely says a single word. Considering the film’s lack of dialog, it’s not surprising that the script for “All Is Lost” is a mere 30 pages long.
Well, does something unusual happen to the sailor on his journey? Not especially. The film is essentially a week or so of him on the ocean, fighting the waters, fighting the storms, and fighting himself. Picture “Life of Pie” if you took out all the animals and the fantastic element.
So yeah, “All Is Lost” is obviously an acquired taste that will bore some and intrigue others. Even the people who look upon the movie favorably are more likely to admire it than to fall in love with it. That being said, “All Is Lost” is a really bold experiment that’s well worth checking out. It’s always interesting to see a film that doesn’t restrict itself to a three act narrative structure and simply shows a character living their life. The sailor is certainly a fascinating character to follow and much of that’s because of Redford’s performance.
This is an unexpected role for Redford to take at this point in his film career, which has spanned over a miraculous fifty years. Being the only actor on screen the whole time is one thing, but Redford is given the additional challenge of having next to no lines to work with. Nevertheless, Redford creates an utterly sympathetic character through his arresting facial expressions and actions. We always feel this man’s internal and external struggle as he desperately thinks of methods to keep his ship afloat. Like Jean Dujardin in “The Artist,” Redford reminds us that sometimes giving a physical performance is much more difficult than delivering a Shakespearean speech.
There is technically one other character in “All Is Lost,” the sea. Director J.C. Chandor of “Margin Call” did a majority of the filming for “All Is Lost” at Baja Studios, the same facility where James Cameron brought “Titanic” to life. Through some gorgeous cinematography, Chandor fashions the ocean into a vast presence that’s threatening, majestic, and mysterious all at once. The same can be said about the setting in “Gravity,” where Sandra Bullock played an astronaut lost in space. It’s actually quite a coincidence that both “Gravity” and “All is Lost” would come out within just a couple weeks of each other. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Redford and Bullock won the Best Actor an Actress Oscars this year for one-person shows?
Somalian Pirates, We! ****1/2
Seven years ago, Director Paul Greengrass gave us “United 93.” Greengrass’ vision was bold and pulled no punches, easily making it the best post-9/11 film to date. Everything Greengrass brought to the table in “United 93” is displayed in “Captain Phillips.” This is another intensely shot, authentically edited true story about ordinary people forced to step up during a catastrophe. Is it the masterpiece that “United 93” was? Not quite, but that’s a really tough act to beat.
For all those who didn’t follow the story on the news in 2009 or read “A Captain’s Duty,” here’s the deal. Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama. While transporting cargo to Kenya, the ship is hijacked by four Somali pirates. None of the 20 crewmembers are prepared to deal with such a crisis, their only weapons being hoses and knives. This doesn’t stop Phillips from calmly negotiating with the pirates, doing his best to keep the rest of his men out of harms way. The pirates ultimately choose to leave with 30,000 dollars in a covered lifeboat, but not without Phillips as a bargaining chip.
The representation of the four pirates is actually very unique for a Hollywood movie. They’re played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M Ali, all of whom are making their first major acting debuts. “Captain Phillips” avoids the temptation to turn the pirates into calculating Bond villains or Hans Gruber. If anything, they can come off as a little dim. Even if they aren’t well educated or well spoken, though, that doesn’t make them any less threatening. As intimidating as they are, the pirates are never depicted all flat-out savages either. The screenplay by Billy Ray strives to give each man some shred of humanity. That doesn’t make them sympathetic, but it does make them more identifiable.
Like he did in “United 93,” Greengrass mostly casts lesser-known character actors across the board. The film includes some effective performances from the various men portraying Phillips’ crew and the navy officers sent to rescue Phillips. There are two recognizable faces in “Captain Phillips,” though. One is the always-welcome Catherine Keener, who we briefly see as the captain’s wife in the beginning. The other is of course Hanks in the title role.
Speaking of Hanks, what a marvelous, multi-layered performance he delivers here. Some would argue that Hanks has been in a slump the past ten years, excluding his voiceover work. Clearly those people didn’t see him in “Cloud Atlas.” He’s destined to get his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for “Captain Phillips.” Hanks is given the difficult task of playing somebody who for the most part seems collected. But underneath that composed exterior is a desperate man who knows he may never see his family again. This role was tailor-made for the likes of Hanks, who reminds us just what a gifted actor he still is.