Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein

            I was extremely excited for The Hobbit when it was announced that Guillermo Del Toro was directing it in one movie.  Even when it switched to Peter Jackson across two movies, and later three, I still just wanted to see it.  I loved the Hobbit as a kid, and An Unexpected Journey proved to be a joy that, despite the lengthy runtime, was fairly lighthearted and fun, not to mention actually feeling like a complete movie despite being 1/3 of one.  Leave it to Desolation of Smaug to take what was good about the first movie and reduce it to something less enjoyable.
            Desolation picks up where Journey ended, as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), continue their quest to take back Erebor from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Along the way, they meet the elves of Mirkwood and go through Laketown.
            The highlights here stand out immediately.  The entire Mirkwood segment is nice and fun, managing a mix of drama, action and comedy well.  It’s a fast-paced sequence that makes the early part of the movie breeze right along.  And there’s also the CGI Smaug, done with motion capture of Cumberbatch’s face along with his voice acting.  It looks amazing, and it’s sufficiently creepy and awesome to behold.  The fight against Smaug is also good…for the first part.
            You see, where Unexpected Journey snapped along and even its slower moments had some fun to them, Desolation of Smaug drags starting with Laketown.  I can’t remember how Laketown was in the book, but it’s dreary, boring, and worst of all, seems like nothing but setting up a subplot for the third movie.  The worst part is that it leaves very little focus on Bilbo.  Martin Freeman’s performance is fantastic, and when he’s not on-screen for a period and then suddenly comes back, you remember how much you missed it.  Laketown takes him away so much that you begin to feel the movie should’ve been called Bard.  And then there’s the final battle.  It goes on forever, and while there are some good moments, at some point you’re just ready for it to end.  And the movie does “end” in the sense that, at some point, the credits begin rolling.  This is a movie entirely missing a first act, and the third act is incomplete, with the rest of it presumably being in the third movie.  The audible groan from the audience at the movie’s end shows what a terrible idea this was.

            Desolation of Smaug has its good parts, but they get so muddled with the movie’s long pace and little focus on Bilbo that the first movie’s fun is nearly completely gone. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nightwing Volume 3: Death of the Family

Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Eddy Barrows

            The two crossover comics for Death of the Family I read before Nightwing, Batgirl and Batman and Robin, were fairly good.  They kept the creepy atmosphere of the event and managed to keep an atmosphere of psychological horror.  Nightwing’s is easily the most questionable of the bunch, though, thanks to some flinch-worthy decisions and poor writing.
            As before, this book contains the Death of the Family-related comics, along with two side-stories from before and after, and we’ll start with the meat of it.  And as before, Nightwing is a book I haven’t been reading up to this point, but it’s pretty simple.  Nightwing’s/Dick Grayson’s life is going pretty good, with him hanging out with his old circus troupe and rebuilding Amusement Mile in Gotham as a permanent home for Haly’s Circus.  And then the Joker comes along.  And…well…what happens after that becomes indicative of a greater problem at DC, and it has to do with Dan Didio saying that superheroes aren’t interesting unless they’re filled with angst.  And maybe this is something that works better if I’d been reading the book up to this point, but in this case, it’s a tragedy that feels all too expected.  Things are going good for Nightwing, oh look, the Joker comes and messes things up and everything is bad again.  There’s a difference between the inevitable tragedy and the hurricane that just randomly comes into the hero’s life, and this is a hurricane.  And Joker is a force of chaos, but this just feels unnecessary.  Especially since, ultimately, the payoff of what it’s building up to gets cut off with that conclusion chapter from the main Batman series, and just kills the momentum entirely.  I don’t know.  I find the idea of Nightwing travelling with a circus and protecting them as a hero while working with them as Dick Grayson interesting, and this book just kills it.
            The other two stories are OK, but both crumble under writing problems.  The pre-DotF is about an assassin, Lady Shiva, coming to Gotham, and Nightwing has to figure out why she’s here and who she’s after.  It’s not bad, but rather forgettable, and feels like it’s really part of something that was going on in Detective Comics, not a Nightwing thing.  The DotF aftermath story has The Dealer, a black market seller interested in artifacts of Gotham’s villains, taking something personal from Dick Grayson, and Nightwing retaliates to get it back.  It’s the most interesting story here, but there’s those writing problems.  In particular, the book relies on exposition way too much, and what might be tolerable with a month between issues comes across as ridiculous in a collection.  Every issue reminds you that Sonia Branch’s father killed Dick Grayson’s parents without adding anything more to the conflict between the two of them.  It even constantly uses footnotes to point out what events happened in which issues, making it read like a Silver Age comic.  And for the aftermath story, there’s the fact that Damian Wayne’s death comes into play (and as DC thoroughly spoiled this on their main site before the issue even came out, I’m not considering this a spoiler – at this point, you either know or don’t care).  And maybe that’s a problem with the Batman line at DC right now.  They went from Night of the Owls to Death of the Family to Robin’s death, and there’s little room in here for Higgins to actually breathe and do what he wants to do.  It’s all cleanup for somebody else’s story.

            This will likely be the last DotF crossover I review, and I did not save the best for last here.  Expository writing, unnecessary superhero angst, and very little that actually makes me want to read Nightwing past this. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Batman and Robin Volume 3: Death of the Family

Written by Peter J Tomasi
Art by Patrick Gleason

            Batman and Robin may bring some confusion on first glance as to how this could tie into Death of the Family.  After all, Batman already had his own arc, and as much multitasking as the Joker is doing during the crossover, it would be a little silly to have him doing two plots simultaneously against Batman.  Instead, this is really a focus on Damian Wayne’s Robin, and the own challenge he faces at the hands of the Joker.
            As with Batgirl, this is a series I haven’t really been following since the New 52, so I don’t know what Damian and Bruce have been up to in recent months.  I have a little more familiarity here than with Batgirl for the simple fact that I have read most of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, which focused greatly on Damian, Bruce Wayne’s son for those who haven’t been following things too closely.  The Death of the Family part of this book continues to follow his arc.  Whereas most of the Robins are taken in by Bruce and trained from the beginning, Damian is decidedly different.  He was raised by his mom, Talia Al Ghul, and has the attitude of an assassin.  Bruce has been trying to reel him back a bit, but as always, the Joker knows just the right buttons to push.  In this case, it’s putting Damian in a situation where the “no kill” rule doesn’t just get tested: it’s a rule he wants to follow, but the possibility of doing so seems more and more impossible.  The Death of the Family crossover may only cover 3 of the 5 issues in this collection (and only two of those are from Batman and Robin), but it shows that Tomasi can leave a striking story in a fairly short amount of pages.  And it’s helped out by Gleason’s thoroughly creepy art, which leads the whole thing to have a rather surreal quality about it.
            The other two issues featured here are…alright.  The first is the B&R annual, which has Damian sending Bruce out of Gotham to find some relics of his parents’ past…which Damian also happens to use as an excuse to be Batman for a bit.  It’s a nice story, and those who’ve been following the Damian arc will probably appreciate how its evolution shows well here, but it’s not necessarily a must-read.  The other story is a series of dreams from Damian, Bruce, and Alfred, all dealing with the aftermath of Death of the Family.  It adds a little more flavor to the event, but again, it’s just a nice story.  If you’re here for the Death of the Family stuff, these are nice extras, but they don’t stick quite as well as the main event.

            Ultimately, it’s those who have been following Batman and Robin and Damian Wayne that will get the most out of this book.  Those just picking it up to get a little more Joker vs. Batfamily won’t get as much out of it. 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

            The first Hunger Games movie was what should be looked for in an adaptation: perfectly grasping the book’s elements, creating a quiet atmosphere that manages to differentiate itself from the book, and adding in elements to help the overall story.  It’s the kind of adaptation that simultaneously helped the visuals of the book and stood on its own for new viewers.  And while I haven’t read Catching Fire, I was hoping it would easily match the first movie in quality, and it (mostly) does.
            Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Hunger Games, but things aren’t exactly going great for them on their Victory Tour, especially since they’re getting the ire of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) thanks to inciting a revolution.  Ultimately, Snow and new game runner Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a plan to get rid of both victors, and it all revolves around the 75th Hunger Games.
            This movie is very neatly divided into two halves, and quite honestly, the first half is where the movie shines more.  The first half deals entirely with the Victory Tour and the buildup to the Hunger Games, and it’s a nice show of the pure bleakness of the franchise.  The dazzling set design and cinematography takes you right into a world where people can be shot and beaten in the middle of an assembly, and even if people bat an eye at it, they know there’s nothing they can do about it.  At the same time, the plans of Snow and Plutarch quickly show that they can only stop the revolution for so long.  It’s a world where the fuse is lit and the fascinating part is watching people try to put it out while others are just making it go faster.  I haven’t read Mockingjay, so I have no idea what this is leading up to ultimately, but I’m excited to see it.
            The second half of the movie focuses on the 75th Hunger Games, and…well, it’s entertaining.  This is more of the special effects and action part of the movie, and it’s obvious the effects budget has been bumped up, with far better looking effects.  There’s even a fairly good-looking fog effect.  The main problem with this half of the movie is that everything just happens so fast.  It’s basically “The contestants run into this one thing, then they run into the next, then the next thing happens”.  And the movie also puts Katniss with other people, which takes away the quiet atmosphere that made the first movie so fascinating and turns it into something more standard.  The second half of the movie isn’t bad, it just doesn’t quite match up to the first half or the first movie.

            Catching Fire doesn’t             quite match up to the first movie, but it’s still interesting and entertaining.  A good enough continuation, if somewhat flawed.