Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Catch Up Part II:The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Invisible War, The Queen of Versailles

We're continuing my look at some films that I've been remiss in discussing. Yesterday I wasn't too crash hot on The Grey, but was in the corner for The Color Wheel. What today?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Dir. Peter Jackson
Country: New Zealand / USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 169mins

It’s hard to think of anything new to say about Peter Jackson’s latest foray to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is a worrying thought considering we have two more of these films to sit through. Peter Jackson’s worst enemy is himself, it would seem, having doomed his return to the world of hobbits, dwarves, magic, and orcs by splitting the relatively short child-friendly Tolkien novel into three three-hour “epics” (well, one can only assume the next two instalments are as long as the first). What could have been an invigorating and tantalising look back at one of the cinema’s most successful adaptations and world creations was instantly cut at the knees by the decision to spread its action out over three films. Watching An Unexpected Journey, it’s certainly hard to fathom what he saw in the material to warrant it given there are scenes of an inessential nature and interminable length. I will see what Jackson does with the other two films, but after this initial entry it’s hard to be truly enthralled by the prospect.

What’s new to the world with this film is the introduction of not only a third dimension – each The Lord of the Rings title managed to be perfectly successful in standard 2D – but also 48 frames per second. A peculiar gimmick of sorts that will test the limit of some cinemagoers. The almost ultra-real appearance in certain scenes makes for some curious results, with the new format accentuating the artificiality of cinema in the process of making it more realistic. The idea that there’s now twice as much information for our minds to comprehend is something far more headache-inducing than the process of sitting down to watch it, but it is a frustrating new turn for the medium that only serves to distance the viewer. As filmmakers get closer and closer to what they perceive as reality and for the viewer to feel as if they are immersed in the film they are watching, the more if takes me out. Whether its special effects that look so real they sap a film of certifiable flesh and blood, to this new development that highlights every crease and every line of the sets, the make-up and the costumes. As great as they all are, at times it’s so real you could touch it, and in the meantime have the illusion of another world projected on celluloid (or digital, I suppose) shattered. There’s a reason I am going to the cinema and not a live-in-the-park presentation of a famous piece of literary history.

This may not be as annoying as it is with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey if it weren’t for the fact that Jackson was able to do so much with his original trilogy without any of these extra added on fixtures. Along with drawing attention to the very nuts-and-bolts nature of filmmaking, it also distracts from the story. Jackson and his collaborators are asking audiences to tune out to the story in order to focus on the visuals, and that’s a fail of a directorial move right there. Jackson has proven three times over he’s more than capable of crafting this world into a wonderful time at the cinema, but despite all the razzle and dazzle of advanced effects and newfound technology, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ends as little more than a bloated waste of Jackson’s talent. Did The Lovely Bones really scar him that much? C-

Perks of Being a Wallflower
Dir. Stephen Chbosky
Country: USA
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 106mins

Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own popular book, Perks of Being a Wallflower, lives in a weird world that never truly gels. Modern day hipsters (“music sounds better on vinyl!”) existing in a movie set in the 1990s that wishes it were a 1980s John Hughes film. It’s a jarring, discombobulating experience from time to time – never less so than when characters that bond of The Smiths also don’t know who David Bowie is, hardly a cultural relic in the heady days of 1991 – that lends the film an unfortunately inauthentic spirit. Unfortunate because so much more of the films works, from the performances, to the sweetness of its lead character’s journey, to the emotionally effective final sequences. Perks navigates some potent material, but when asked to truly dig into the film, it fails to ring true. Let’s face it, not many people had a high school experience that we’d describe as truly wonderful, but if we all had parents who let us stay out every night and hold drug-addled parties, go cruising around the big city, and partake in Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings multiple times a year then maybe we would.

Chbosky previously directed something I have not seen called The Four Corners of Nowhere some 17 years ago, and also wrote the big screen version of Rent. His self-adapted screenplay for Wallflower is certainly a step up from that musical work, but his talents appear to lie more in the way he has assembled his ensemble and crafted a feel good universe through it. As the titular wallflower, Logan Lerman is a breakout, his nicely average persona fits the role of Charlie like a glove and Lerman really steps up when required to do so in the film’s closing stretches. Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Melanie Lynskie, and Paul Rudd all add vital ebb, but it’s Lerman that deserves to major accolades. He is the most organic and natural element of a film that appears hell-bent on making audiences Feel Something when, for instance, John Hughes new that the universal troubles of our teenage years were potent enough. B

The Invisible War
Dir. Kirby Dick
Country: USA
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 93mins

Kirby Dick is a not an objective filmmaker, that I think we can all agree on. While I have not seen his Oscar-nominated documentary Twist of Fate, the MPAA-lampooning This Film is Not Yet Rated and the US politico coming out party of Outrage show him as a man whose mission is to shake the trees of government rather than anything approaching even-handed, two-sided debate. This is both a good and a bad thing when it comes to his films, and The Invisible War is no different. A film that made me feel like an emotional wreck within a short amount of time, Dick’s examination of the rape culture found within the American military is a film to make you loathe humanity. If Dick’s reluctance to navigate the hows of the epidemic rather than simply the whys at times makes the film appear as if its indulging in exploitation of its victims, then it still makes a stunning and gripping account of an issue that needs to be addresses on a grander scale that it has previously been allowed.

I found myself actually quite thankful that Kirby Dick chose to present the material of The Invisible War in a more traditional format. Talking heads and observational footage is utilised without flashy gimmicks and filmmaking tricks. The subject of rape in the military doesn’t need the bells and whistles that so many modern day documentaries employ. His choice of subjects, too, is spot on, choosing some truly fascinating, smart, fiercely determined women whose stories of horror help make The Invisible War the vital and important document that it is. It gives voices to those who feel disenfranchised from the establishment they believed in, and if The Invisible War wears its battle scars more loudly than others then it does so in service of a topic that needs to be addressed and seen. B+

The Queen of Versailles
Dir. Lauren Greenfield
Country: USA / Netherlands / UK / Denmark
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 100mins

Compared to Kirby Dick’s very direct line to its subject, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles stumbles upon its subject purely by accident. Initially conceived – at least presented by the opening passages of the film – as a somewhat frivolous portrait of the largest house in America, the “Versailles” of Florida if you will. It’s hard to deny that the life of Jacqueline and David Siegel make for entertaining viewing, with their lives of excess and wealth providing many a guffaw-inducing folly as the American dream is magnified by Crystal, ballroom staircases, and closets the size of houses.

On one hand, the severe left turn in the film’s events makes for interesting viewing. Furthermore, the events that transpire are infinitely richer and more layered than anything about a mere mansion. However, Greenfield’s approach the material was, I felt, lacking, as if the abrupt change in her film’s subject matter caught her off guard. Despite the amount of time that The Queen of Versailles covers, I’m not entirely sure Greenfield quite figured out how to make it as potent as can be. She remains far too polite with her observational style, rarely probing her subjects in a way that they were not already exhibiting on the surface. This is no more so prevalent than when David Siegel has what can be politely described as an angry moment and lashes out at his wife and children for their exaggerated, excessive ways. Greenfield’s camera remains distractingly distant as if she’s unwilling to hurt her subjects. It’s a frustrating moment in a film that encompasses a time of whirlwind and upheaval for both the Siegels and the world at large. Some of its most interested moments are at the fringes that go curiously unrecognised, while the more frivolous details are accentuated. Perhaps that a filmmaker trick to best magnify and represent the Siegel’s lifestyles, but as it stands The Queen of Versailles doesn’t allow its audience inside with enough depth to say anything we don’t already know. B- / C+

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