Tag: richard armitage

Brain on Fire


Brain on Fire (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Beware: those who expect a high-class medical drama are likely to be disappointed with “Brain on Fire,” based on a true story of a healthy young woman who finds herself suddenly plagued with an enchilada of terrifying symptoms, from auditory and visual hallucinations to intense seizures and huge gaps of memory loss. But those with a penchant for disease-of-the-week television shows are equally likely to be engaged with the mysterious case at hand.

One might argue that the film’s greatest limitation is a barebones screenplay which makes the story feel rather non-cinematic. In its attempt to trim the fat completely and focus on the rare disease, it excises nearly everything else, particularly the complexities of the subject’s work life (Tyler Perry, Jenny Slate), love life (Thomas Mann), and family life (Carrie-Anne Moss, Richard Armitage). In a story like this, personalization is most critical because extra details lead to substance which helps to put a face on a particular disease.

Despite its occasional lack of subtlety, a few cringe-inducing dialogue, and familiar beats inherent to medical dramas, I found the work to be thoroughly engaging otherwise. While I craved to look closely at the medical charts and X-rays, especially exchanges filled with medical jargon, the screenplay by writer-director Gerard Barrett breezes through them because it is not his goal to create a first-class medical drama. And that is perfectly fine. I think the point of the project is two-fold: to make an easily digestible work for the more casual viewers and to shed light on a rare disease, and perhaps others like it, that is often misdiagnosed by the brightest professionals. On this level, it works.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays twenty-one-year-old Susannah Cahalan, a journalist for the New York Post. Her debilitation from a very lively woman to a catatonic vegetable is convincing and, at some point, genuinely touching. Perhaps the strongest moments are instances when the camera takes its time to show the subject’s pallid limbs, how her fingers liken that of old branches, how she can barely stand let alone put one foot in front of the other. Showing the effects of a disease is so important not just because it is frightening or sad but because it underlines the fact that every human disease has a cause and therefore an effect. We forget this fact sometimes, especially groups that choose to turn a blind eye on science.

While Moretz is front and center nearly throughout the film, it is Slate who steals the spotlight every time the two performers share a scene. Slate is known mostly as a comedian, but she proves once again that she can be equally effective in dramatic roles (“Obvious Child,” “Landline”). Look closely when Margo, played by Slate, visits her co-worker at the hospital. Margo is not used to seeing Susannah in such a vulnerable, wilted state and it devastates her. Notice the way Slate starts the scene with a comic weapon compared to how she ends it with a completely different technique. It’s impressive.

“Brain on Fire” can be criticized for being formulaic, but there is a reason why formulas exist. It is because when a formula works, it gets the job done. Such is the case in this curious picture. As someone who works in the field of science, it never ceases to amaze me how much we’ve learned in the past fifty to a hundred years—and also how much we have yet to learn. Imagine diseases out there with no correct answers yet—but are given “answers” anyway because some pieces, not all, seem to fit. It goes to show that our knowledge is still limited and we have work to do. Keep in mind, too, that certain diseases evolve over time.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having reclaimed Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), must now defend it from disparate creatures of Middle-Earth who wish to take a piece of the Lonely Mountain’s great treasures. But with Thorin afflicted with an obsession to get his hands on the legendary Arkenstone, beyond Erebor’s defenses awaits several armies—Man, Elves, Orcs—that threaten to wage war if they fail to reach a compromise.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” offers a pleasant time given its above average level of entertainment, eye-catching special and visual effects, and neat seedlings that are sure to grow and blossom in “The Lord of the Rings.” However, the picture fails to get to me emotionally—at least on a consistent basis. We are supposed to be invested in the characters’ fates, romantic connections, and moral conundrums but they command little heft. Thus, when each subplot reaches a climax, we do not feel stirred or particularly moved; we only wish for the material to keep moving forward so we can see the next action scene.

Undercooked is the romance between Kili (Aidan Turner), a dwarf, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf. We get a few scenes of the star-crossed lovebirds giving each other sad and longing glances but we do not experience varying depth of their personalities when they are together—or when apart. As a result, it is a challenge to imagine a future for them despite the fact that they come from different worlds. The performers look good together but having physical chemistry and not much else proves to have its limits.

Most disappointing is the screenplay’s treatment of the dwarves once Thorin’s leadership starts to feel questionable. Instead of allowing each member to shine and become memorable, they essentially react in the same manner. A few of them do not even get a chance to speak. Those that do say nothing of particular importance. It would have been the perfect opportunity for us to assess the dynamics of the group once its leader’s values have become contradictory with respect to what everyone signed up for.

This is exactly why Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a seemingly mere hobbit, is easily the most interesting because he is given several chances to show his dissent—in various modalities. We know exactly where his hairy feet stands but we feel the conflict in his mind because he does consider Thorin to be both a good friend and a good leader. He respects Thorin, maybe even fear him a bit given his increasing frustration of not having the Arkenstone in his possession, but a possibility of war is on the rise.

As expected, the picture shines when it comes to its battle sequences. The scene with Gandalf and members of the White Council in Dol Guldur is thrilling—perhaps one of the best in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. A duel that takes place on a frozen body of water is also noteworthy, executed just right. The environment is quite beautiful but there is always a level of suspense, menace, even a pinch of humor, too. The film is certainly at its best when it successfully balances different emotions within a scene or sequence.

The final installment of “The Hobbit” series is commendable but not exemplary. It is easy to become a grouchy pessimist and make claims such as, “Well, at least it’s over now” and the like. But when one takes a second to compare this movie to other action, fantasy-adventures out there, Jackson’s film is imperfect to be sure, but one cannot deny that the work is still of high caliber.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Still on the run from the orcs, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the rest of the dwarves seek refuge in the house of a “skin-changer” (Mikael Persbrandt), currently in the form of a bear, who is not particularly keen on dwarves. Though their collective drive remains aflame, the quest to reach the Lonely Mountain and obtain the legendary Arkenstone, guarded by a fearsome dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is clearly taking its toll. Their journey is not made any easier when Gandalf claims he must leave the party while the others will have to their way through the woods infested with massive spiders.

Despite exciting action sequences dispersed throughout “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” partly based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and directed by Peter Jackson, there is not enough meaty material to warrant such an overlong running time. Though mildly interesting characters are introduced, one gets the feeling that they appear not to enhance the story or to iron out its themes but because it needs a bit of padding to allow an already rich world to appear that much more magnificent. The key word is “appear.” Take away some of the supporting characters and the final product is more or less the same.

A few figureheads are downright irritating. In the latter half, Bilbo and company reach Esgaroth where a small community of humans reside. The people are unhappy because they live in squalor. There is talk about a possible riot or—worse—an election. The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his minion (Ryan Gage) will not have such democracy. Spending time with them is like pulling teeth. I suppose we are supposed to dislike them, but their relevance in the big picture is questionable at best considering key figures like the dragon and a necromancer in Dol Guldur are front and center. There is an undercurrent of humor when the master and his lackey are on screen but most of the time they seem to come from a different film altogether. Perhaps the pair might have been more effective if they exuded more menace or were more domineering.

Furthermore, there is an undercooked romance between a she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner). They share plenty of meaningful silences and looks of longing but not once was I moved by their struggle of possibly pursuing a forbidden love. As a result, like the leader of Laketown and his flunky, their subplot fails to move beyond its potential to become a part of an epic story.

Make no mistake: I enjoyed the film for the most part. When pulse-pounding chases, sword-slashing, arrow-swishing, and fire-breathing are involved, my eyes are barely able to keep up. (Some of the clunky CGI are forgivable.) Though the barrel sequence will impress many, which is appropriate and expected given its sheer energy, I admired the sequence involving the giant spiders most. Arrows puncturing limbs and decapitations may be absent but the horror is nonetheless captured by showing the arachnids roll up their prey—our protagonists—in thick layers web. Also, I thought it was neat how we get a chance to hear what the spiders are saying to one another.

The dragon is large and impressive. I liked it best when the camera zooms in on its body so we can appreciate its teeth, eyes, or scales. Though it is able to communicate telepathically, it rarely comes off silly or cartoonish in any way. I just wished it had less laughable lines such as “I am death!” As a result, I did not find Smaug, who is supposed to be the centerpiece of this installment, as mysterious and threatening as the necromancer. Anyone who can bring about crippling fear in Gandalf’s eyes is worthy of our attention.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a humble hobbit from The Shire, so accustomed to living a life within the boundaries of safety and comfort, is invited by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join him and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on a once in a lifetime journey toward the Lonely Mountain and reclaim it. It is a place where Smaug resides, a fearsome dragon that destroyed Erebor and displaced dwarves all over Middle Earth. Initially reluctant due to the dangers ahead, Bilbo decides to participate eventually after realizing that trading in a sheltered existence is worth an unforgettable adventure.

It is easy to critique “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” directed by Peter Jackson, if compared to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy with its relatively smaller scope in terms of story as well as a less complex acrobatics with regards to the number of characters it is required to weave in and out of the screenplay. However, it is more difficult to evaluate the film for what it is especially since the trilogy that came before it has casted such a massive shadow. Not only did “The Lord of the Rings” set the bar for future adaptions that take place within its own universe, it also sets the standard for future non-related serial fantasies.

Based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien, the film is a scrumptious visual feast. It begins with The Shire’s verdant green slopes where everything glistens among pastoral quiet beauty that it is no wonder Bilbo does not ever want to leave his home. But when chaos is introduced, the arrival of the merry gang of dwarves, grime and filth start to slowly become more noticeable which eventually go unnoticed, at least for the time being, when violence in the form of Orcs and Wargs threaten to maim and kill them all.

Its slow but purposeful build-up of events is one of its greatest weapons. For those who cite it as a weakness, I ask: What is the value of a long and arduous journey without side quests and a willingness dive into details? When it chooses to go on tangents, it is not as if what is touched upon is uninteresting or irrelevant to the adventure. On the contrary, they provide details about the characters through action and at times introspection: if they are quite slow or quick to think on their feet, how their motivations have or have not changed over time, one’s definition of strength, what it means to fight for a cause that many may think unworthy but is very personal, among others.

The themes and questions it tackles are applicable, if one so chooses, to our every day lives. We have all been (or are) in situations where we are doubted and because of these naysayers we are changed for the better or worse. These fantastic characters and events are symbols of human characteristics and circumstances. The film does a great job making sure that we are entertained on the surface level and yet having several layers underneath to make the experience worthwhile on a personal level.

But its beauty is not limited to sweeping environs, thrilling action sequences (the chases in the goblins’ domain are magnificent), and humanity within its story. Even if something looks ugly, the picture pulls us in. Let’s take the scene involving the hungry mountain trolls. Their deformed faces and cushiony bodies will make anybody run toward the opposite direction. But they are so interesting to watch because their teratoid appearances have differences but they are not so ostentatious to cause distraction from what is occurring. As it should be, it utilizes images generated by computers to enhance a world instead of saturating it.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” based on the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, will be tedious for those who expect a linear journey. But for those who are open to be dazzled, those who choose to treat the prior trilogy as a reference rather than a shadow to be outshone, and those who just want to experience magic that can be made only in the movies, place your gold on this one.