The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

December 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”)
Written by: Fran Walsh (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Philippa Boyens (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”)

When “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” was released in 2003, there was the sense of celebration, a victory lap for the trilogy as a whole capped off by a huge box office haul and Oscars for both the film and for newly-minted A-list director Peter Jackson. Here we were, right in the middle of a collective indifferent, angry shrug reaction to the “Star Wars” prequels, when along came a new fantasy trilogy to sweep us off our feet, selling enough extended edition DVDs to fill up Mount Doom. Fast forward 11 years, though, and Jackson’s own prequel trilogy based on the slim tale of “The Hobbit” has been greeted with a sense of resignation and, personally, relief that the whole thing is finally over.

Picking up where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off, the gold-hoarding dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is laying waste to Laketown. While others flee, Bard (Luke Evans) manages to fire the shot with the only arrow capable of slaying the dragon. Meanwhile, inside the Lonely Mountain, hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman, essentially wasted in this whole trilogy) and the other dwarves watch helplessly as their king Thorin (Richard Armitage) has caught “dragon sickness” from all of the gold and treasure and his search for the Arkenstone. At the same time, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is being rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Sauruman (Christopher Lee), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) as Sauron attacks. Back at the Lonely Mountain, armies of man, elves, orcs, and dwarves begin amassing at the gate, each looking for their share of the dragon’s gold.

Much has been said the last three years about the decision to extend the slight novel into a trilogy of nearly three-hour-long films, but by now the fatigue is real and it begs the question: “What would these movies look like if there were less of them?” The years spent bringing “The Hobbit” to the screen seem to have burned Jackson out. Where the “Rings” trilogy featured Jackson working at the top of his game, combining camera trickery and physical effects with state-of-the-art CGI, these “Hobbit” movies see a director willing to give in to shiny, physics-defying computer-generated effects, robbing the films of the handmade, visceral quality that made their predecessors so effective in the age of George Lucas’ misguided prequel trilogy and all its digital manipulation. Sadly, Jackson seems to be channeling the worst of Lucas here, filling the last film he’ll likely get to make in Middle Earth with grating, groan-worthy comic relief and endless fan service that does little more that connect the dots to the “Rings” trilogy that no one needed spelled out for them anyway. Thankfully the journey is over.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

December 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”)
Written by: Peter Jackson (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”), Fran Walsh (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”), Philippa Boyens (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”)

With three “Lord of the Rings” films that have a total running time of over nine hours, Peter Jackson has the tendency to be a long-winded filmmaker. Of course, with the three “Rings” movies, Jackson was also adapting three separate novels into three separate movies, spanning an epic tale. But with J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Rings” prequel “The Hobbit,” Jackson made the decision to stretch one 300-page book into three films. With the first of the new series, “An Unexpected Journey,” opening last year, Jackson turned in an overlong, plodding and decidedly juvenile entry to the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. Looking to improve, the Oscar-winning director returns with the second chapter, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

“The Desolation of Smaug” follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a band of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. When they reach their destination, a dangerous dragon named Smaug is awaiting them.

One of the most notable details of “The Desolation of Smaug” is the inclusion of the “Rings” trilogy favorite Legolas played by Orlando Bloom. Though he is nowhere in the actual “Hobbit” novel, the character injects a little bit of life into “The Hobbit” film series, adding to the most interesting fight sequences of the film. Though many of the scenes are occasionally goofy and overlong, one particular sequence involving Legolas that takes place on a river is among the best scenes in the film. Though Legolas is at least an entertaining character, he isn’t necessarily interesting, which is a problem throughout “The Desolation of Smaug.” There is a certain sense of separation from every character, not giving the audience any room or reason to become attached. Relationships such as the one with brand new elf character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and a dwarf are forced. Even the film’s protagonist Bilbo is relatively quiet and unmemorable.

“The Desolation of Smaug” also suffers from serious pacing and length problems. The first section of the film is filled with long conversations that are difficult to follow and keep attention, which is an odd choice when opening a film. Casual fans to the franchise might be well served to take a short refresher course on the events of “An Unexpected Journey” to avoid being a little lost. Beyond that, the film occasionally stretches itself too thin making it easy for interest to dwindle.

In a pleasant turn, the tone of “The Desolation of Smaug” is more serious and adult, a far cry beyond the silly songs and humor seen in the first. Still, “The Desolation of Smaug” remains a flat and dull entry into the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. Perhaps Jackson can turn in a final entry on par with the original trilogy, but with two subpar attempts and an outstretched narrative, he has miles to travel.

West of Memphis

March 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin
Directed by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”)
Written by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) and Billy McMillin (“Project Kashmir”)

On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the following days, three teenagers: 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin were arrested in connection with the murders. After a highly publicized trial, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sentenced to the death penalty. Since that date, the case has been heavily disputed and evidence had been piling up that potentially indicated that the three teenagers known as the “West Memphis Three” were, in fact, innocent. “West of Memphis” is a look into how forced confessions, poor police work, and a lack of hard DNA evidence contributed to one of the most infamous cases of wrongful imprisonment.

After the success of the first three HBO documentaries in the “Paradise Lost” series, “West of Memphis” is the 4th total movie on the subject and the first unrelated from the first trio of films. With the wealth of information about the case already displayed in that franchise, it is nearly impossible to ignore the HBO documentary series and treat them as a separate entity from “West of Memphis.” There’s not a lot of difference as far as informational content between the two. There are, however, some subtle changes that make “West of Memphis” interesting in its own right. To separate itself, “West of Memphis” spends a great deal of time covering the third-party private investigation, which was partially led and funded by Oscar-winning director/producer Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” series) and his wife and fellow Oscar winner, screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh (“The Lord of the Rings.”) Throughout the investigation, forensics experts analyze new and previously uncovered DNA information, as well as other physical evidence that could potentially exonerate the West Memphis Three. This also includes fascinating legal details of how the case was woefully mishandled by not only the police, but also the prosecution.

Where as “Paradise Lost” spent a lot of time focusing on the litigation part, as well as an insight into the mind of Echols, “West of Memphis” spends more time talking about the curious case of Terry Hobbs who was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. While Hobbs is covered in “Paradise Lost,” a huge chunk of “West of Memphis” deeply explores the personality and curiosity of Hobbs as a person of interest. These scenes include fascinating interviews from people previously unheard of and some strong evidence that insinuates perhaps Hobbs is the real perpetrator of these crimes. As with “Paradise Lost,” the main focus is on Echols, the supposed ringleader of the group. As an interview subject, Echols is fascinating, intelligent and completely captivating to listen to. While Misskelley and Baldwin are not nearly as interesting as Echols, more time could have been spent with them to get their perspectives in more distinct manner.

From a directorial perspective, “West of Memphis” provides a more cinematic experience than its “Paradise Lost” counterpart. Included are several scenic shots of Arkansas and one memorable shot in particular involving giant turtles to show that the murder of the boys was not related to satanism as the prosecution suggested. Since the case has been such a high profile one since the early 90s, most people know the West Memphis Three have been released from prison. While the latest installment of the “Paradise Lost” series follows the big release day, “West of Memphis” provides a very small glimpse into their lives outside of their cells. While this epilogue of sorts is not nearly as detailed as it could have been, it is still interesting to watch these grown men, who have been in prison since they were teenagers, assimilate into the real world.

The story of the West Memphis Three is so fascinating that there is no such thing as an overload of information, details and coverage. As a human-interest story, it is a staggering look at how fallible the entire judicial system can be. It retreads a lot of details seen in other places, but it also differs enough be its own product. For information-based material packed into a short amount of time, the outstanding “Paradise Lost 3” is a great place to start building familiarity with the case. “West of Memphis” is perhaps better suited as a companion piece.

The Hobbit

December 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy)
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”)

Revisiting fanboy-friendly cinematic properties after an extended absence from theaters is always a tricky proposition. On the financial side, it’s an absolute no-brainer: you’re getting more proven product to sell to an already-existing audience. Huge box office numbers are pretty much guaranteed, not to mention sales of any ancillary products that might go along with it. Creatively, however, these endeavors often fail to live up to incredibly high expectations held by fans. I mean, spend a few minutes looking up what the internet at large thinks about “Prometheus,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or, God help you, the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

See what I mean? Now you understand what any follow-up to director Peter Jackson’s mega-hit “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has to deal with. Ever since the final film, “The Return of the King,” ended up raking in all the money and Oscars available back in 2003, audiences have been anxiously awaiting an adaptation of the trilogy’s official prequel, J.R.R. Tolkein’s more kid-friendly novel “The Hobbit.” Legal issues tied up the film rights for years, but the wait is over. Jackson’s first film of a new “Hobbit” trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey,” is finally here, for better or worse.

“An Unexpected Journey” begins 60 years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), happily puttering around his Hobbit hole,  is approached by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and offered the opportunity to enrich his life by embarking on an adventure. Bilbo politely declines, but, undeterred, Gandalf volunteers the Hobbit anyway. Soon, a pack of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) arrives at Bilbo’s door demanding food and singing songs. With the help of Gandalf, the Dwarves set out to enlist the reluctant Baggins in their quest to retake their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug.

While none of Peter Jackson’s previous adventures in Middle Earth were known for their brevity, at least those films had three huge books filled with pages and pages of source material to draw from. Not so with “The Hobbit.” Stretching one novel into three epic films is understandably worrisome, and the strain shows from the beginning. Kicking things off with a prologue featuring Ian Holm’s aged Bilbo Baggins writing a letter and Elijah Wood’s Frodo checking the damn mail is an exercise in padding. Plus, the dinner introducing the baker’s dozen of Dwarves is 45 minutes of “get on with it!” Once all of that is out of the way, though, the film slides easily into the groove that turned the “Rings” trilogy into blockbusters. Geared ever-so-slightly to younger audiences, the quest mixes the whimsical, like the goofy wizard with a rabbit-drawn sleigh and a trio of moronic cave trolls, with the terrifying, such as the hook-handed Orc bent on hunting down Thorin or the chilling duel of riddles Bilbo engages in with the pitiful Gollum played by Andy Serkis, once again in top form. By the time the latter scene comes to an end with Bilbo in possession of a familiar golden ring, Jackson’s magic is back in full force. Even the notoriously fickle fanboys should be ready to journey there and back again with the director. Whether he can keep it all going for two more bloated films is the real question.

One technical note: Jackson shot “The Hobbit” in a new format known as HFR, or high frame rate. What it does is double the traditional frame rate of film, 24 frames per second, to 48 frames per second. Select theaters are screening the film in HFR, which is how I saw it, and I can’t recommend this format at all. The difference is stark and distracting to say the least, with a look reminiscent of a cheap soap opera, and ends up unwittingly exposing the fakery of many special effects shots. Avoid HFR.

The Lovely Bones

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”)
Written by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”), Fran Walsh (“King Kong”) and Philippa Boyens (“King Kong”)

Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) tries his hardest to switch gears after nine years of big-budget epics and tell a more sentimental story with “The Lovely Bones.” Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Alice Sebold, Jackson strikes quickly with an intriguing first act before any real emotional intimacy is washed away by delusions of grandeur.

In “The Lovely Bones,” actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) plays Susie Salmon, a sweet and intelligent 14-year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her. Not only is Susie an aspiring photographer, first love may also be on the horizon.

But when walking home from school one day, Susie’s life is brutally taken at the hands of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a reclusive and odd neighbor who lives down the road from the Salmon home. Once murdered, Susie’s soul travels into a state of limbo and settles there even long after the horrific crime.

While in the “in-between,” as her little brother so nonchalantly identifies her place in the universe, Susie watches her family including mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) struggle with the loss of a child. She also watches Mr. Harvey as he goes on with each day trying to confine the killer instincts inside him. As months pass, Susie continues to look over them all from her visually-stunning playground, which is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning special effects of 1998’s “What Dreams May Come.”

Despite the majestic imagery poured on by Jackson during these scenes, “The Lovely Bones” is showier than it needs to be and pulls some much-needed attention from what should have been a more heartfelt narrative. Instead, the film ends up becoming something as pretty and flat as a watercolor painting.

Because of Jackson’s inability to understand more than what a graphic artist can render on a computer, the characters in “The Lovely Bones” suffer greatly. Wahlberg and Weisz are not left with much to build on besides the tragedy itself. There comes a point in the film where this terrible murder feels becomes insignificant to the story. This is because Jackson and the rest of his writing team refuse to let the audience into anyone’s head. Lingering shots of the family starring peculiarly at the home of Mr. Harvey don’t cut it.

With chaotic variations in tone throughout “The Lovely Bones,” Jackson misses an opportunity to show a more delicate side to his visionary talent. It’s disappointing that he couldn’t quite let go of his bulkier ideas to stay on the task at hand.