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

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-poster1With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-cbf4d050Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

1898I would argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic has left the biggest impact on the world of popular culture over the past decade. It’s hard to remember a time when the multi-billion dollar trilogy, and winner of just about every Oscar dreamt up, was seen as a risky proposition. Would there be an audience for this kind of movie, let alone three of them? Well, ten years later, and mountains of money still being counted, this question has been put to rest. And so the discussion naturally veered to that other J.R.R. Tolkien book, the first one, The Hobbit. The production of it was held up for years with legal battles over who owned the rights and then with MGM’s bankruptcy. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie at this point. They knew the fortunes that would come. Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit, which was designed to be two movies but then late into filming was transformed into a trilogy. Now we have three Hobbit films because, quite simply, three movies equal more money. Everyone’s doing the whole elongated film franchise now, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games. Why give up the cash cow so easily? The first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, arrives this year, and you’ll probably relive whatever feelings were felt for Lord of the Rings. I know I did.

Sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a fastidious hobbit keeping to himself. Then one day the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits and brings with him a dozen dwarf guests. The dwarves, lead by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), are looking to reclaim their ancestral home, the Misty Mountain. The greedy dragon Smaug overtook the mountain many years ago (did you know dragons apparently lust for treasure like pirates?). The group needs a burglar, and hobbits are small and make minimal sound, making Bilbo an ideal candidate. Naturally Bilbo refuses the notion of a dangerous adventure, but then he changes his mind (what? It’s not going to be 8 more hours of Bilbo doing housework). Bilbo and the dwarves encounter elves, orcs, trolls, wizards, and all sorts of creatures as they make their way across Middle Earth to the Misty Mountain.

94784_galI was more excited for the Hobbit films when they were initially going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I thought that master of creepy crawlies would come up with something decidedly different, but alas it was not meant to be. Jackson hopped back in the director’s chair and provides a nice sense of continuity between the film franchises. The man knows this world like the back of his hand. He still has his great sense of visual grandeur, and often the movie is gorgeous to behold. The locations give the realm of Middle Earth such a better tangible feel than had he gone the George Lucas route and spent all his time with green screens. Even the more heavily-effects-laden sequences, like the underground orc lair, are rich, dense, terrific film locations you want to get lost in, absorbing every detail. From a technical standpoint, the film is never less than beautiful. Jackson also maintains a superior handling of action, knowing how to extend a set piece and build tension. The villains in The Hobbit might not be as meaty or memorable as they are in Lord of the Rings (a testy, one-handed albino orc feels like a lackluster heavy) but they provide enough credible danger. If you loved the Lord of the Rings films, and their fans are legion, then you’ll likely enjoy the first part of the prequel trilogy. If I had to rate the first chapter of The Hobbit, I’d say it’s closer to 2002’s Two Towers in overall quality, the film I liked the least in the Rings trilogy.

Now that we know there’s a healthy audience for these movies, I worry that Jackson has lost his sense of objectivity. There is no reason this movie needed to be as long as it is. There’s certainly no reason that a 300-page book, primarily aimed at children, needs to be padded out into three movies, each promising to be close to three hours in length (9 hours out of 300 pages = 1.8 pages per minute). Instead of the Jackson who nipped and tucked Tolkien’s gargantuan tomes, removing Tom Bombadill, now we have a Jackson who adds lengthy appearances of characters only briefly mentioned before in the book (kooky naturist wizard Radagast). There are also cameos from the Lord of the Rings cast to provide some further connective tissue. Now we have Bilbo and his gang visiting just about every single gnarly creature in Middle Earth, or so it seems. Now we have a quest that doesn’t even begin until close to an hour into the film. And that quest seems a lot less urgent; rather than, you know, saving the world, our characters are out to… reclaim a mountain for the dwarves. The drop in urgency makes the tale and its detours feel like dawdling. The concluding hour is fairly well paced, especially once Gollum shows his ugly mug, but the movie feels like it has precious little forward momentum. I don’t have high hopes for the future films. Fans of Tolkien’s works will likely just be thrilled to see every facet of their favorite story brought to startling life, so they won’t care about lag. At the conclusion of this movie, as our characters are dropped off by giant eagles, they look in the distance and see the Misty Mountain, their hope renewed. However I was yelling, “Get those eagles back! Why do you have to walk the whole way there?” Looks like even more long movies of walking lie ahead (cue Clerks II Rings vs. Star Wars clip).

94790_galThis is also a far different film than the Lord of the Rings epics when it comes to tone. It’s far more childish and filled with comedy, also aimed at children. I don’t mean the term “childish” to see like a negative broadside, though that’s the connotation. The world of Middle Earth isn’t ensnared in the perils of Sauron just yet, so even though we got trolls and dragons and the like, the temperament is chippier. There are a lot more comic escapades here and it’s easier to accept when, you know, the world isn’t being threatened with an eternally evil malevolence. There’s a lot of bumbling and physical comedy at play, especially when the dwarves take over poor Bilbo’s home. Later on, there’s an orc king who has what is unmistakably a pair of testicles hanging below his chin. I mean you cannot possibly look at the image and interpret it as anything differently. You probably would never see something like that, for better or worse, in the Lord of the Rings films.

The biggest news for me with The Hobbit was Jackson filming at 48 frames per second (fps). It’s twice the rate of how we’ve perceived movies since the 1920s. It is a brave leap forward in technology. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to view The Hobbit in this exciting new format. Having come through the 48 fps experience, I’ll say that it has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it certainly breaks with the standard filmic look we’re so accustomed to, that dream-like state that’s removed from reality. Often the picture looks like it was recorded on video, giving the movie a stagy BBC feel to it. For some, this change will seem cheap or less grand. The biggest piece to get used to is that at 48 frames, everyone’s movements seem overly exaggerated. Everyone moves like they’ve had eight cups of coffee. It’s these hyper movements that make me think of that horrible TV feature on some HD TVs that plays down judder by amplifying movement, so everything looks like a video game cut scene. Your eyes may feel a bit more strained, as mine did after the three hours, trying to capture all the jostling movement. The 48 fps also has a tendency to blur quick motion, making it harder to pay attention to the particulars of action sequences.

Now, with that being said, I personally feel that the benefits far outweigh the detractions. The level of detail and clarity is outstanding. I felt immersed in this world. And with the 48 fps, it’s also the greatest theatrical 3D experience I’ve ever had. You feel like you’re literally inside the movie. When things fly at the screen you may just duck your head on instinct. The movie worked best when it could explore the different physical realms of Middle Earth. The underground orc world was magnificent to explore. There were several moments that made me gasp, taking my breath away at the level of detail. It takes a while to get used to and for your eyes to adjust, but I think the awkwardness dissipates and you’re left to gawk in awe with the effects and presentation. I doubt we’ll be seeing too many other films presented in this manner. Firstly, I think half the public is going to hate it. 48 fps really only works for films that necessitate a big canvas. You need a world that you want to be a part of, something to dazzle the senses, which means it will probably be best utilized with sci-fi and fantasy films. Hitchcock at 48 fps would certainly not be worth the extra frames.

95741_galFreeman (BBC’s brilliant Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a perfectly enjoyable lead. Bilbo is much more of that classic British nattering type, more comedic in nature than the sad burden of Frodo, and Freeman is naturally a skilled comedic actor. He doesn’t overdo any sort of hobbity nebbishness either, and when it comes to the dramatic parts he can sell those just as well. McKellen (X-Men) is as wonderful as ever as the wise yet playful wizard. The real breakout star of the movie is Armitage (BBC’s Robin Hood) as Thorin Oakensheild. The man has such gravitas to him, a commanding screen presence, and it helps when he has a completely badass slow-mo strut that burns into your memory how awesome the actor and character are (fun observation: at 48 fps, slow motion looks almost like “normal” movie speed). I anticipate Armitage to give the squealing fans of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) a new heartthrob to declare their loyalty.

Jackson’s return to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pretty much more of the same, though with a less urgent plot, a broader scope of comedy, and some extra technical wizardry. Watching it will pretty much rekindle whatever feelings you had for the duration of the Lord of the Rings pictures. If you know this stuff verbatim, you’ll happily take every second of detail. If you’re like me and enjoyed the films but didn’t tattoo them in your memory, then you’ll likely have a pleasant if occasionally tedious experience with The Hobbit. I’m fairly certain that Jackson could have judiciously sliced a solid 20-30 minutes out of this unexpected journey; maybe they have fewer journeys with every magical being this side of Middle Earth. Still, the film is grand and sprawling and spectacular to witness. If you were interested in the 48 fps presentation, I’d recommend it but know what you’re going in for. It will be a very different experience and one that you’ll need some adjustment time to properly attune to. Unless you’re a techie, I’d advise watching the movie in a standard 24 frame presentation and then seeking out the high frame rate for a second helping, already knowing what to expect from the plot. I plan on seeing the next two Hobbit films in the 48 fps presentation. Hopefully by that time, come December 2013, my eyes will have recovered.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’’s Two Towers, of all things, “boring,” let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.

Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.

And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helm’s Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.

Charge Number Two: Despite nothing going on except waiting for a battle, Two Towers has little characterization of any of its characters.

So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodo’s journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, ““I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!”” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.

Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.

This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs – it’s the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’’t as interesting and it wasn’’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and it’s welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogy’s end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.

Charge Number Four: Excessive dwarf jokes.

Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (“Bah! That still counts as one!”).

Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but can’t speed through a medley of hugs. You think it’s over…. and then there’s more, then you think it’s over…. then there’’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogy’s cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.

The defendant is cleared of all charges.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ but to bury it. I don’’t know if it’’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that ‘Two Towers’ was a letdown. I’’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.

1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where we’re introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, ““See ya’ a year from now.””

2) Length. This wasn’’t a problem with the previous film but man did ‘Two Towers’ become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about a significant battle …and that’’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.

3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from ‘Fellowship’ (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin’ bored. As was I.

4) Excessive dwarf jokes.

I re-watched ‘Fellowship’ and all of the reasons ‘Two Towers’ suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. ‘Two Towers’ is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’’s ‘Rings’ epic, but ‘Two Towers’ has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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