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They Shall Not Grow Old (2019)

Filmmaker Peter Jackson has performed a miracle and given voice and life back to the dead. His special effects technicians have taken World War One footage and cleaned it up, slowed the frame rate down, and made it a truly immersive experience that brings out the humanity of those who fought and fell. You see their faces, their movements, and their existence in a way like never before. It’s remarkable to watch the difference in the century-old footage, allowing history to come alive. Jackson also has a running soundtrack of BBC interviews from the 1960s and 70s, where a collage of veterans recounts their experiences from many aspects of the war. It’s wonderful to listen to their personal stories and insights from the men themselves rather than through some recreation or actor’s reading. I could have listened to much more anecdotes from the men who lived them (the last WWI vet died only a few years ago; they’re all wiped away now). There is nothing else to this 99-minute documentary other than the archival footage spiffed up and the synched interviews. Jackson’s documentary focuses on the British experience from jubilant, nationalistic start to weary, haunted conclusion. There is scant new insight into the Great War that a thousand other television specials and documentaries haven’t covered, but it’s the immediacy of the sights and sounds that makes They Shall Not Grow Old compelling. My screening was in 3D and I can’t quite say it was worth it (the projector may have been improperly attuned, or it could just be the limitations of 100-year-old footage). Anyway, this is a must-watch for history buffs but there might not be much for your casual viewer to chew over.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Mortal Engines (2018)

Mortal Engines is a confusing movie. I mean what does the title even mean? I was all but certain somebody would explain what it meant during the two-hour-plus movie, but nope. My best guess is that it refers to the people operating the roaming cities of the future, the tiny instruments of flesh and blood that have become the gears to these monstrous mobile cities. That’s only the start and it’s simply the title. Mortal Engines is the latest in dystopian YA to make the leap to the big screen, but this time with the guidance of Oscar-winning blockbuster maestro, Peter Jackson. If anyone could elevate a YA novel into big screen eye candy, it has to be Jackson and company, right?

In the distant future, the world we know it was decimated by a war that took all of 60 seconds. In the ensuing years, cities have taken on a new life. They have become mobile and roam the land, swallowing and attacking other smaller cities, and the most notorious is London. Tom (Robert Sheehan) is living a blissfully ignorant existence on London until he runs into the scarred, feisty Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer) who attempts to kill Valentine (Hugo Weaving), accusing the leader of London of killing her mother. Tom hears too much and Valentine tries to dispose of both of them while he can also assemble a weapon from the old world to gain total supremacy.

I think the good slightly outweighs the bad when it comes to Mortal Engines, but this is definitely a sci-fi action blockbuster where the sum fails to weigh more than its moving parts. The world building on display is more imaginative and intriguing than I was expecting. I was expecting a PG-13 steampunk Mad Max and I got a larger, more developed, weirder and wilder world. Early on, the opening sequence gives a sense of the dangerous reality of predatory cities, and it’s thrilling and large-scale. Immediately you understand why Jackson and company wanted to tell this movie on a big canvas. From there, we get a better sense of how the world has rebuilt itself in the ashes of our civilization and how others have adapted. If London is the scourge of this new world, others have taken to hiding, eking out fragile lives on the fringes of this society. That leads to smaller moving buildings designed to hide. This leads to the skies being an escape from the earthbound cities. This leads to outer reaches where slave auctions occur. This also somehow includes zombie cyborgs, which I don’t quite follow how a world of giant cities that covets “old tech” somehow has conquered life and death, but hey. With each new location, the world got a little bit bigger, and it was already plenty big to begin with. That’s something that Mortal Engines has in spades – a sense of scale and scope. The visual grandeur of the film is expansive and richly detailed, pushing the outer boundaries just a little bit further. There’s a fun chase scene through a city as it’s sliced and diced into smaller parts by grinding gears and sparking saws. The budget was only $100 million but it looks like it could have easily been double that. Even at its worst, Mortal Engines is a visual treat that surprises with ingenuity and terrific special effects.

The good is drowned out by the messy, bombastic, ridiculousness that takes flight. This is a big, dumb movie that readily announces itself as big and dumb. The dialogue is often cheesy and occasionally painful, with characters spouting self-parody lines like, “I’m not going to tell you my sad story,” and then 30 minutes later, “So that’s my sad story.” It’s the kind of movie where every character seems to be angling for that movie quip. One character says, “I’m not known for subtlety,” which could have been the message of the movie as a whole. Another character says her name relates to her desire to have her ashes scattered by the wind upon her death. Guess what doesn’t happen at all? My friend Cat McAlpine wrote in her notes for the movie, “Why is the dialogue so bad?” four separate times. There’s one moment late where a character with a bowler hat is shown and it’s meant to be played like some big moment of leverage or betrayal (“Oh no, not Bowler Hat Man!”) but I don’t recall any scene establishing who this man was or his connection to the Mayor of London. It’s just like a man in a bowler hat appears and the movie treats it ludicrously seriously, and I wanted to laugh uproariously. It was not the only time I felt this impulse.

It’s never boring even when it’s being patently ridiculous and dumb. The main characters are powerfully bland, and they also give way to bland supporting friend characters who serve no purpose other than to be the eyes needed to oversee certain villainous revelations. The romance between Hester and Tom is nonexistent and painfully contrived. Much like the equally bonkers Jupiter Ascending, the main characters and their story are the least interesting parts of the world. Sheehan (TV’s Misfits) seems a bit too old to be playing a 16-year-old. Hilmar (DaVinci’s Demons) has little to work with but is very leaden and flat. There’s no spark of charisma between the two of them. Hugo Weaving (The Hobbit) is clearly enjoying himself as the hammy villain bent on bringing back old imperialism into this brave new world. The entire population of London is only seen cheering in reaction shots, which makes it harder to believe when characters talk about innocents amongst this throng of happy imperialist cheerleaders. I was happy to see Frankie Adams (TV’s The Expanse) as a do-nothing role as Revolutionary Fighter Pilot #3.

There is a massive plot hole in the second act that Mortal Engines cannot recover from (minor spoilers). The entire motivation for Hester is her vengeance against Valentine, enough so that she’s willing to risk her life by running out on her zombie Terminator surrogate father Shrike (Stephen Lang, in CGI mode) to see this through. But if Hester has a zombie Terminator surrogate father, why doesn’t she simply say, “Hey new dad, help me kill this one evil guy, and I’ll happily do whatever you want after”? In flashbacks, we see her open to the idea of transforming into some form of a robotic hybrid, shedding her humanity and losing the ability to feel any pain. It makes no sense why she wouldn’t use this new asset to her advantage, especially when the second act is mostly spent proving how formidable a threat he can be. This plot turn is further evidence at how sloppily the storytelling can get with character choices. Shrike is introduced as another antagonist to chase our heroes, but by introducing him at all, it makes me wonder about the better version of this movie, the Leon: The Professional version where a young girl teams up with a zombie Terminator father figure for vengeance. Don’t you, dear reader, want to see that movie too? It already sounds far more interesting and a better use of the unique story elements.

Here’s another example of how confusing this movie is – the poster image. Go back to it in this review and study it, then ask yourself why the marketing team decided to put the visual emphasis on a woman’s face covered by a bandanna. It’s a movie about giant cities on wheels attacking each other and it also has a zombie Terminator… and the emphasis is on a bandana? If all you saw about the movie was the title and that key poster image, you would never suspect what kind of movie you were in store for, which seems like the exact opposite purpose of advertising. What’s the hook of this image? What’s underneath that bandanna (spoilers: a second smaller bandanna)? What about the tagline which talks about her scar? Did the marketing team actively try and hide the buzzier genre elements?

Mortal Engines feels assembled from the many scattered pieces of other, better movies. I wish we spent more time in this world and less time with the bland assembly of characters not played by Hugo Weaving. I wish we saw more about the intricacies of life on the move and the working infrastructure of these new environments. I wish we had more importance with the Anna Fang (Jihae) character where she didn’t feel like she just ported over from a Matrix sequel. I wish a lot of things were different about Mortal Engines and yet even when it’s bad, even when it’s dumb, and even when it’s insane, the movie is always worth watching and fairly entertaining, for a variety of reasons. I could see a select group of audiences enjoying this for ironic and non-ironic purposes. It’s a big shambling mess of a movie but it puts on a solid show.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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

West of Memphis (2012)

west-of-memphis-posterThe West Memphis Three murder case gained substantial notoriety thanks to an HBO documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who were on hand in 1993 to document the trial in their film, Paradise Lost. Three eight-year-old boys (Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch) went missing one day in May in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found the next day in a nearby creek. The boys had been hogtied and bore plenty of vicious marks, one of them having a severed penis. The horror shocked the small town and the blame landed on a trio of local teens (Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols). Miskelley had confessed under police interrogation and so was tried separately, but all three were found guilty. Miskelley and Baldwin were given life in jail and Echols, the supposed ringleader, a teen who disliked authority and read about magic and demons, was given the death penalty.

In the years that followed, thanks to the exposure of the Paradise Lost films (a second was released in 2000 and a third in 2011), advocates flocked to the cause, belied by the overwhelming belief that the three convicted had been unfairly railroaded. Celebrities spoke out and got involved, chief among them Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They began communicating with Echols and his wife, Lori, and personally bankrolled a new team of forensic experts to amass new evidence that could allow for a potential appeal. Jackson even hired Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to helm her own documentary, West of Memphis.

11979797-largeDenied at most turns by the same flat-footed officials, the West Memphis Three struck a deal with the Arkansas attorney general in August 2011. The three would be granted freedom if they agreed to an Alford Plea, a rare legal circumstance where a defendant can plead guilty while still maintain their innocence. Eighteen years later the West Memphis Three are free but there are still many questions that need to be answered, mostly involving the conduct of officials involved in the case and the identity of the real killer.

As an ardent follower of the case, as well as the three previous documentaries by Berlinger and Sinofsky, I was concerned that West of Memphis would be more or less a rehash of what has already been covered in earlier, better movies, and to some degree it is. When you’re the fourth documentary to the table, there’s going to be some repetition. Berg’s film serves as a nice introduction to the case for newcomers and provides a diligent overview of the main facets of the murder case. There are a few finer points that Berg’s film spends more time illuminating that I think are worth mentioning. The first is extensively laying out why Miskelley’s confession was coerced. The teen, whose mental faculties are low, was locked away in police custody, without a parent or lawyer, for most of a day, with only a scant portion recorded. On these recordings, Berg clearly points out, with the assistance from some expert talking heads, how police officials guided Miskelley into the statement they wanted to hear. It’s pretty damming stuff to hear and a clear-cut case of a coerced confession.

What West of Memphis does best is narrow its focus to police and prosecutorial misconduct, picking apart the evidence that put two men away for life and one on death row. The fact that the prosecution used Damien’s own teenage poetry against him, evidence that might simultaneously doom and embarrass us all, should speak volumes. This was a case where the only thing tying the defendants to the crime scene was Miskelley’s false confession and the flimsy idea that the crime scene was a satanic ritual. Berg finds several of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the stand about how the three were involved in satanic practices, and in those new interviews each witness comes clean, admitting they were pressured by police or offered attractive deals to link the defendants to the satanic motive. Their recantations are satisfying to hear and, in journalistic lingo, a true get for Berg and her crew.

We expect our law enforcement officials to be just but mistakes will happen; however, in the event of those mistakes, we expect officials to try and correct them, to make things right. What West of Memphis shows is that the West Memphis officials dug down deeper in the face of compelling evidence, refusing to admit when they were so clearly wrong. In the years after the case and following the Berlinger and Sinofsky films, there have been renewed efforts to revisit the physical evidence of the case. To a fault, every professional profiler, including one guy who was there at the founding of the FBI, concluded that the crime had nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. They also concluded that most of the wounds, argued by prosecutors to be responsible by a serrated knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s family mobile home (a knife the prosecution expressly knew Baldwin’s mother admitted to hurling in that lake a year prior to the case), were in fact made post-mortem by local scavenging animals, mainly large turtles with snapping jaws. There’s a reason that the wounds aren’t bloodier. It’s because the victims were already dead.

1682107-poster-1280-west-of-memphis-aims-to-give-a-hearing-for-justice-that-never-wasBut the most enlightening piece of evidence is what was found thanks to DNA, namely nothing. On not one single piece of evidence or anything relating to the victims was one scrap of DNA linked to Baldwin, Misskelley, or Echols. Seems rather open and shut, doesn’t it? Except Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original case, dismissed the reams of new physical evidence and rejected the motion for an appeal. It got to the point where, at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state was arguing that the only new evidence that should be considered when granting appeals is evidence that points to guilt. The state argued, to the disbelief of the court justices, that new evidence that could overturn (wrongful) convictions should be disallowed. Fortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this motion unanimously. It’s quite clear that law enforcement officials sought to save face rather than enact justice.

Another aspect that Berg’s film does better is illuminating another suspect the police have ignored for 18 years, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch. The movie devotes a solid 45 minutes on the subject, painting a convincing portrait of a suspect with long ties to abuse, anger, lies, and manipulation. A hair of Hobbs, matching his DNA exactly, was found tied into the knot of one of the bound boys. Weirdly enough, Terry Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines for defamation, which fortuitously provided an opportunity to question Hobbs with the full penalty of the law behind them. Under oath, his story crumbles and his alibi at the time proves to have a sizable a gap, a period where the boys were killed according to medical reports.

Clearly Terry Hobbs is a compelling suspect though I wish the movie didn’t feel the need to resort to superficial assertions concerning how he “behaves guilty,” like his lack of emotion concerned the case. Questioning why he waited over two hours to tell his wife that their son was missing is a fair line of inquiry. Questioning his history of spousal abuse and violent run-ins is fair. Questioning why he isn’t more outwardly bereaved is not. It’s the same prejudicial judgments made against Damien when he was being tried, the idea that he just wasn’t acting like an innocent man (to be fair, Damien was also a moody teen at the time). Berlinger and Sinofsky are guilty of this as well, devoting a disproportionate amount of Paradise Lost 2 to pointing a suspicious eye toward John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers, and a theatrical, larger-than-life figure. At least with Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers make amends, and there’s a nice scene where Byers apologizes to Echols. This guilt-by-superficial-judgment is a dubious line of accusation that Berg and her film should rise above (just the facts, ma’am).

From there, though, I started feeling like West of Memphis is best served as a complimentary film to be paired with the altogether superior Paradise Lost documentaries. There is something to be said for Berlinger and Sinofsky being on the ground from the get-go, having unprecedented access to the victims’ families, the families of the accused, the attorneys on both sides, and the accused themselves. Naturally over three films you get a much stronger sense of the nuances of the case, but Berlinger and Sinofsky also gave you a much stronger sense of the community and the full context of the crimes. I was bothered at how often Berg’s film eschews direct on-camera interviews with Miskelley and Baldwin. Late in the film, as the movie explores Baldwin’s hesitancy to admit guilt for a chance at freedom, a friend recounts her phone conversations with Baldwin on the tricky subject. Why isn’t Baldwin himself on camera talking about this rather than a friend relaying her conversations with the man? Throughout the film, when it concerns the accused, the movie feels oddly removed from the source (Damien and his wife are credited as producers for the doc). It’s got plenty of talking heads and famous celebrities on camera but I’d rather hear from those directly involved. It’s just another reminder of the access and relationships that were formed through the Paradise Lost films. You’ll get a good overview of the fascinating and horrifying case with this movie, but to get a better understanding of the people involved, reference the meatier Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

west-of-memphis-3-movie-2012-damien-echols-jason-baldwinBy the end, even after 18 years in prison, it’s remarkable and inspiring how free of bitterness the three men are. They still have to live with the guilty verdicts but they are free, and rather than dwell on what was taken from them, the men are thankful for their freedoms and thankful for the diligence of the people who believed in their innocence, who fought long and hard so the day would come when they three of them would be set free. Berg’s film even dedicates its last moments to those advocates and their efforts, saying that their involvement made all the difference. This is an example where a movie literally saved somebody’s life. Without the exposure of the Paradise Lost, it’s very likely Echols would have remained on death row and been executed. On a personal note, this was the final moment that got me to cry (there were a couple others that made me teary). It’s because of the shared happiness and accomplishments of helping, in whatever small way, three innocent men get their long overdue freedom. I won’t overstate my involvement, but I was there, writing letters, sending in donations, advocating, since 1999. I have never been happier to retire a T-shirt than with my “Free the West Memphis Three” shirt (I wore it one last time to watch this movie). The forward-thinking, gracious attitudes of Baldwin, Miskelley, and Echols are inspiring, and it even inspired me to seize the moment myself rather than remain passive in a personal relationship.

Coming in after a trilogy of other extensive documentaries, West of Memphis can’t help but feel a little late to the party. Its strengths lie in deconstructing the prosecution’s case and assembling new interviews where key witnesses have an opportunity to come clean and recant. Otherwise, it’s like listening to another singer perform a song you’re already familiar with. The case is so deeply troubling and morbidly fascinating that there’s definitely room for four movies on the topic and then some; Atom Egoyan has filmed a movie based upon journalist Mara Leveritt’s book on the case, Devil’s Knot (starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth too). It’s easy to become immersed in this case; I know I have over the years. It all came down to a police force pressured to find a killer and three teens that were different in a small town. There are many tragedies tied to this case. The three boys who were gruesomely murdered. The three men who were wrongly convicted and lost 18 years of their lives. And since the West Memphis Three plead guilty, it means that the police can officially close the case, allowing the real killer to continue to walk free and unpunished. That should trouble every single person. West of Memphis is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary, though I think it’s best viewed as a supplement or introduction to the superior Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

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

District 9 (2009)

I can’t believe I forgot to review this some how. The sleeper hit of the summer, District 9 is an intelligent, and rather obvious, apartheid metaphor, and a grandly executed action thriller with a strong moral compass. Aliens crammed into ghettos and being mistreated and abused? Sounds like Alien Nation to those with longer memories, however, writer/director Neill Blomkamp forges a docu-drama that manages to be bristling with ethical questions and kick-ass action. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement, so much so that I was trying to will the characters onscreen to take certain precautions. Blomkamp manages to take shots at some easy targets, like shady corporations and mercenaries, but that doesn’t make the movie any less affecting. The movie belongs to actor Sharlto Copley, who begins the film as a dithering bureaucrat and ends as a truly unlikely action hero, and you buy every single step of this man’s satisfying emotional arc. While the Academy is picky when it comes to genre films, Copley deserves Oscar consideration; I haven’t seen a more compelling performance by an actor all year. The special effects are astounding, and they were accomplished on a scant budget of 30 million, which is probably what Transformers 2 spent on one explosion. District 9 makes you feel that movies can still surprise you, as long as we have visionary, intelligent life working outside the studio system.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones, based upon Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-selling blockbuster, is about some heavy stuff. It’s told entirely from the point of view of a dead teenage girl. She was raped and murdered by a skeevy neighbor, and now she gets to watch her family get torn apart through grief. For most filmmakers, this material would not be considered a “breather,” but then most filmmakers are not Peter Jackson (to my knowledge, only one is). The man known for epic fantasy adventures and lavish special effects applies his skills to bringing Sebold?s beyond-the-grave drama to life. The Lovely Bones has enough skill and craft to its merit, but Jackson’s rep as a filmmaker cannot save this poor adaptation. Who would have thought that the lord behind those Rings pictures could be felled by a teenage girl?

“I was fourteen years old when I was murdered,” Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) informs the audience. In 1973, young Susie Salmon (like the fish, we will be told many times) is walking home from school one night. Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci) approaches her and asks her to be the first kid in the neighborhood to see his underground clubhouse he built. She follows inside and will never make it back out alive. The police discover Susie’s knit hat and massive amounts of blood in the earth but no body. Susie’s family is a wreck. Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg) consumes himself with the mission of finding his daughter’s killer, alienating his wife, Abigail (Rachel Weisz). Mr. Harvey watches the stalled police investigation with growing pleasure, knowing he has gotten away with yet another child murder. As the years pass, he sets his sights on Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). But Susie is not completely absent during this period of time. She awakens in a magical, CGI-attuned spiritual realm known as the “in-between.” It is here that she spies on her family and her murderer and tries to pass time.

Since most of this story is told after her death, and because Susie died when she was a blossoming teenager, apparently she’s doomed to live the rest of her quasi-afterlife in that awkward visage. Imagine being a 14-year-old for eternity, and the only clothes you have to wear are ugly mustard-colored corduroy pants? That sounds more like hell than heaven. So Susie gets to interact in an afterlife built upon the mind of a teenager, which means that the afterlife involves pretending to be on magazine covers and dancing to disco music (again, heaven or hell?). I know that Jackson was asking for trouble by even attempting to interpret the ethereal, but his candy-colored version of Susie’s afterlife comes across like a bright, shiny doctor’s waiting room (“God will be with you in just a few minutes. Please enjoy our magazine selection in the meantime.”). It’s like you have to find peace before going through them pearly gates. Heaven doesn’t want your negativity so you are forced to chill in a screensaver.

There’s going to be some natural disconnect in trying to showcase a realm beyond human comprehension. I accept that, but why does Susie even bother staying in this “in-between” world? She spies on her family in grief through the years but she has no power to change things; that is, until she does for some inexplicable reason. And what does she do with that inter-dimensional power? She inhabits some girl’s body so she can snag her first kiss that her murder denied her. She passed up heaven and chose not to tell people about her body being disposed of. That doesn’t sound like she really reached any sense of enlightenment. But I digress. Why would Susie stay in this “in-between” when it only makes her sad? She’s fairly powerless and, honestly, does anybody really want to delay entering into heaven? Why does Susie get to pal around with all the other Mr. Harvey murder victims like some celestial support group? None of this can be explained because we’re dealing with a topic that defies rationale explanations. However, this “in-between” spiritual land feels like a visual leftover from the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come. That was another movie where I could never explain why anything happened.

Actually, the entire movie lacks any cause-effect continuity. The Lovely Bones feels bereft of any connective tissue. Characters will make huge decisions or be granted epiphanies because the plot demands it. I have no idea why Jack suddenly figures out that Mr. Harvey responsible for his daughter’s death. He thinks back to a memory and then all of a sudden everything makes sense, but only for his character. For me, none of it made sense. The entire investigation of Mr. Harvey doesn’t really hold up upon reflection. Jack personally looks into every shifty person in town but somehow overlooks the creepy loner across the street that builds meticulous dollhouses for fun? Mr. Harvey also likes to sketch out his murder pits, but just stop and think about Susie’s deathly hobbit hole. The man digs an entire underground lair in a cornfield. Wouldn’t it take hours if not days to refill the whole thing to cover his tracks? For a prolific serial killer, Mr. Harvey seems to be somewhat careless about leaving behind evidence (a safe filled with your victim’s remains?). I guess this is why Susie has to tell us at the onset that people were ignorant to all this unpleasantness in 1973 (I guess that means common sense was acquired in 1974). Why does Abigail all of a sudden desert her family? She can’t take the grief, so she ditches her two other younger children to live the life of a migrant worker. And why does she come back? How can two brown-eyed, brown-haired parents have three blue-eyed, blonde-haired kids? The entire movie lacks vital coherency and context.

From a tonal standpoint, The Lovely Bones never quite settles down and figures out what film it?s going to be. It veers from sentimental melodrama, to thriller, to headache-inducing camp (Sarandon’s boozy grandmother is terrible at housework — hilarious!). Jackson and crew jettison large amounts of Sebold’s text, leaving behind a New Age-y heaven and a fairly lame murder mystery where we already know the guilty party. The drama then pretty much boils down to whether or not Mr. Harvey will get caught.

You can tell that the serial killer segments grabbed Jackson’s interest the most because every sequence with Mr. Harvey feels more predicated and textured, like Jackson is applying more skill to showcase the twisted mind of a sick man. Jackson exerts far more energy into exploring the dark reaches of Mr. Harvey than he does the mourning of the Salmon family. We are denied the complexity of grief and remembrance. As presented, the Salmon family gets to weep and shout but nobody really tackles the issues or moving forward and acceptance of loss. Instead, we watch Mr. Harvey twitch and squirm and plot his next move. Tucci is appropriately scary, aided by an ominous comb-over. The segment when a ghostly Susie stumbles into Mr. Harvey’s bathroom is the best moment of dread. The bright white room is splattered in trails of dirt and streaks of hardened, dark blood, while Mr. Harvey rests in his bath with a washcloth covering his face. It seems like Jackson decided that what fans really wanted from a Lovely Bones movie was more serial killer screen time. If the family drama was going to be this boring, then I say devote the whole movie to the creep.

The acting is another curious detraction. Ronan (Atonement) fits the part but Jackson forces her to speak in this annoying, pseudo-spiritual whisper, like once you?ve attained the knowledge of the afterlife you become very soft-spoken. She shows a decent range of emotions but even she can?t quite figure out her character. Wahlberg seems miscast in his role and pretty limited in his depiction of obsessive grief. Weisz gets to cry her eyes out the most but then her character sits out the second half of the flick. Sarandon is only playing the role she was given, so I’ll be fair in my criticism, but her brassy, alcohol-swilling grandmother is like an unwelcome party crasher. She’s broad and loud and mostly cartoonish. I understand Sarandon was serving as comic relief amidst all the heavy drama, but it doesn’t count as relief when you wince at her presence. Tucci gives the mot layered, nuanced performance. He tries to relive each kill but soon enough the memory fades, and he feels the unstoppable impulse to feed his demons. Tucci is deeply scary, though he kind of talks like the roof of his mouth is stuffed with peanut butter.

Heavenly Creatures showed the world that Jackson could do so much more than campy, splattery gore and crude humor. It beautifully dealt with the scary, bewildering world of fantasy and budding feminine sexuality. Now after four grandiose movies, The Lovely Bones was supposed to be a trip back to that smaller, character-driven territory that Jackson first charted in Heavenly Creatures. Now I wonder if Jackson has the ability to return to smaller scope pictures. He and his screenwriting brain trust, Philipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, have softened the harder elements from the novel, completely eliminating any sexual emphasis. This PG-13 take is heavy on ponderous acid trip visuals and light on coherence, and when you can?t understand why things are happening after a while you stop caring why. After a while, I just stopped caring about Susie Salmon (like the fish).

Nate’s Grade: C

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