Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-earth.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Martin Freeman,Stephen Fry, Jed Brophy, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom,Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham McTavish, Lee Pace,Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, John Bell,Adam Brown, John Callen, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Dean O’Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt, Aidan Turner, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  So here it is…the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth and the end of his second trilogy featuring all sorts of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, dragons, rings, etc.  Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is arguably an example of the truly best storytelling on film since the medium began and it helped that the movies comprising that original trilogy were based on three individual books.  With The Hobbit films, it’s been clear that Jackson struggled with the limitations of working with just one J.R.R. Tolkien book as the subject for three rather lengthy films.

Originally intended as a two-part series, somewhere along the line the concept of another trilogy was just too appealing and Jackson went back and shot more footage to fill out the narrative, drawing on the Appendices from Tolkien and creating an entirely new character in the form of a female woodland elf (Evangeline Lilly) that forms a connection with a dwarf.

I (along with many others) wasn’t quite enamored with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finding it too ponderous and uneventful even with its impressive technical merits. A year later, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug suffered from another workmanlike introduction before hitting paydirt in its final hour when the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness) made his appearance.  Ending with a great cliffhanger, I think many fans were equal parts excited to see the finale in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and relieved that this troubled chapter was closing.

Before seeing this last film I did something I didn’t do last year, I spent a day with my favorite Lord of the Rings fan and watched the first two Hobbit films in their extended versions back to back.  I suddenly found the narrative less onerous and appreciated the way that Jackson let the story unfold as brave hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) traversed across the countryside with a group of dwarves toward the Lonely Mountain searching for a stone that would restore a kingdom to its rightful owners.

Unlike the original Lord of the Rings films, these three Hobbit entries are essentially one long (looooooong) movie and should be seen together.  Now, I’m sure your rump just let out a little squeal of disagreement but I know I enjoyed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as much as I did because I had seen its two predecessors shortly before.  Now, Jackson’s stretching of the material wasn’t quite so objectionable and began to make a lot of sense.

That’s not to say The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t fall into the same traps that befell the earlier entries.  There’s still a questionable amount of scenes that go on longer than they should; Jackson backs off on his gained momentum when he should be blazing forward.  The battle sequences occupy the majority of this chapter and at times it can be an overwhelming experience, but on the other hand they’re staged with the kind of epic grandeur that recalls old Hollywood epics featuring casts of thousands.

The digital rendering of an endless supply of hideous evils are a sight to behold and the technicians involved should not only pick out their attire for the Oscar ceremony now, they should ready their acceptance speeches.  It’s the highest level of proficiency I’ve seen out of Jackson’s effects house and the results are excellent.

As for the flesh and blood actors, all deliver solid performances that tie in nicely to the events that follow in the Lord of the Rings series.  Though there are a few references to future characters that seem overly shoehorned in, I gotta say that I appreciated how well Jackson and co. make sure that all the ends are connected before the credits roll.

Along with Freeman’s jittery Bilbo (I’ve decided he’s the Hugh Grant of hobbits) there’s Ian McKellen’s (X-Men: Days of Future Past) wise wizard Gandalf, Richard Armitage’s (Into the Storm) haunted dwarf who would be king, and the luminous Cate Blanchett’s (Blue Jasmine) as Galadriel who winds up with one of the film’s most thrilling moments that’s nearly worth the price of admission in and of itself.

One couldn’t be blamed if the feeling to move right into a Lord of the Rings marathon is present as this film reaches its conclusion.  Jackson has seen to it that the transition between his two trilogies is fluid and while he won’t win an Oscar for his efforts this time around, he deserves another round of applause for the world he brought to life in six films.  A high-water achievement as a filmmaker…even if The Hobbit films still can’t hold a candle to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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Synopsis: The Company of Thorin has reached Smaug’s lair; but can Bilbo and the Dwarves reclaim Erebor and the treasure? And, if so, can they hold on to it?

Release Date: December 17, 2014

Thoughts: All those eyebrows that have been raised since Peter Jackson returned to Middle Earth and the land of elves, hobbits, dragons, and wizards will finally get a chance to rest once the final chapter of The Hobbit trilogy is released in December. Though the trilogy hasn’t been met with the same rapturous acclaim that The Lord of the Rings films accumulated, there’s no denying Jackson has leveraged his talents to see it all through to the very end. I was slow to warm to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and thought The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was an improvement so I hope that trajectory continues. Even with the endless debate about Jackson’s use of advanced filming technology and employment of 3D can’t diminish my overall respect for his hefty accomplishment. Looking forward to this, no question.

Movie Review ~ Quartet

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At a home for retired musicians, the annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and the former wife of one of the residents.

Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the best kind of movies are the ones that sneak up on you and take you in a different direction than you originally thought.  Like Silver Linings Playbook, Quartet is a film that on the surface (and certainly in its preview) looks like it’s rather conventional but in reality it provides a wealth of entertainment for those that like to color outside of the lines.  It takes a slower pace than one might expect and occasionally wanders off topic but it all somehow works to end up a quite satisfying experience.

I tried to resist describing Quartet as a mash-up of Downton Abbey and Fame but fans of both should see where I’m coming from once Quartet has begun.  Though it takes place in the present, it sets its action at a stately retirement home for musicians in the English countryside.  The large estate looks like a scaled down version of the famous Downton Abbey location – the various rooms and grounds provide a great setting for the story to unfold in.

The previews for Quartet are a bit misleading – it’s not an outright comedy about the antics of seniors living out their days in a community of their previous peers and rivals.  It’s also not a pained examination of what the aging process is like and how it takes its toll on all of us.  Rather, it’s a film that shows respect to its actors, characters, and subject matter by portraying these people as realistically as possible.  Even the more outsized characters (like Gambon’s puffy blowhard) seem familiar and relatable.

It’s hard to believe that Hoffman has never taken a turn behind the camera before.  The Oscar winning actor has been a lauded member of the Hollywood community for years so it’s even more interesting that he would choose such a stately British piece (by Sir Ronald Harwood, adapting his own play) to start out with.  Hoffman lets the actors play their scenes without doing anything fancy…he just lets the camera roll and some nice magic occurs.

Smith, recently self-described in an interview as ‘spikey’, has been the go-to actress for British resiliency. In 2012 she turned in a typically acerbic performance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and her reign as queen of Downton Abbey is undisputed.  She plays a similar character here but with a grace that proves once again why she’s one of the best actresses out there.  It’s a vulnerable and intimate performance that should have been recognized by the Academy Awards.

The other three members of the quartet are played equally as strong, especially Courtenay as Smith’s ex-husband.  Her arrival stirs emotions he had long since pushed aside and forces him to confront them all over again.  Connolly plays another rascal and Collins is appropriately dotty in her comedic relief role.  Other inhabitants of the home include real life retired performers that once graced the stages all over the world.  Stick around for the credits to see pictures of the large cast throughout the years – it’s a striking montage.

Add in some nice zingers that get lobbed and Smith’s utterance of a word she’s never said in film before and you have a real winner.  While it may be slower than most will have the patience for, I was immensely satiated by Quartet thanks to Hoffman’s gentle direction, Smith’s incredible performance, and superb supporting work from a talented cast.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A curious Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug

Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Andy Serkis

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Several months ago, I posted the teaser poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and said “I’m not ready to admit how much I’m looking forward to this.”  As a huge fan of the original trilogy of The Lord of the Rings I, like many, have been counting down the days, hours, minutes to the release of this first entry in another trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It had been years since I read the book so I picked it up again in the last few weeks to reorient myself with Tolkien’s world and the various characters that he introduced us to.   As I read, I couldn’t help but notice how light the book was, how episodic it felt, and how sparse it seemed.  How would they make three whole movies out of this?

Now, I know (and you probably know) that there’s more to this Hobbit than just what happens in the novel.  A troupe of screenwriters (including director Jackson and would-be director Guillermo del Toro) went back to Tolkien’s appendices, notes, and maybe laundry lists to stretch the shortest of his Middle Earth novels into three films.  With The Lord of the Rings, this method would have made sense…but with this first part of The Hobbit it pulls a bit too tightly and instead of the truly satisfying experience the original trilogy was we have a fairly decent but by no means exceptional fantasy adventure.

Being totally objective and taking my love of the novels/films out of it, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the movie is only really good for the final 1/3 and even then you may be so exhausted from the dizzying visuals and lengthy slow sections that it may be too little too late.  I’m a fairly forgiving audience member with films that start off slowly and end with a bang and this almost makes its case with a rousing finale…but in the days following my screening of the film I can’t get over a tad bit of melancholy that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t the experience I wanted.

Maybe the problems really started with the arduous journey the movie had in getting to the big screen.  Behind the scenes squabbling by its parent studios kept director Guillermo del Toro out of the director seat (don’t cry for him, Bilbo Baggins, he has Pacific Rim coming out next year and it looks like a doozy!) and as years stretched between the last Lord of the Rings film (which won Best Picture and Best Director for Jackson) it seemed like all hope was lost.  Originally not interested in directing, Jackson finally came onboard and the rest was history…well all except for the fact that what was originally conceived as a two-part adventure was hurriedly split into three.  I still have big problems with this decision because based on this first part, there’s not enough meat to go around the feast.

Ok, ok…it’s not a bad film…let’s be clear.  It’s possible, though, that expectations were so high that anything even remotely wrong with the film would be put under an intense magnification making it seem like it was a much bigger deal than it really is.  So the film takes a while to get going, pondering around in the shire of Bilbo Baggins as he is swept into an adventure involving wizards, dwarves, elves, goblins, and one dragon quite protective of his own turf…what of it?  Every story needs a good introduction, right?  Well…kinda.  The opening of the film winds up feeling like the Extended Edition which will inevitably follow when it’s released for home viewing. 

Though the first part of the film taking place in Bilbo’s shire is capped off nicely with an all hands on deck story-song that Jackson films impeccably, it’s largely uninteresting because nothing much is happening.  It’s only when Bilbo (Freeman) hits the road with Gandalf (McKellan…beyond reproach) that the film gets moving too and despite a few creaky bits along the way the film gets better with each new digital creature acting on a virtual landscape of Jackson’s creation.

Let’s talk about the much hyped new filming technique that Jackson has employed here.  In addition to being released in 3D, audiences have the choice to see the film in HFR (High Frame Ratio).  In an attempt to reduce blur and flickering in a film, Jackson has piloted an industry first of shooting the film at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.  What this creates is a quite lifelike display of action…almost uncomfortably so.  The fourth wall is seemingly broken and I’d liken it to a state of the art HD television.  Some of this works and some of this doesn’t…any scene taking place in the daylight looks almost too realistic while sequences at night seem to capture the technique the best.   HFR provides some astonishing clarity but when it’s coupled with heavy digital effects and 3D, I found myself having to close my eyes so I didn’t get dizzy.  That’s never happened to me with any film until know so it has to be the overall impact of the HFR that caused it.  As with any progression of filmmaking, HFR is going to take some time to get used to.  It’s hard to describe it if you haven’t seen it – but it’s up to you if you want to shell out the extra money for it (I saw the film in the evening, in a VIP section at the Icon, and in HFR3D and paid $19).

In all honestly, I think I need to see the film again to really make up my mind how I feel about it.  This review represents my initial reaction to the film and HFR and perhaps over time I’ll change my opinion when I can compare it to the films that are coming in the next two years (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is due one year from now and The Hobbit: There and Back Again follows in summer 2014).  I only hope that in the time he has until the next film is released Jackson listens to the feedback on the pace and edits the next entries accordingly.