31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

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.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Lee Pace

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  A little over a year ago the groans heard ‘round the world were from the audiences coming out of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.  After waiting so long for the director’s vision of J.R.R. Tolkien predecessor to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the disappointing first film was a tough one to sit through, hardly justifying its nearly three hour running length.  Adding to some headaches was the High Frame Ratio (HFR) filming style the movie was released in, which displays the film at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.  This creates an overly realistic image that some audiences (including myself) had a hard time adjusting to.  I closed my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by saying “I only hope that in the time he {Peter Jackson} has until the next film is released Jackson listens to the feedback on the pace and edits the next entries accordingly.”

Well it’s a year later and I’m happy to say that Jackson must have listened to me ( 🙂 ) because The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug represents a significant improvement in almost every area that wasn’t quite up to snuff the first time around.  Though the film is still overinflated to fill out the requirements of a trilogy, there’s more action to hold your attention and some incredible effects sequences that had me on the edge of my seat.  Seeing it again in 3D HFR I found the projected image a lot easier to adjust to, with only a few select sequences coming off as funky due to the way the HFR affects movement. 

Picking up where the first film left off (after a brief prologue that comes before the events of the first film), we are once again partners on a journey with Bilbo and the dwarves in their quest to make it to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim their rightful homeland.  Along the way they encounter a bevy of roadblocks like large spiders, shape shifting men, fiendishly rendered orcs, and combative elves…all trying to knock them off their path toward the mountain.

Of course, it’s all a means to an end because anyone that has read the books or seen the previews or read the title knows that a meeting with the destructive dragon Smaug is pending.  Whatever you may think about the first 2/3 of the film, it’s the final act where Bilbo comes face to face with the fire-breathing monster where the film earns some major brownie points.  Smaug, (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave) is a stunning creation of visual effects, seamlessly blending in with the live action sets and stars – the digital titans at the special effects company WETA have truly outdone themselves here. 

Though the time flies once the dragon appears on screen, I did find the first chunk of the movie easy to sit through even if my mind wandered more than I’d like and my eyes drifted to my watch on more than one occasion.  Though Evangeline Lilly’s sylvan elf character Tauriel was created solely for these final two films, I found her presence to be very strong.  The bad part is that her supposed romance with dwarf Kili unfortunately adds lengthy time to the already long movie and isn’t really necessary or truly integral to the plot.  Who knows how this romance will factor into the final film but it did feel like extraneous filler to stretch out the running length. 

Overall, this film really delivers the goods.  Though it’s clear now that The Hobbit films won’t be able to topple the original trilogy, fans of Tolkien’s work or Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films should find more reasons to like this second installment while being reminded once again how special that original trilogy was.  Ending with a dynamite cliffhanger, a year seems too far away to be able to finish the journey in middle earth.  If you had asked me a year ago, I’d have said that a year wasn’t long enough.  A grand improvement of a film.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Synopsis: The Dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf have successfully escaped the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo has gained the One Ring. They all continue their journey to get their gold back from the Dragon, Smaug.

Release Date:  December 13, 2013

Thoughts: I’d like to say I was one of the relative few that accepted Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a forgiving embrace but alas I couldn’t give myself over to a film that was long in the tooth and overstuffed with material that wasn’t needed.  Though a technical marvel that made some huge steps for filmmaking, there was a strange void that was never filled by anything that flew across the screen.  The second installment is being prepped for release in December and here’s hoping that Jackson and co. went back to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy of films and re-examined what made them so special.  The heart and soul from those films was missing from Part 1 of The Hobbit – let’s keep our ringed fingers crossed Part 2 rights some wrongs.

Movie Review ~ West of Memphis

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three

Stars: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley

Director: Amy Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The story of the West Memphis Three has already been covered extensively in three made-for-television feature length documentaries (the excellent Paradise Lost films) and in numerous online articles, specials, and books.  So what could the new documentary West of Memphis tell us that we don’t already know?  The answer: quite a lot and not enough.

I don’t want to say that I felt West of Memphis was a Cliffs Notes version of the Paradise Lost films with an extra material at the end but that’s a feeling I did have while screening the two and a half hour investigation into the crime that has plagued a small Arkansas community for nearly two decades.  Overall, it’s an arresting piece of entertainment that strikes all the right notes that make true crime films so fascinating.   Unlike the presentational nature of the other films though, this one seems more tell and less show…like its directing us to come to a certain conclusion based on its own agenda.

After three young boys are murdered and left in a watery grave a modern day witch hunt is enacted and three teens are jailed for the crime.  Two are sentenced to life in prison and one is sent to death row and had the case not received such national attention that very well could have been the end of the story.  However in the following years a lot of information comes to the surface that indicates the justice system failed these three accused boys serving time for a crime they very well likely had nothing to do with.  As more evidence is scrutinized with the latest technology, signs start to point away from the convicted and to family members that may have been involved.

What’s been so fascinating through the years is how the lives of everyone close to the case have taken such cinematic turns.  Death, forgiveness, and redemption are all on display in grand fashion – and even the best screenwriter couldn’t have come up with what actually happened in reality.

A swath of celebrities came to the aide of the West Memphis Three and the film is partly the product of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s efforts to get involved and search for the truth with other famous faces like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Johhny Depp.

Compiling new interviews with footage culled from decades of information and multiple sources, director Berg tends to jump around in timelines too often.  At one point, we’re in 2006 and then we’re in 2012 before circling back to 2005 and then landing in 2007.  It can be a bit disorienting when a through line of information is really desired.

Berg and the filmmakers clearly have their sights set on a suspect and aggressively present their case to we, the audience.  The television documentaries had suspects in mind as well…but there’s something about the way this feature film goes down a similar path that had me digging my heels in slightly. See, if the whole issue is that the West Memphis Three were wrongly seen as guilty until proven innocent, how fair is that for the film to want us to take that same approach with their #1 suspect?  Admittedly, the evidence is pretty strong but that could be a little bit of cinematic license.

No doubt about it, this case continues to haunt anyone that comes in contact with it.  Three boys were brutally murdered and that is a terrible crime…but as is the case in any crime there are collateral damage victims as well.  The film is strongest when it focuses on these victims and the least focused when it’s zeroing in on a suspect.

Hollywood isn’t done with this story yet.  Devil’s Knot, a film adaption of Mara Leveritt’s book on the crime, is due out later this year with star Reese Witherspoon playing the mother of one of the murdered children.  If you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films and have an interest in true crime you must seek them out.  West of Memphis is also strongly worthy as an added addendum to those films.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ West of Memphis

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Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three.

Release Date:  December 25, 2012

Thoughts: Though the case of the West Memphis Three has been well-documented in the three Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis presents another look into the devious child murders that rocked a small town and the witch hunt that saw three men on the cusp of adulthood and the wrong side of the tracks be targeted as the culprits.  Produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, West of Memphis looks to be another strong documentary arriving in theaters just in time to provide strong true crime counter-programming to the usual holiday fare.  Sign me up.