The Silver Bullet ~ The Program

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Synopsis: An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong’s performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Boy, do people hate Lance Armstrong.  And with good reason.  The disgraced former champion cyclist famously used performance enhancing drugs during his career and employed various methods of deceiving the standardized tests to keep him racing.  The deception was tragically documented in the 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, putting to film Armstrong’s very public fall from grace.

Now director Stephen Frears (Philomena) is heading up John Hodge’s (Trance) dramatization of Armstrong’s career and the investigation that ultimately proved what so many suspected for years.  As Armstrong, Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks a heckuva lot like Armstrong and he’s joined by Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) as the journalist that made it his mission to uncover the truth.  With supporting work from Dustin Hoffman (Boychoir) and Lee Pace (Lincoln), I’m hoping The Program is more than just another (deserved) jab at Armstrong.

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 ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Director: James Gunn

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If I’m being honest (and c’mon, we’re close enough friends that I’ll always tell the truth) I’ll admit that at first I just didn’t know what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy.  After several years of recognizable Marvel comic book properties making their way to the big screen (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and The Avengers) I wasn’t certain where this new franchise film would fit in.  Not being well acquainted with the source material, I couldn’t quite warm to the first jokey preview that set fan tongues a waggin’ but had me scratchin’ my noggin.  And what was up with the raccoon and talking tree?

So I find myself hunkering down for a screening of Marvel’s latest attempt at superhero domination a little grumbly and prepared for my worst fears onscreen: an overblown yuk fest of an actioner with copious one-liners and inter-galactic battle sequences that pummel you with lots of noise and digital effects.  Who knew that’s exactly what this summer needed?

If the previous Marvel superhero films equate to a stretch limo with your cool aunts and uncles, then Guardians of the Galaxy is the party bus transporting your crazy cousins.  I ask you…which ride would you rather take?

Starting with an emotional Earth-bound prologue that segues into a silly credits sequence showcasing the first of several 80s musical hits, Guardians of the Galaxy hits its stride early on and never lets up as audiences are taking to various points throughout the solar system.  When overgrown kid/space pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Her, now primed for A-List stardom) steals a mysterious orb that looks like the Omegahedron from 1984’s Supergirl, he gets into all kinds of hot water from blue hued baddie Ronan (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) that wants to use its powers to do some planetary damage.  Additionally, Quill has a bounty put on his head from another Smurf colored character (Michael Rooker) that sent him to retrieve the orb in the first place.

Bounty hunter raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines) and deciduous sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick, in possibly his best performance…heard not seen) aren’t the only ones after Quill.  Sent by Ronan to fetch the orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Out of the Furnace, trading her Avatar blue for wicked green) may have plans of her own for the strange object.  It all turns into your standard case of multiple people wanting to possess the orb for numerous purposes.  From prison breaks to narrow escapes, the movie has a breathless pace but never feels rushed or out of balance.  It’s a full meal of a film that blessedly doesn’t wind up feeling like a franchise jumping off point (which of course it is).

Director and co-screenwriter James Gunn packs a lot into his film and there’s a welcome point of view sorely lacking in films made from comic book tales.  He backs up strong characterization with an assembled design team that should get ready for Oscar nominations in visual effects, make-up, and costume design.  From the mechanizations of the evil Nebula (Karen Gillan, Oculus) to the body art of logic driven He-Man-esque Drax (Dave Bautista, who maybe would have been a better choice for Hercules), there’s a follow-through and attention to detail that acts as the sprinkles on top of Gunn’s visual sundae of a film.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny as well?  I was worried that the laughs would trump logic but from Gunn’s clever music selection and his willingness to capitalize on Pratt’s comedic gifts, there’s the sense that everyone is on the joke and relishing their chance to participate.  Gunn doesn’t let the humor rule the picture but instead picks wise moments to break up some of the overly nerdy bits.

In a summer of ups and downs, Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as the most satisfying big studio film I’ve seen all year (my favorite films of the year, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, don’t count seeing as they’re independent endeavors) and goes a long way in saving the Summer of 2014 from being remembered as three months of mediocre-to-terrible offerings like A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended, Jersey Boys, and the cinematic Ebola virus called Tammy.  It’s a mammoth sized two hour superlative treat – the one film of the summer worth seeing twice.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Release Date:  August 1, 2014

Thoughts: I should start out by saying that I’m totally familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and all of the characters introduced within.  Teased first at the end of Thor: The Dark World, the full trailer for Marvel’s latest “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” film has an awful lot of impressive looking images that we’ve come to expect from an effects driven superhero film.  What I find it’s lacking, however, is some justification for being so tonally blasé.  It’s seems preciously desperate to come across with the same structured sarcasm as Marvel’s The Avengers even though that blockbuster already earned its stripes by bringing characters together already established in solo films.  With a meaty cast like Chris Pratt (Her), Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furnace), Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), and Vin Diesel (Riddick) on board the film isn’t lacking in star power…I just hope it’s not nearly as comic-booky as it looks.

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 ~ 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.