Movie Review ~ Black Panther

The Facts

Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.

Movie Review ~ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


The Facts

Synopsis: A journalist recounts her wartime coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I believe we’ve reached a point in our culture where it seems downright unpatriotic not to like Tina Fey. There’s something about the funny lady that just rubs us the right way, even if her style of comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A star on Saturday Night Live before launching a successful prime time television career writing/starring in 30 Rock and eventually making the transition to film, Fey relied on her charming inoffensiveness, quick wit, and pointed observations to carve out a niche for herself as a performer and successful awards show host. It seemed like there was nothing she couldn’t do…except drama.

Now I realize that 2014’s This is Where I Leave You had problems way more severe than Fey being miscast as the caustic sister to Jason Bateman’s harried brother. Still, there was something about how out of place she seemed that just cut deeper than that film’s total lack of drive or point. Wisely, Fey retreated back to her comfy comedic shores and scored in December in Sisters with her frequent co-star Amy Poehler. The first time I saw the preview for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I got this terrible pit in my stomach that another dramatic debacle was on the horizon.

Thankfully, I can write off my tortured stomach to a bad burrito because Fey hits a solid bulls-eye as a journalist that leaves the safety of her office writing copy for newscasters to become a war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan. Inspired by Kim Barker’s book ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the auto-biography has been adapted by longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock and produced by Fey’s former SNL boss Lorne Michaels into a veritable star vehicle. And it’s right up her alley.

I’ll admit to being more than a little overdosed on the mortar blasts, dusty locales, and terrorists in turbans found in the recent slate of war films so I was pleasantly surprised that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was able to hold my attention the way it did. Telling a war story from a journalistic angle rather than a military one, the film succeeds best when it puts Fey on the frontlines bravely stepping into a firestorm of bullets to get a video clip for the evening news. As Fey/Carlock will have you believe, Barker surprised even herself in the gung-ho way she threw herself into the work and our star never treats it as an opportunity to mine for toothy comedy.

Eschewing the fish out of water approach that could have been taken, the film follows Barker over the four years she was stationed in the Middle East and episodically recounts the situations she encounters and the people she meets along the way. There’s a beautiful Lara Logan-esque blonde bombshell reporter (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, reteaming with her Focus directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), given more depth than the character probably calls for, a surly general (played by a wigged man that looks like Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge…because it is) that’s given less depth than the character calls for, and a kindly local driver (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) that forms a bond with Barker even though societal norms keeps him from expressing his feelings of friendship.

Barker had several men in her life that cause the only real trouble the film has to offer. She starts off the in a long distance relationship with Josh Charles (Freeheld), is pursued by her Australian bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke, Hercules), wooed by a top Afghan official (Alfred Molina, Monsters University), and eventually warms to a hotshot photographer (Martin Freeman, The World’s End). Only Molina and Freeman register any kind of chemistry (romantic or not) with Fey and in particular it must be noted that Freeman gives one of his best performance, free of any of his heretofore constant nebbish line readings and meek demeanor.

In the end it’s Fey that really sells the film. It was nice to see the actress leave some of her trademark tics back in the US. Gone are the clipped one liners, anguished eye rolls, winking asides to the camera. If some of her lines are delivered with just a hint of her classic smirk, it’s easy to forgive seeing that it feels right in the context of the character.

Carlock’s script leaves a lot unexplained, fails to fully flesh out some of the supporting players, and there’s really no third act to speak of, but the film plays nicely with audiences and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Going in I wasn’t sure I’d like Fey’s further attempts at drama, coming out I was wishing this had come out later in the year so she’d be included in some end of the year recognition. It isn’t unheard of that it could happen seeing that it’s a worthy performance in a decent film.

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


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


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 ~ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


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.

Movie Review ~ The World’s End



The Facts:

Synopsis: Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind’s only hope for survival.

Stars: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Director: Edgar Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: This summer has seen a lot of super heroes pass by the silver screens of your local cinema.  May started the season strong with Iron Man 3 only to see a very small part of my future hopes get dashed with a disappointing Man of Steel in June.  I liked July’s The Wolverine more than most but was wondering what would be the highlight of August.  Turns out that the true blue superheroes of the summer arrived in the second to last weekend…and they weren’t even wearing fancy costumes.

Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Nick Frost (Snow White and the Huntsman) lead the cast of The World’s End, the final installment of the The Cornetto Trilogy (each film is connected to a flavor of Cornetto ice cream) after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  Though in all three films Pegg and Frost play different characters, there are running gags in each that the dedicated viewer will pick up on easily…The World’s End being no exception.  Once again working with director Edgar Wright, the trio has wrapped up their trilogy on the highest of high notes.  It’s a fast, funny, incredibly entertaining film that plays to the strengths of everyone involved.

As the boozy mid-life loser who can’t get his life together, Pegg decides that returning to his hometown and completing a failed pub crawl from 20 years prior with his four best mates will somehow jump start the next chapter in his life.  Trouble is that he hasn’t been home in years and his chums want nothing to do with him.  Rounding them up isn’t easy but it is funny as Pegg frantically lies and cheats to get the men together.  Arriving in their small English hamlet, it appears that the tiny town hasn’t changed a bit.  We as viewers can see that the idyllic (and idyllically named) Newton Haven isn’t quite right, but the men waste no time in kicking off their journey from pub to pub on their way to the final destination…The World’s End.

The film is economic as it unspools, with nary a frame wasted or line thrown away.  In fact, the jokes come so fast and furious that a second or third viewing is nearly required to make sure you catch all that Wright and Pegg have weaved into their tight script.  Even the clever pub names like The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Two-Headed Dog, and The Beehive get some laugh mileage due to the simplicity in which they are delivered.

The film is more similar to Hot Fuzz than Shaun of the Dead, though all three films involve Pegg and Frost stumbling into (sometimes literally) the heart of a sinister plot.  Like Hot Fuzz, the first half of the film is a strong set-up to a sharp left turn at the halfway mark that Pegg and Wright already have you buckled up for.

While the previews have given away/hinted at what’s really going on in Newton Haven, I won’t spoil more details because that’s for you to uncover for yourselves.  Even though this plot twist midway through figures heavily into the remaining minutes of the film, it carefully remains a secondary storyline to the main narrative of Pegg’s journey from aimless drunkard to heroic figure.  Starting off nearly unredeemable in his service to self, it says something that the script makes the character not only likeable but relatable by the end credits.

Aside from Pegg and Frost, there’s a whole troop of fantastic actors that fill in the rest of the sharply written roles.  As the three other members of the group, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), Paddy Considine (In America), and Eddie Marsan (Jack the Giant Slayer) each offer a distinctive flavor to the parts they are undertaking.  Even better is that Pegg and Wright have given all five men enough backstory to help us tune in to these men without much exposition.  As the only notable female, Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, Jack Reacher) mixes well but just happens to be the least interesting character in the group…there’s always one.

As the film with the biggest budget of the trilogy, The World’s End has an excellent production design by Marcus Rowland that’s filmed well by Bill Pope (Men in Black III).  Add to that impressive special effects that don’t get in the way of the action or comedy and Wright’s trademark stylish directing choices and you have a film that feels like the full package of move entertainment.  Easily (and strongly) recommended…especially if you’ve enjoyed the previous films.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The World’s End


Synopsis: Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind’s only hope for survival.

Release Date:  August 23, 2013

Thoughts:  While I wasn’t as over the moon about Shaun of the Dead as some were, I did enjoy the two leads (Simon Pegg, Star Trek / Star Trek: Into Darkness and Nick Frost) because you could tell the two really played off of eachother well.  Their second collaboration, Hot Fuzz, wasn’t as big of a hit but I quite enjoyed the hammy over-the-top comedy for what it was.  After the slightly disappointing Paul, I’m happy to report that their newest film The World’s End looks like a return to fine comedic form for the duo.  Reuniting with their Shaun and Fuzz director Edgar Wright (who also showed fine visual flair with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), I expect Pegg and Frost to guide The World’s End to a modest late summer last hurrah hit.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Pirates! Band of Misfits


The Facts:

Synopsis: Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

Stars: Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven

Director: Peter Lord

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Still a kid at heart, I secretly love being able to see animated films and enjoy them through the eyes of an adult.  I’ve no problem finding time to see a PIXAR film with the same verve that I have for the newest R-rated action blockbuster because there’s the same great escapist entertainment to be had in the world of animation.  The animators at Aardman have long been a favorite of mine thanks to their pioneering work with stop-motion animation and their creation of the Wallace and Gromit characters.

This year when the Oscars were announced I found there was only one film among the five films selected as Best Animated film nominees that I hadn’t seen and it just happened to be Aardman’s latest effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  I missed this one on several occasions in the theater and after seeing the film I regret not taking advantage of seeing the movie on the big screen with the added bonus of 3D technology.  It’s one of the strongest nominees and could just find itself with the Oscar when the big night rolls around.

The film starts off in a fairly standard way and I was just settling in for what I thought would be a familiar story when the movie pulled a nice switcheroo and turned a standard plot line on its head.  What begins as a tale of a dippy Pirate Captain and his rag-tag crew entering the Pirate of the Year Awards quickly veers into creative territory involving exotic animals, adventure on the high seas, and a few run ins with a very disagreeable Queen Victoria.  Along the way there are ample amounts of laughs and superior displays of creativity that have become the standard calling card of the folks at Aardman.

As the Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) doesn’t rely on his proper stutter and stammer but instead uses a light air to suggest that our hero isn’t as aware as he should be.  This Pirate Captain is lovably clueless, making for a winning combination when teamed up with his faithful band of misfit pirates with great names like The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout, The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and The Pirate with a Scarf voiced nicely by Freeman (the current Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). 

A few historic characters pop up as supporting players like Charles Darwin who is reinvented as a lovesick dweeb with a thing for Vicki (that’s Queen Victoria to you commoners) who won’t give him the time of day.  It’s the Queen Victoria character that made me laugh the most — given new life by Aardman as a scheming villainess and voiced with prim steeliness by Staunton.  This Queen is no slouch — director Lord and screenwriter Gideon Defoe (who wrote the source book) make her nice and nasty without ever utilizing any truly mean jabs.

Like the other nominees (Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Wreck-It Ralph), The Pirates! Band of Misfits has a lot of heart in its themes of loyalty and friendship that won’t be lost on youngsters and grown-ups that view it.  The blend of stop-motion and computer animation is seamless and beautifully detailed…showing that Aardman gets better with each film they produce.  A worthy nominee for Oscar glory, this is an easy-going fantasy adventure with enough visual gags for kids and laughs for adults.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


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.