Shedding the Mortal Coil (Mortal Engines, 2018)

Mortal_Engines_PosterIn the future, there are predator cities and there are the cities trying to survive. What does this mean? Uhhhh…well, a gravelly voice informs us of the 60 minute war that left the world devastated. To survive, people built mobile cities that roamed the countryside. Smaller cities were more like miner towns of the old west, except the towns are mobile. They also face the threat of predator cities, which are dedicated to roaming the land and overtaking smaller cities for scraps.

Set amongst all this is the plans of Hester Shaw, a mysterious women hellbent on revenge against Thaddeus Valentine, who overseas the giant predator City of London. London is desperate and running on fumes, but Valentine believes he has found the answer in the ancient technology that destroyed the world. So, ambitious people.

The film actually opens with one of the dullest “car chases” I have ever sat through. I was bored during the majority of the large city on city stuff. Early in the film there is a fairly exciting on foot chase, which is the true inciting incident forcing a mismatched pair (a young Londoner unaware of Valentine’s deviousness until it is to late and the previously mentioned Hester Shaw, who spends a good chunk of the film annoyed with him). There are rebels, who live in a sky city, scavengers and slave traders…it is a miserable world, except for the mystical city that Valentine hopes to overrun with his powerful new weapon.

Honestly, the hard part of the film for me was…well, it begs far more questions than the movie has time to answer. How on earth did the roving cities come about? The film also references parts of that history that are interesting, but unable to be examined.  Why if this was a book… (it is)

See, suspension of disbelief is a really weird thing. First, it can vary from person to person. But some stories make it a little easier.  ”

Why can this guy shoot lasers from his eyes? Genetic mutation!”

“How are dinosaurs and giant apes on this island? The island has been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, and evolution went it’s own way!”

But here? There is just so much that does not make sense. Why roving cities? Who came up with the notion? How was this done???

And sadly, the story is just not interesting enough to override the questions. I found myself bored repeatedly, and that made the moments of heart or interest more disappointing than anything.

It is visually nice, though if a bit dreary, but everything is functional. it lacks any real sense of wonder.  Mortal Engines just lacks the life needed to make it work.

A Battling We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014)

The_Hobbit_Battle_PosterThe Battle of the Five Armies is a very long and busy film. From it’s opening moments, it is all about trying to out do Return of the king.  Dragon fights! Giant battles against orcs! Wizard Battles!

Bilbo and the Dwarves had failed to stop Smaug who attacks Lake Town.  As the citizens try and escape his wrath, the Bard seeks to fulfill his family’s promise and slay Smaug. After ending Smaug, the citizens make their way to the ruins outside the the mountain fortress of the Dwarves.

Thranduil arrives with an elven army to reclaim what he feels the elves are owed by the dwarves.  However, Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone.  To make matters worse, he seems to be falling pray to paranoia.  Unknown to the dwarves, Bilbo has found the stone. Concerned that Thorin is being spiritually poisoned by his obsession, he slips out to give the stone to the Bard as a bargaining chip.   This only makes matters worse.

Eventually, the armies must unite against the armies of orcs and other evil that sets upon the mountain. This culminates in a battle royale between Oakenshield and Azog.

The Battle of the Five Armies is really a culmination of the desire to recreate the Lord of the Rings.  The changes of the first Hobbit were not really needed, but mostly harmless.  But the snowball started in the Desolation of Smaug. And here, the battle is the focus.  And everything is gigantic. It consumes a large part of the time, and it gets kind of confusing.  And everybody starts to blur together.

So many things feel like calls back to the Lord of the Rings.  And granted, this is a prequel to those films.  The book the Hobbit came before the Lord of the Rings books. But the films are a prequel.  And it is expected to see some loose connections.  But here, it feels like nothing can stand as it’s own.

This all makes for a rather disappointing final.  I did not hate the movie, but I don’t think it comes close to, say, Jackson’s very flawed but still well done King King. The flaws make the good stuff harder to enjoy here.

I don’t hate these movies quite as much as some.  This may in part be due to the fact that I don’t have a real tight connection to the series.  I did not read the Lord of the Rings books until after I saw the films, as I was nearing thirty.  I did not read the Hobbit until after I started watching the films in 2012. So, I never entered the films with presumptions of what I would see, beyond vague memories of the Rankin Bass cartoon from the late 1970’s.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do not feel the strengths overcome the flaws.  And so the Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near as satisfying a watch as the Lord of the Rings films.

A Desolationing We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013)

The_Hobbit_Desolation_PosterThe film picks up with Bilbo, Thorin and their band of Dwarves on the run from Azog’s orcs.  They find themselves appearing to be hunted by a very large bear.  Gandalf promises they are near the home of a man who might help them with safety.  They rush, chased by the bear until they reach a remote home.

Once inside, Gandalf explains that the bear is actually the man they are trying to reach.  Beorn is a shapeshifter who is also mistrustful of dwarves, so Gandalf cooks up a plan to slowly reveal them to Beorn.

Once on their way, they find themselves facing giant spiders and elves, eventually reaching Laketown, near the mountain fortress they seek. Initially, Laketown presents an obstacle, but Thorin promises to share the riches of the mountain if they allow them passage and provide some weapons.  Of course, most of the citizens being poor and desperate, it is not a hard sell.  And the mayor is a greedy man who figures if they succeed he reaps the reward and if they get eaten by Smaug they are out of his hair.

Meanwhile, Gandalf has gone to find and confront the Necromancer, a dark being that is an impending threat to Middle Earth.

Once they reach the mountain and find the secret entrance, it falls to Bilbo to slip inside and see if he can locate the Arkenstone.  This turns out to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, as there are jewels and gold coins everywhere. Bilbo must outwit Smaug, who is wakened by the presence of Bilbo.

The Desolation of Smaug is the first of the three films to start really padding on story.  And this drags the film as a whole down.  There are some great sequences, and the Smaug sequence itself is pretty nicely done.  But the film also adds in completely unnecessary subplots like a love triangle. The film includes Legolas, whose father is the Elvenking Thranduil, as a link to the Lord of the Rings films.  Legolas did not appear in the book, though as he is the son of Thranduil, it is not an unreasonable addition.

The filmmakers felt it would be good to add a female cast member in some of the action scenes.  They created Tauriel, a young and skilled elven warrior.  Portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she is a tough adventurer. Even as additions go, the character herself is not a problem.  I like Tauriel. However, Lilly agreed to take the role as long as her character was not in a love triangle. She was assured this was not going to be the case.  So the film has her being sought by both Legolas and the dwarf  Kili. It feels like they really wanted the Kili and Tauriel aspect be a callback to Aragorn and Arwen.  And while they introduce it as a love triangle, it is entirely pointless.  It is not a source of real conflict.  Legolas could have gone to her side simply as a friend, not out of romantic desire.  It is clear the film wants to focus on her and Kili.  And that is perfectly fine, and would have improved the sub-plot had they dumped the “triangle” part.

Honestly, the inclusion of the Necromancer stuff (none of which comes from the Hobbit, it is referenced in the Lord of the Rings appendices) is more to make the audience get those “Lord of the Rings” vibes. It does not enhance the story or threat…and it feels wholly unconnected to the main story.

Smaug looks great, and Cumberbacht’s voice performance is good stuff. The visuals are great.  I still enjoy the performances, I actually like a lot of the charcters…and yet?

Story suffers from bloat. When it drags along? It reaaaaally drags.

A Traveling We Will Go (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012)

The_Hobbit_Unexpected_PosterWhile the Hobbit was released first, it’s road to the big screen was a bit rougher. There had been a couple prior attempts, most notably the Rankin Bass animated film.

After the success of the Lord or the Rings, the Hobbit was a no-brainer to the Studio.  At the time, Peter Jackson was suffering burnout on the series.  He was set on producing, but giving the director reigns to someone else.  At first, Guillermo Del Toro was connected, but eventually he stepped down.

Eventually, it fell back to Peter Jackson.  And so, nine years later, we received this prequel trilogy.

The Hobbit is a pretty short book. it is probably just long enough to be more than a single movie../but it is short enough to make a two parter troubling.  So, of course, they landed on making a trilogy, so as to match up with the Lord of the Rings.

As the film opens, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return as Bolbo and Frodo.  They are prepping for the party from the open of the Fellowship of the Ring.  Bilbo starts to recount the story of the dwarven kingdom of Erebor. There, King Thror becomes enthralled by the Arkenstone his dwarves discovered deep in the mines of their mountain. His relationships with the Dwarves and men of the region become poisoned. When the dragon Smaug arrives and drives all from the mountain (as dragons have a lust for gold), the Dwarves of Erebor were forced into a nomadic life.

Now, Thror’s grandson Thorin Okenshield is leading a group of dwarves to trying and take the mountain back.  Gandalf has come to the Shire to recruit Bilbo Baggins as their thief.  And after some hesitating, Bilbo agrees and joins the mission.

On their way, they run into trolls, Radagast the Brown (a wizard same as Gandalf of the region with a rabbit (?!) drawn sleigh(?!)), stone giants and goblins. And of course, Bilbo meets Gollum.

While this covers a large portion of the book, it still is set as only the beginning of a trilogy of films. As noted, the original book is not that long.

Which means…well… a lot would have to be done to stretch the story.  An Unexpected Journey primarily does this by giving Thorin Oakenshield a primary Orc Nemesis named Azog. Short on personality, long on artistic design, Azog is big with a hook in place of one of his arms.  He desires to kill Thorin. Now, Azog is not a complete invention.  He is referenced in the book, but it was assumed he was dead.

They also use characters the books only reference.  We never meet Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit.  He is really built wholly fresh by the film-makers to rather mixed results for the film.

One of the problems the film had in theaters was a higher frame rate.  The higher the frame rate, the less your movie looks like it  was shot on film.  In spite of being a crisper picture, it creates an off-putting effect, almost like watching a home movie.  They appear to have fixed that for the blu-rays.

Visually, it is pretty neat to return to the environment of Middle Earth. The New Zealand  landscape was a huge part of the character of the Lord of the Rings films, and they are a welcome sight here.

The dedication to costumes and set design and the CGI effects are certainly on point.  And the casting is great.  Martin Freeman is a terrific young Bilbo Baggins. For the most part, while it is not nearly as strong as the Fellowship of the Ring, I did enjoy the An Unexpected Journey.

To Rule Them All Thrice (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003)

LOTR_Return_PosterAll stories must conclude.  Some just take longer than others.  A lot longer. But more on that later. Sauroman is defeated, Aragorn and the people of Rohan have defended Helms Deep and Frodo, Sam and Gollum are at the door of Mordor.

Te film actually opens by jumping back several hundred years before the story we have been watching where we see hobbits Sméagol and Déagol fishing in a small boat.  After being pulled into the water, Déagol finds… The Ring. Both are gripped by obsession for the ring, resulting in murder.

Aragon and the others make their way to Gondor to unite the armies of men against Mordor and it’s seemingly endless forces.  We see most of our characters reunited.  Sam and Frodo’s relationship is tested by the duplicitous nature of Gollum.

Without question, the visual effects, costume and set design are top notch.  There really is not much to say here that I have not recognized in my previous reviews.  Sure, there are minor slip-ups (hobbits that are clearly height doubles wearing masks of the actors) and a few of the “Legolas being amazing” sequences in battles are surely CGI.

Faramir and the hobbits all get better deals here. Both Merry and Pippin get to be more than comic relief, with downright heroic moments and emotional moments.  There is a scene between Pippin and Gandalf where they say nothing, but share a look of great heart break from across the room, as if Gandalf knows Pippin is about to face some truly unfair tests.

Gimli, unfortunately, has never recovered from the Two Towers and remains embarrassingly frustrating comic relief.

Elijah Wood tells the story of how Jack Nicholson told him he left after the first ending. And this film has, like the book, several endings.  Though, most lamented is the scouring of the Shire, which the extended edition and theatrical cuts never included (the first film paid tribute to it in a vision with Galadriel). Here, the extended cut moves the unceremonious end of Sauroman from the scourging to earlier in the story.

But the frustrating part is that each “ending” feels somewhat necessary. Each gives a certain sense of closure to the tale. For all their flaws, the trilogy comes together and has far more to love than hate.  The strengths of the performances, the overall writing, the effects, the set design, the costumes…brings together one great epic.

Two Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

LOTR_Two_Towers_PosterPicking up in the aftermath that split the fellowship apart, the Two Towers has a lot on it’s shoulders. Frodo and Sam are now on their own, making their way for Mount Doom to destroy the ring.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are trying to rescue Merry and Pippin, who are believed to have been kidnapped by Orcs.

We quickly learn that Merry and Pippin found escape from the orcs on their own.  Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are diverted by Gandalf who directs them to Rohan.  Gandalf realizes the time has come to prepare the armies of men for an epic battle against Sauron and his forces.

Rohan is under the influence of the Wizard Sauroman.  Their king is in a sickly trance, poisoned by Wormtongue, the agent of Sauroman.  Upon arrival, Gandalf excises the presence of Sauroman and chase out Wormtongue.  They warn the people there of the coming danger, and all agree they must make their way to an old fortress to protect everyone.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin discover the ancient race of Ents.  The Ents are ancient and sentient trees.  Pippin becomes determined to convince Treebeard and his fellow Ents to fight against the advancement of Sauroman and his orc army before it can join Sauron’s army.

And of course, there is Frodo and Sam.  Theirs is a somewhat less exciting route, as they are trying to avoid being seen.  Frodo confronts Gollum, who has been shadowing he and Sam in his attempt to get the ring back. Frodo takes pity Gollum, and chooses to take him along as a guide.

In the first film, we only had glimpses of Gollum.  This character presented a huge challenge and still stands as a monumental achievement in CGI effects.  Coupled with a terrific performance by Andy Serkis, Gollum comes to tragic and frightening life.  Serkis takes on a voice that can seem almost painfully childish and monstrous…sometimes at the same moment.  The film has a great moment using reflections and camera angles in which Gollum argues with himself over serving Frodo faithfully versus betraying him and stealing the ring back.

In the book, the stories are separated into two parts.  The first half follows Frodo and Sam and the second half follows the other characters. In one way, this does allow some interesting storytelling moments.  Frodo and Sam’s story will reference them seeing stuff we only see played out in the second half of the book.  But it also can make the Two Towers a tough read.  It does not break up the story enough.

Gimli continues his slide into little more than comic relief and Legolas even ends up having plenty of his swashbuckling antics coming off as comedic and cheesy (using a shield as a surfboard).

The film also undermines the character of Farimir, brother of Boromir.  In the book he is not tempted by the ring in any way.  He is a strong and confident man in ways his older brother was not.  Unlike Tom Bombadil, this not being tempted is an effective statement of Farimir’s character.  The film makes him much less sure of himself.  He is haunted by the ghost of his brother and his father’s greater love for Boromir. He does, of course, make the choice he makes in the book, but the overly wrought drama of giving him severe daddy issues works against the character in frustrating ways.  Yes, it allows Sam to be a dramatic voice of reason…but it really is an unnecessary detour that also makes Farimir come off as needlessly cruel at times.

The Two Towers does start to feel a bit meandering at times.  The extended cut suffers from this even more, though some of the additional scenes are quite entertaining.  While not quite an Empire Strikes Back (which is a bit leaner storytelling) it still is a pretty impressive film.

To Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

LOTR_Fellowship_PosterJohn Rogers, one of the writers of the abysmal Catwoman film once also wrote “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

And the Lord of the Rings is definitely one of those book series that had legions of admirers.  Ralph Bakshi has adapted the three books into two animated films in 1978 and 1980. And there were a lot of false starts until the late 90’s.  The first plan was to try and make one film…then they thought they could convince a studio to do two…but somehow, Peter Jackson convinced New Line the only proper way to do the film was to adapt each novel and film them back to back.  They then took it a step further and released the special edition DVDs.  These sets were expanded to include many scenes not used in the theatrical releases.  My reviews will be of the Expanded Editions.

The story of the Lord of the Rings is that long ago the evil Lord Sauron tricked the leaders of the Elves, the Dwarves, and Man, creating powerful rings for them all…secretly creating the one ring that would rule them all.  In a battle between Sauron and the final alliance of men, dwarves, and elves, Sauron was defeated.  Instead of destroying the ring, Isildur keeps it for himself. He is eventually killed.  The ring was then lost to time.  It was found by a creature who hid with it in the mountains.  It eventually fell into the hands of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. He has had it ever since.  The Fellowship of the Ring is the beginning of the final push to destroy the ring.

The wizard Gandalf the Gray calls upon Frodo, nephew of Bilbo for this task. He sends Frodo on, promising to meet in a small town.  Frodo is accompanied by his friend Samwise (or more simply, Sam).  Soon after leaving, they are joined by fellow Hobbits Merry and Pippin.  As they go on their journey, they pick up help from the mysterious ranger Strider (Revealed to be Aragorn, a descendant of Isildur).

When Frodo is wounded by a Ringwraith (the souls of the original nine kings of men who were enslaved to Sauron), he is whisked away to the Elvish city of Rivendell. There they meet up with what are to be the final members of the Fellowship of the ring, the Elf Legolas, the Dwarf Gimli and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor.

They find themselves constantly under attack, primarily from Sauroman, a wizard like Gandalf, but having chosen to serve Sauron. Using magic and a new generation of Super Orcs he tries to stop them at every turn.

Filmed in New Zealand, almost every shot of this film is awe-inspiringly beautiful. The Hobbit Shire has been carefully created bringing the environments of the book to life in a vibrant way.

Along with the sets, the film’s costumes are incredible.  Everything has power and weight.  The craftsmanship of the weapons and costumes immerses you into this world.

The visual effects have withstood the test of time.  A lot of Weta Workshop’s work is a combination of digital and practical.  But unlike far too many movies, the digital is groundbreaking and almost never distracting (except in it’s dedication to looking natural).  The Fellowship of the Ring broke new ground in its digital work to create massive armies that seemed to move without being duplicated.

The film also uses a lot of practical tricks to create the illusion of different heights.  Both Hobbits and Dwarves are supposed to be significantly smaller than the rest of the cast, and in spite of actors who are as tall as anyone else in the cast, using perspective tricks, smaller actors as stand-ins they manage to create a nearly seamless illusion.

And then there is the cast.  Some scoffed when Elijah Wood was cast as Frodo.  The books describe Hobbits in a fashion that insinuates, they are naturally a bit hairy and pudgy.  But Wood (and really the other hobbit actors) are rather attractive.  But They all do quite well.  And Wood and Sean Astin really sell the deep and heartfelt friendship between Frodo and Sam.  Frankly, I love the fact that the films capture this love.  Films featuring male relationships can often be quite superficial.

Ian McKellen, so compelling as Magneto in the X-Men films carries great weight here as the wizard Gandalf.  He is warm, yet can seem stern and menacing when necessary.  And he brings a sense of grandeur so necessary for such a character.  Viggo Mortenson brings a quiet nobility to Aragorn.  And Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as an unearthly and elegant beauty.

This is not to suggest there are no flaws.  While not as large of an issue here, Gimli can often be reduced to comic relief (the same with Pippin and Merry). On the other hand, the storytelling is more expedient than the books. Often, Tolkien can seem a bit obsessive in his world-building, with sudden diversions into poetry and legends and language of Middle Earth.  The filmmakers wisely cut the Tom Bombadil sequence.  While this is a fairly loved section of the book, the screenwriters are correct that it undercuts the narrative of the Ring to suddenly have a character who is not impacted at all by it.  Especially so early in the story.  Personally speaking? I don’t care for that section of the book, and so I did not miss it within the film.

The Fellowship of the Ring is s very strong adaption of the book, full of epic adventure. It was a risky venture that paid off quite well for the filmmakers and the studio.

 

 

The Bigger They Come Part 3 (King Kong, 2005)

king-kong-2005-posterFollowing the smashing success of the Lord of the Rings films, Jackson had the cred to get a pet project off the ground.  A remake of 1933’s classic King Kong.  He wanted to make an epic, and it is far from the cheesey camp of the 1976 film starring Jessica Lang, Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin.

Instead of updating the location to modern times, Jackson meticulously recreates 1930s New York.  He introduces us to Carl Denham, a director who dreams very big and is trying to secure financing to go to a mysterious island shown on a map he has acquired.  He hires down on his luck playwright Jack Driscoll to write a script for a grand adventure.  He finds a beautiful leading lady in struggling actress Ann Darrow. His male lead is the egotistical Bruce Baxter.

They get on a boat, go to Skull Island, explore, find monsters, the Natives kidnap Ann who is sacrificed to a mysterious monster.  The monster is the giant ape Kong who takes a liking to Darrow.  Jack and Carl lead the crew to rescue Ann.  Denham, of course, has an ulterior motive of getting film of the monsters on the island.  They save Ann, capture Kong and Kong is brought to New York.  Kong Breaks free and runs amok in the city.

Jackson hits all the beats, and it all sounds exciting.  He is very faithful to the original story.  Except…well, in typical Peter Jackson fashion, he overdoes it.  The film takes an hour to set things up.  A full hour before they get to Skull Island.  All in a misguided attempt to set up character motivation and romance.  Once on Skull Island, the film picks up and gets very exciting.  But an hour of setup and added time for the reveal of King Kong…makes for a dull and slow film.  The whole cruel savages approach to Skull Island’s natives is embarrassingly dated.

The performance by Andy Serkis as Kong is really impressive looking.  The digital Kong is still impressive looking.  But the film clocks in at three hours (and that is before Jackson’s expanded cut) and that results ina ridiculous amount of bloated storytelling.

Let’s Visit Texas Part 3 (Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, 1990)

After the failure of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, New Line Cinema got the the rights.  And they were determined to make the Texas Chainsaw Massacre into a franchise in line with their Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  Let me get this out of the way.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 has one of the best Teaser Trailers Ever:

leatherface_tcm3_posterOf course, absolutely to be expected the movie is just not as wonderfully absurd as the trailer.  Truthfully, the most interesting aspect of the film is they tried to get Peter Jackson to direct and the film stars Future Aragorn, Viggo Mortenson.  Unlike the second film, this one goes for darker and gorier.

A young couple runs afoul of Leatherface and his new family.  Leatherface is the only returning character (to be fair, all the others died in the second film) and his new family is a different approach.  They are more of a traditional family.  You know, a traditional family who hacks people up.  But a traditional family.  A mom, dad, kids, a guy with a weird eye.  And a big, big chainsaw.

Again…traditional family.

The film’s cast was mostly unknown at the time, though they did include genre vet Ken Foree. The cast is generally likeable, but the story is kind of dopey.  The story includes all sorts of references to the original film, but they feel like moments where the film makers felt they should be following the original closely without directly ripping it off.  At the same time, it is clear that the first time screen writer David Schow was trying to take the series in a slightly different direction that made the sequel open for more sequels.

The film also had many re-shoots that significantly altered the story.  One character clearly dies at the hands of Leatherface.  And then shows back up at the end.  A lot of what is happening gets confusing.

Director Jeff Burr had made the entertaining horror anthology Whisper to a Scream (also known as the Offspring).  The film was made bloody, but it then cut extensively to satisfy the MPAA.  So gore hounds were not going to be satisfied, while people looking for a great scary story were not going to get that either.  Everybody involved seems to have put a lot of effort to do it right…but there were to many cooks in the kitchen.

Looking back, most of the crew is pretty honest about how terrible the film turned out to be.  I had a conversation with Jeff Burr back in 2004, and he made no pretense about how it would be a good film “if only”.  And I honestly enjoy that kind of honesty.  Here is a short documentary about it.

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