The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Nearly ten years after Peter Jackson wrapped up his vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the Best Picture-winning Return of the King, he’s taking us back to Middle Earth with the first entry in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. With a few familiar faces in front of the camera and a handful of fresh ones to lead the adventure, Jackson manages to capture some fantastic moments here but still can’t shake the feeling that this story didn’t need to be stretched over three movies.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

There are many jokes to be made about how, despite this film’s title, many elements of it actually feel familiar and quite expected, but we were almost spared those comparisons because this project came close to looking drastically different from what ended up on screen. Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro spent years developing the story of The Hobbit with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and co-writer Phillipa Boyens in order to direct it himself, but with MGM floundering in bankruptcy and the project not receiving an official greenlight, del Toro had to step down and take on other projects in 2010. The ship eventually righted itself at MGM and Jackson reluctantly stepped into the director’s chair, and decided to stretch the story from two films into three, presumably so he could incorporate elements from the appendices from “The Lord of the Rings” and make this trilogy his last hurrah in Middle Earth.

Many critics will likely write about how this movie feels slight in comparison to The Lord of the Rings, but that’s just the nature of adapting the source material. The stakes in LOTR are as high as they come – the safety of the free world is up for grabs – but here, the mission is to find a better land for a band of dwarfs who, by their own admittance, already have a pretty good life as it is. There’s no real urgency in this journey, and the treasure at the bottom of the faraway mountain with a giant dragon guarding it is barely more than a setup for future entries into this series. This movie is lighter and a little funnier, representative of the fact that the book it was based on was essentially a children’s story.

Martin Freeman, who you may know from the brilliant BBC series “Sherlock,” is wonderful as a young Bilbo Baggins, bringing just the right amount of stuffiness and agitation to the part as he’s thrust out of his safe little hobbit hole and joins a company of dwarfs who seek to reclaim their homeland. Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf leader, and though he spends most of the film brooding over the loss of his land, he generally does a good job. Thorin is one of the only distinguishable dwarfs among the company of 14, and thankfully Jackson doesn’t spend any amount of time trying to make us identify with each one; he keeps them bunched into groups, and wisely only concentrates on Thorin’s backstory.

Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, disappearing for large chunks of time before popping in and saving the day in increasingly ridiculous ways, while Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee all have extended cameos while the dwarfs hang out in Rivendell before they stray too far outside of The Shire. Fans of LOTR might get a kick out of seeing this group of returning players, but along with an Elijah Wood appearance in the movie’s opening scene, they didn’t seem entirely necessary. In fact, much of the nearly three hour runtime of An Unexpected Journey feels that way, as if Jackson has to remind people of why they liked the first trilogy instead of moving on and telling this story on its own. There are some pacing issues, as the middle section of the film tends to fall on the boring side, but an inspired cave battle and the return of Andy Serkis’ Gollum are highlights that bring things back up to speed. (Serkis, who is fantastic yet again as the devious Gollum, actually directed the second unit action sequences.)

Fans of on screen battles should be relatively pleased, because there are a ton of them as this film rolls on. From dragon raid flashbacks to orcs to goblins to Necromancers, there are battles aplenty, and Jackson relishes the opportunity to have his heroes behead as many villains as possible. (I counted at least five.) Though the stakes may not be as high this time around, Jackson continues to impress with his immense sense of scale and scope. Still, there’s a feeling that not every single detail of this journey needed to be seen.

Howard Shore returns to compose the score, and while much of it sounds like the same music that we’ve already heard from him (I’m sensing a pattern here), the “Misty Mountains” theme is catchy, captivating, and a terrific piece of work. It’s used over and over again throughout the movie, dominating the aural landscape, but it’s tough to nitpick about how often we hear it because it’s so great.

When the ending comes and – spoiler alert – the company is still ridiculously far away from their destination, it doesn’t quite feel like a slap across the face, but if you listen very closely as the closing credits roll, you can almost hear greedy studio executives cackling in the background, counting their pile of gold they’ve just made as we’ve paid for one third of a journey. An Unexpected Journey has some memorable moments and some that I’d rather forget (Radagast the Brown, anyone?), and though it doesn’t exactly feel like Jackson was phoning it in or anything, it’s tough to be thrilled by a story that doesn’t have much of its own arc. As a passive fan of the LOTR trilogy, I’m more curious than excited about where Jackson and his team are going next. Until next time…

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Jack Reacher Movie Review

Adapting the story from Lee Child’s novel “One Shot,” writer/director Christopher McQuarrie reteams with his frequent collaborator Tom Cruise for Jack Reacher, a murder mystery with a morally murky protagonist at the center. It’s a decent thriller with an interesting story, and though it features the occasional shining moment, it’s mostly just a by-the-numbers procedural tale that will keep you entertained for a couple of hours. The movie isn’t nearly as boring as its idiotic and generic title, but when all is said and done, it’ll be lost in the hoopla of more prestigious films as 2012 comes to an end.

Jack Reacher
Writer/Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Jai Courtney, Werner Herzog

McQuarrie makes a strange decision from the start and chooses to show us who the killer actually is in the first minute of the film, leaving us to spend the next hour or so waiting for the main characters to figure it out. The opening scene is loaded with suspense, as Jai Courtney’s sniper character coolly looks through his scope and slowly picks off innocent people from a distance. (This scene takes on something of a different feeling with the Newtown, CT shooting still fresh in the minds of the audience, but I applaud Paramount for not altering the film or delaying its release date.) When a poor sap is framed for the seemingly random murders, he requests one thing and one thing only: Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise). The patsy knows that Reacher – a former Army investigator who had a run-in with the guy once before turning into a drifter and dropping off the grid for two years – is the only one who will examine the case thoroughly enough to clear his name. So Reacher teams with the Pittsburgh district attorney’s daughter (Rosamund Pike) and goes to work, but it takes them so long to jump to catch up to what we already know that the movie feels like it’s spinning its wheels for a while.

Despite the fact that Cruise doesn’t physically match the description of the Reacher character from the book in the slightest, he does a decent job here. He’s tough, he kicks ass, he’s smart, and he cracks wise here and there. But frankly, this kind of movie seems somehow below a megastar like Cruise at this stage of his career, and I kept thinking that Jack Reacher would be decent franchise fare for a younger up-and-coming actor. Cruise always feels a bit too handsome to be a wandering drifter, and he never quite disappears enough into the character to make me believe he’d be the type of guy who only owned one shirt. There are actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale who can embody other characters so well that you forget the actor exists, but once Cruise became a superstar it feels like he’s always allowed a bit of that persona to seep out in his performances. I get it. That’s part of his charm. That’s a reason people (myself included) like him. But he seems miscast as Reacher, and I could never quite buy in to the film because of it.

McQuarrie stages his climax in a rock quarry (heh, quarry…McQuarrie) and handles the action well enough, but even when things are at a boiling point, the film never reaches the heights of McQuarrie’s legendary on screen shootout in The Way of the Gun. The action never feels neutered or anything, but it just doesn’t have the same crackle or immediacy that the writer/director’s other work has had. Because of Cruise’s superstar status, we sort of know that things are going to turn out well for him, and though you could argue that about practically any action movie, it’s worth mentioning that the stakes don’t seem tremendously high here. It doesn’t help that a few plot points skip past so quickly that they end up being a bit confusing, too; at one point, Reacher is framed for someone’s murder and kicks off a huge car chase, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly how he was set up. The plan of the master villain (Werner Herzog) is ultimately revealed, but his scheme seems like it isn’t worth the risks he took to make it happen. Again, the same could be said for a lot of movies, but the fact that this aspect was something I was thinking about while watching the film means I wasn’t sucked into the story like I would have been otherwise.

Like the film as a whole, the supporting cast is good but not great. Pike is serviceable but can’t ever compete with Cruise’s magnetism and sheer star power, David Oyelowo and Richard Jenkins seem a bit more rigid than usual, and Robert Duvall even shows up in the third act to aid Cruise in his quest. Herzog is fine but actually isn’t in the movie that much, but it was interesting to see Jai Courtney (soon to be playing John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard) in a high profile role for the first time, showing some promise for the future.

There are some classic McQuarrie moments, from bits of dialogue to action scene choices I can’t recall seeing before. (At one point, Cruise beats up a bad guy using the limp body of another bad guy, and there’s a phone call scene before the climax that’s pretty damn spectacular, including the threat of “drinking [someone’s] blood from a boot.”) Weirdly enough, it’s also the third big release of 2012 that I can think of that involves a scene in which the hero or heroes are inexplicably aided by common people, sharing a bizarre 2012 thematic connection with The Amazing Spider-Man and Battleship.

It’s hard to recommend seeing Jack Reacher during a holiday season crowded with some of the year’s best movies, but it’s very watchable and would make for perfect lazy afternoon viewing if you’re a big Cruise fan looking to see him work some guys over. Otherwise, save your hard-earned $13 and add it to your Netflix queue. Just try not to get it confused with John Carter or Paramount’s upcoming Jack Ryan. CHARACTER NAMES ARE NOT MOVIE TITLES. Until next time…

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Django Unchained Movie Review

Following up his wildly acclaimed 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino returns to the big screen in 2012 with Django Unchained, a sizzling genre exercise that allows the filmmaker to check off a box that has eluded him thus far in his career: the western. It’s one of QT’s most direct and linear productions to date, but as you might suspect, this isn’t your average cowboy tale. Stuffed with great performances, impeccable direction, and an amazing screenplay, the film might be a bit too stuffed; it drags a bit in some sections, but don’t let its runtime scare you away. This is one of the very best movies to hit theaters this year.

Django Unchained
Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Tarantino is on a tear with revisionist history after this film and Inglourious Basterds, and it appears that viewing cultural enemies like Nazis, or in this case, slave owners, down the barrel of a gun fits right in with the director’s style. He offers a spaghetti western story wrapped in his familiar pop sensibilities, a crowd pleasing tale that pulses with the boiling blood of revenge. It’s a simple tale well told, and though it runs a bit long at over two and a half hours, the movie never fails to draw in its audience. Like a masked bandit during a train robbery, Tarantino holds us captive as he takes us through the American South just two years shy of the Civil War as we follow his almost mythical hero on his rise from slave to one of the biggest badasses of the director’s entire filmography.

Jamie Foxx is terrific, giving his best performance since 2004’s Collateral as the title character. He’s fiery, quick on the draw, and a bit of a rouge, traits which play to the actor’s strengths and result in a great character. His transformation from slave to bounty hunter is nearly instantaneous, and I was thankful that we didn’t have to sit through endless montages of Django improving his accuracy as the story goes on; he’s already a natural. And though the character doesn’t go through a very pronounced arc throughout the film, his dogged persistence and ingenuity make up for it. We pretty much know how this is going to play out, but Foxx makes it fun to watch nonetheless.

Christoph Waltz – the Austrian actor Tarantino plucked from obscurity and turned into an international superstar with the role of Hans Landa in Basterds – is a delight to watch as Dr. King Schultz, the dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who takes Django under his wing. He delivers Tarantino’s dialogue like no one else can, and he’s magnetic and mesmerizing as a good guy in this movie. He’s also absolutely hilarious, providing many of the movie’s biggest laughs. His chemistry with Foxx was tangible, and he also played well with the wide-eyed Washington, who does a great job with a small part as Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays slave owner Calvin Candie, the film’s main villain, and while many have been heaping praise on Leo’s performance, I think if anyone should be in talks to receive acting awards here, it should be Waltz. (Keep in mind that DiCaprio is my favorite actor working in Hollywood today, so I’m not saying that lightly.) Leo was solid for sure, but Waltz was downright legendary. DiCaprio clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play against type in such eccentric fashion, and the problem with Candie might actually be that he wasn’t quite bad enough. Yes, he does horrendously terrible things, but in a Tarantino film, you’d expect his level of villainy to be so palpable that it’s nearly unbearable; he takes pleasure in other people’s pain, but never reaches that legendary status. Samuel L. Jackson appears late in the movie as Stephen, the head slave at Candie’s plantation, and though I wouldn’t say he steals the film outright, he at least grabs it and makes a break for the door. It’s likely the most fun he’s had on screen in a while, and he gets to shine in some killer moments.

The movie is shockingly funny; not “shockingly” because it’s a Tarantino film (his films are often filled with iconic comedic moments), but because the premise taken at face value could imply a very serious and totally different movie than this one turns out to be. But I laughed more here than I did in many of this year’s full on comedies, which is a testament to Tarantino’s skills as a writer and his ability to juggle tone. He gives the film real stakes and some serious dramatic moments, but also doesn’t shove his head so far up his own ass that he can’t recognize the potential for hilarity. When a group of KKK members have a detailed five minute conversation about whether or not they should wear masks during an upcoming raid, it’s the perfect blend of social commentary, great writing, and laugh out loud comedy that only Tarantino can create.

My biggest complaint is the pacing slows way down when the main characters reach Candieland, and though the film didn’t ever lose me completely, it seemed as if it could have lost twenty more minutes on the cutting room floor and been better off because of it. The first hour whips past, building relationships and setting up the main rescue mission, but once the stakes are in place and the plan is in motion, things slow to crawl. Until, that is, one of the most impressively staged gunfights of the past few years rips through the second half of the movie, leaving piles of bodies and buckets of blood in its wake. It’s a hell of a wake-up call for those who may have grown tired of the battle of wits taking place between the main characters as they slyly talked their way around their real intentions in Candieland, and when those shots ring out, Tarantino makes sure that this is a scene that you come out of the theater excited to see again.

Django Unchained is a wonderful mix of exploitation, western, and revenge films, and though it doesn’t have too many narrative surprises, it definitely lives up to the hype. In a year in which many high profile movies didn’t meet lofty expectations, it’s nice to finally feel blown away in a theater again. It’s still a little early for me to rank this among QT’s other work, but I have no problem saying that it’s absolutely one of the best movies of 2012. This is the one I’ve been waiting for all year, and it looks like audiences are about to get a hell of a Christmas present when this movie opens on December 25th. Until next time…

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Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review

After winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for The Hurt Locker in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are back with a film about the United States’ ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Though we already know the outcome, Boal and Bigelow manage to make the film riveting, suspenseful, and intense throughout, similar to the way Ben Affleck thrilled audiences with his own political period piece, Argo, earlier this year. Based on firsthand accounts from people who were involved at every step of the real story, Boal uses his background as an investigative journalist to take us inside the search for the world’s most dangerous man and, though a bit of dramatic license is occasionally taken, show how finding him came down to the fortitude of a single woman.

Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent recruited out of high school assigned to track down bin Laden. She meets up with Dan (Jason Clarke), a no-nonsense soldier who spends his days torturing detainees for information. In the early minutes of the movie, Dan makes Maya an accomplice in this behavior and though she clearly doesn’t enjoy it, she realizes that this dirty work done behind closed doors is an integral part of finding their target. It’s a star-making performance for Clarke, who shined on the short-lived FOX TV series “The Chicago Code” and as one of the Bondurant brothers in this year’s bootlegging drama Lawless. Dan seems to have taken lessons at the Vic Mackey School of Torture, showing the same sort of ruthlessness that Michael Chiklis displayed as the hard-nosed enforcer of FX’s “The Shield.”

The film introduces us to the core group dedicated to tracking bin Laden with Maya and skips through the years detailing various dead ends and red herrings before she finally stumbles upon a single name: Abu Ahmed. He’s a courier for the Al-Qaeda mastermind, and Maya thinks that if she finds Ahmed, she’ll find bin Laden. But pressure from the government higher ups and random bombings around the world (some hitting closer to home than she’d like) leave everyone scrambling to keep up, and only Maya is left thinking if they knock over this key domino, all the others will fall around it. It’s as if she’s caught in a season of “The Wire,” filled with all of the ups and downs of a long term investigation told briskly in under three hours. Where Bigelow and Boal kept us at arm’s length through the eyes of the unhinged protagonist in The Hurt Locker, they totally pull the audience into the story here, and Chastain’s powerful lead performance steers the story toward its inevitable conclusion (while at the same time revealing how scarily close that outcome came to never happening at all).

I’d say this role is a star-making performance for Chastain as well, but after her amazing 2011 (in which she starred in seven theatrical films in a single year), the truth is she’s already a star. Her work here ranks among her finest performances so far, as she exudes dedication and strong-willed resolve to follow her gut even when everyone turns against her. I could spend an entire separate review heaping praise on the amazing supporting cast, but with names like Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle in the mix, there are too many people in that list that I love, and it would take far too long.

I’ve heard some complaints in the critical community deriding the choice to open the film with a 9/11 callback, with the thrust of these complaints being along the lines of: “We get it. We know how bad bin Laden was and how terrible 9/11 was. Why does that need to be in the movie?” But I’d like to defend the choice to open the film with that audio montage. For those of us who lived through 9/11, we all bring our own memories and experiences into the theater when we sit down to watch Zero Dark Thirty. By keeping the screen black and just playing audio, it allows us to visualize our own memories about that terrible day and puts us back in that mindset to understand the villain that we’re about to spend the next two and a half hours chasing. But also keep in mind that this film will outlive us all, and for audiences in the next generation who don’t have vivid recollections of where they were, what they were doing, and what they saw that day, this montage sets the stage for those viewers; by using real voices on those phone calls and not just actors, it gives the film a sense of importance separate from the simple “based on a true story” that your average sports drama might receive.

The final scene, an almost real-time retelling of SEAL Team Six breaking into bin Laden’s Pakistani fortress and actually doing the deed, plays at times like a haunted house film. The general public still doesn’t know much about what exactly happened inside that compound, so Bigelow and Boal insert a few jump scares here and there (nothing too egregious) and take that opportunity to give the audience a couple of surprises in a film in which we otherwise essentially know how everything else plays out. It’s shot in night vision and evokes the same kind of disconnected intensity of The Hurt Locker, and unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – which let audiences get collective catharsis through the revisionist history of watching Hitler absolutely annihilated by machine gun fire – Zero Dark Thirty barely shows its villain during his assassination. Since we spend the whole movie looking at the search for bin Laden through Maya’s eyes, the film’s real money shot isn’t a bullet to his head; it’s seeing her identifying the body and watching the weight lifted from her shoulders in the movie’s closing moments.

Even though I really liked Zero Dark Thirty, I’m hoping Bigelow steps away from war movies for a little while after two back-to-back efforts in that genre and continues to stretch her directing muscles elsewhere. The calculated way in which she stages that final raid is technically impressive, but it lacks the soul that the rest of the movie has. She’s at her best when dealing with characters, not events. But she’s having quite the run late in her career, and with ZDT being a frontrunner for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, two wins could cement her as the voice of a generation chronicling American forces’ activities overseas. But even if she spends the rest of her life making war movies, she’ll always be the director of Point Break to me. Which, in case that wasn’t clear, is totally a good thing. Until next time…

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Miami Connection Movie Review

If you’re the type of moviegoer who enjoys films that are poorly made, terribly acted, only semi-competent in executing action sequences, but ones with tons of charm and enthusiasm, Miami Connection just might be your new favorite movie. Made in 1987 and promptly forgotten, someone at Drafthouse Films bought a copy of it using Ebay and is now releasing it for the world to see. The plot involves a synth-rock band named Dragon Sound full of Tae Kwan Do black belts who battle drug lords and a gang of motorcycle-riding ninjas to stop the cocaine trade in Orlando. And the final product totally lives up to that ridiculous premise.

Miami Connection
Co-writers/co-directors: Y.K. Kim, Richard Park
Starring: Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch, Kathy Collier, William Eagle

Miami Connection is the brainchild of co-writer, co-director, producer, and star Y.K. Kim, who makes a living off screen as a martial arts grandmaster, inspirational speaker, and dojo owner in Orlando. On screen he plays Mark, an easygoing backup guitarist for Orlando’s own Dragon Sound who is far better at martial arts than he is at playing the guitar. John (Vincent Hirsch), the lanky bass player, is in love with the group’s female singer Jane (Kathy Collier), and all goes well until Jane’s jealous brother Jeff (William Eagle) – known for hanging with a rough crowd – gets involved and starts muscling John out of the picture. Unbeknownst to Dragon Sound, Jeff is involved with a gang of cocaine dealing ninjas based in Miami, and when they team with the scorned band that Dragon Sound ousted at the club where they play their music…you can smell the street fights already.

The action bounces back and forth between being totally sanitized and gruesomely violent with no warning and zero consistency, which actually becomes sort of fun after you get used to it. You never know whether someone is going to get kicked in the chest or beheaded, and with either one a possibility at all times, it makes enduring some of the more questionable elements of these scenes (things like lighting, camera placement, and editing) a bit easier to swallow. The settings for action scenes also vary drastically, ranging from some sort of low-lying marshland to a railroad station to what appeared to be a combination of a castle and a junkyard. As someone who lived in Orlando for a year in the 2000s, I assure you that no such place still exists (if it ever did in the first place).

But in spite of these flaws (or perhaps because of them), no other movie so earnestly wears its heart on its sleeve, and the genuine affection for the filmmaking shines through even though it certainly doesn’t live up to generalized standards of being a “good” movie. (That’s a whole separate topic covered by Matt Singer at Criticwire.) From the lyrics of the band’s amazingly-terrible-yet-catchy-as-hell songs (things like “Tae Kwon Do is our way of life”) to the wise old restaurant owner character who tells the group the true meaning of martial arts, it’s clear that Kim was using this film as a vehicle for spreading the gospel of his art. Miami Connection is the rare action movie with a mission statement, and as cheesy as it gets at times (OK, the entire time), there’s just something about it where you can’t help but smile.

The acting is excruciatingly bad and the over-dubbed voices are godawful, reminiscent of the director’s work on a film called L.A. Streetfighter from a couple of years prior. The plot doesn’t even try to make sense much of the time, and extended sequences of the band cruising the beach trying to pick up chicks or practicing martial arts on the University of Central Florida campus seem to be just things that these actors would normally be doing anyway, regardless of whether a camera was there to see it or not. (Only two members of the cast were actually professional martial artists, and the rest were students at Kim’s school.)

The movie raises so many more questions than it answers, and if you’re open to films like these, you’ll likely have a blast with your friends laughing about the inconsistencies and questioning character motivations. It’s a ludicrous film, but the unadulterated passion that went into making it somehow takes it to another level. It’s not nearly as audacious as Buckeroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, another film that featured the lead characters in an 1980s rock band, but it’s not trying to be; the only think Y.K. Kim wants the audience to get from this is that maybe, just maybe, Tae Kwan Do could be the answer to life’s problems. If you’re looking for something fun and insane to watch, Miami Connection could be the answer to yours. Until next time…

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