Curse You Peter Jackson!

In my opinion, Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels are unequivocal masterpieces. Simply put, Jackson worked magic with the wonderful natural locations in New Zealand, an incredible cast, top notch special effects, and, of course, did proper justice to the source material. I would happily watch these again and again. These have become my younger daughter’s Star Wars (and quite frankly they are better but they have had decades of film work on which to build).

The Hobbit

I was thrilled when it was announced that Jackson would be adapting The Hobbit. I was a little less thrilled when it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would direct and that the book would be broken into two movies but I could still envision it. There is an awful lot of action in The Hobbit so two movies would be stretching but perhaps better than trying to overcrowd a single film.

I simply could not understand the decision to adapt the single book into three movies, and not three short movies but three epic length ones. I was hopeful when Jackson announced that it was so that additional material from Tolkien could be added.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out. It was not a terrible movie by any means but it was very disappointing. Here’s my summary: “We’re walking, walking, walking, RUN!, walking, walking, walking, RUN!, repeat until nearly three hours are done”. Rather than a finely prepared meal with thought given to how all the ingredients interact with each other, we were given a random hodgepodge of things meant to appeal to various fanbases.

Instead of carefully paced and choreographed action sequences, we have scenes that look more at home in a videogame, particularly the extra-long mine sequence. Jackson chose his cast quite well and Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis naturally reprise their roles as Gandalf and Gollum respectfully. Genre favorites Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are cast from Sherlock as is Sylvester McCoy from Doctor Who.

That apparently was not enough so he shoehorned in more cameos from Lord of the Rings than you could shake a staff at. He added a framing piece so that he could feature Ian Holm as old Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo. He then added a council meeting so that Christopher Lee (Still going strong at 92!) could return as Saruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond.

Hobbit Marathon

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is essentially the same, a wonderful world of Middle Earth, somewhat spoiled by lengthy videogame sequences, and characters shoehorned in. This time fan favorite Orlando Bloom has returned as Legolas. He is joined by Evangeline Lilly as female elf/superhero Tauriel. I applaud the sentiment as there aren’t enough women in the story but it was poorly handled.

Hobbit Marathon

In spite of all these complaints, here I sit at the Regal Biltmore Grande, prepared for an entire day of The Hobbit. Despite all the shortcomings, The Hobbit series presents a wonderful world and if you haven’t seen it at the high frame rate, you certainly should.

X-Men Days of Future Past

I was lucky enough to slip away and catch X-Men Days of Future Past the other day.

X-Men Days of Future Past

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Rated PG-13

The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants.”

Finally! I was beginning to give up hope for the summer season. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t, Godzilla was barely in his own movie, and Neighbors was just plain boring. X-Men Days of Future Past is a wonderful start to the summer.

Bryan Singer returns to direct this, having left after the first two installments (i.e. the good ones). I would rate this one as between the first and second one in quality, with X-Men 2 being the adamantium standard for the franchise.

Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was exactly what you don’t want. As with Spider-Man 3, the powers that be decided that more was better (and I don’t mean more quality). Sure, comic book fans got their first looks at The Beast, Angel, Juggernaut, and Ratner’s version of the Dark Phoenix saga but it was all amped up to 11. They threw in more characters, more battles, more explosions and somewhere along the way story, character development, dialogue, and sense flew out the window.

X-Men: The Last Stand was at least better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) which was basically The Last Stand with a single X-Man and a quarter of the budget. The Wolverine (2013) overcorrected by making it all about the story and turned the Frank Miller comic into a snoozefest. The best scene in The Wolverine is the post-credits sequence alluding to Days of Future Past.

Matthew Vaughn, a writer on Days of Future Past, was handed the directorial reigns for X-Men: First Class (2011), an interesting reboot of the franchise. The story is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, necessitating younger versions of the X-Men. I am sure this allowed them to save enormously as instead of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, etc., we got a talented cast of newcomers.

Michael Fassbender is amazing as younger Magneto. James McAvoy is quite good as young Professor X, in spite of the magnetic Fassbender. A pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence is also excellently cast as Mystique. First Class has a few problems but is overall quite solid.

Days of Future Past is wonderful though not without its flaws. It assumes that you have at least seen X-Men 1, 2, and First Class. If you have not, you’ll have some catching up to do. Even with that knowledge, there are a large number of new mutants whose stories we are not given. We just see them in action periodically.

The movie belongs to Magneto, Wolverine, Professor X, and Mystique and the story keeps the focus squarely on them. Other mutants are in various supporting roles, with good roles for Beast, Kitty Pryde, and several surprises along the way.

While there are plenty of action sequences in the film, Singer underplays them. The focus is always kept on the story and the action sequences often develop the storyline. I did not find any of the fights to be showstoppers but all are good.

The reason Days of Future Past is so good is the overall story and the interactions between the main characters. Many of the post-modern mutants are not developed at all, just shown in combat. Many of the surviving First Class are not present here at all. Yet the story is full and rich and once again we are treated to multiple characters who see the same problems but have vastly different approaches to resolving them.

The acting is exactly what you would expect from accomplished veterans Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, and relative newcomers Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, and James McAvoy.

There is a single post-credit scene at the very end of the credits. It apparently sets up the next movie without featuring any of the known characters. In my opinion, it isn’t worth staying through the credits. Still this is far better than Amazing Spider-Man 2’s coda which was a scene from this movie.

Watch the Bard Week: Richard III

Richard III is currently available on instant Netflix.

 

Richard IIIRichard III (1995) – Rated R

One-Line Review: Watch this outstanding movie now – the DVD is out of print.

“Ian McKellen stars in the title role in this visually inventive adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic drama, which is set in 1930s England after a civil war has torn the country apart and left the people under fascist rule.”

This version of Richard III is my favorite cinematic adaptation of the Bard. The alternate reality director Richard Loncraine creates for Richard III is inventive and fun. It was nominated, with good reason, for Oscars in the art direction and costuming categories. There is a wonderfully visual artistic sequence that I don’t want to spoil, save to say that Captain America appropriated it to good effect.

Ian McKellan gives a bravura, impish performance as the titular monarch. Even with later signature roles such as Gandalf and Magneto and a wonderful turn in Apt Pupil, I think this is his best performance. McKellan dominates every scene and single-handedly carries the film. He doesn’t need to though as he is supported by a stellar cast.

The cast is simply amazing. On the distaff side, Richard III stars Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, and the always wonderful Maggie Smith in juicy roles. Robert Downey Jr. is Lord Rivers and a veritable who’s who of British character actors are in support (Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, John Wood, Edward Hardwicke, and even comedian Tim McInnerny as Catesby).

People Watch: Look for a young (okay, younger) Jim Carter as Lord William Hastings though you will recognize him as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey.

 

The Keep

The Keep is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Keep (1983) – Rated R

“Director Michael Mann’s visual artistry is highlighted in this 1983 horror outing starring Jürgen Prochnow as Capt. Klaus Woermann, whose German soldiers are slain by an ancient spirit after they commandeer a Romanian castle during World War II. Jewish scholar Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) is forced to investigate and wants to unleash the demon to decimate the Nazis, but an enigmatic wanderer (Scott Glenn) intends to keep the evil contained.”

“Why are the small stones on the outside and the large stones here on the interior? It’s constructed… backwards. This place was not constructed to keep something… out. “

I have a terrible soft spot for Nazi villains, particularly in the horror genre. Ian McKellan is fabulous as the tutor in Apt Pupil. Dead Snow is a riotous Nazi Zombiefest. I love Peter Cushing in Shock Waves. The military horror movie, The Outpost is quite good. Gregory Peck is fun as Dr. Mengele in The Boys from Brazil. I have even been known to watch The Madmen of Mandoras aka the shorter, better version of They Saved Hitler’s Brain!

I love The Keep. The Keep is a complete mess. The Keep is a terrific horror movie. The Keep is a terrible horror movie.

Michael Mann is an incredibly stylish director. After The Keep, he would start Miami Vice (1984), change Miami for Chicago and make Crime Story (1986), make the first Hannibal Lecter film (Manhunter, 1986), and make the best film about the French and Indian War (The Last of the Mohicans, 1992). He launched the careers of Dennis Farina, William Peterson, James Belushi, and Robert Prosky – and that was just from his film Thief.

Mann assembles a nice cast here. Jurgen Prochnow is good here in what is essentially a retread of his good German soldier from Das Boot. Gabriel Byrne is the flipside and pretty nasty as the villainous Major Kaempffer. The always excellent Ian McKellen plays Jewish historian Dr. Theodore Cuza. Scott Glenn is the mysterious stranger. Alberta Watson plays Eva Cuza, Theodore’s daughter.

Mann wrote the screenplay himself from F. Paul Wilson’s 1981 novel. I would love to see Mann’s original cut which was reportedly three and a half hours long. The Netflix version runs 95 minutes (96 listed on imdb) and is a choppy, incomprehensible mess.

The special effects run a wide gamut. There are great atmospheric effects such as the wall crosses and fog. The castle setting is absolutely wonderful. The climactic light show looks awful – as if this were from the early days of CGI. The device looks like a flashlight with fins attached.

The score is fantastic and done by Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream did some marvelous soundtracks in the late 70s and early 80s, notably for Sorcerer, Risky Business, Mann’s Thief and The Keep.

Final scorecard: marvelous atmosphere, good story, great location, nice acting (mostly), and wonderful score marred by incomprehensible plot, choppy editing, some poor special effects, and some sub-par acting.

The good news is that The Keep is available on instant Netflix even though it has never received a U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release. Mann has disowned the film and squashed any release. The bad news is that the visual quality is pretty terrible, almost as if Netflix had copied it from an old VHS tape.

Shakespeare week – Richard III

This is Shakespeare week on Instant Netflix. Another inventive adaptation of the Bard is Richard III by Richard Loncraine. Richard III is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Richard III (1995) – Rated R for violence and sexuality.

“Ian McKellen stars in the title role in this visually inventive adaptation of Shakespeares classic drama, which is set in 1930s England after a civil war has torn the country apart and left the people under fascist rule. Richard plots against his brother, Edward (John Wood), in his quest to usurp the throne, and will stop at nothing in pursuit of his goal. The film received Oscar nominations for art direction and costume design.”

“I that am rudely stamped, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world…”

For all the inventiveness of Romeo + Juliet, Richard Loncraine got there a year earlier with Richard III. Richard III begins with a teletype machine hammering out a message about the war and segues into a 1930s style war room and from there… well lets just say that that would be a visual spoiler only a few minutes into the film. Seriously though even if you do not choose to watch the film, watching the first three minutes will give you a wonderful idea of its chutzpah.

Star Ian McKellan co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Loncraine. While they have rewritten Shakespeare, fear not – The House of York speech and much of the original dialogue remains intact.

Ian McKellan is absolutely stunning as Richard. This should come as no surprise to those who have seen him steal every scene as Magneto in the first three X-Men movies or again every scene as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is practically a one-man show (as Richard III often is) and McKellan is riveting, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera.

McKellan is ably supported by John Wood as King Edward IV, Jim Carter as Hastings, and Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence. Jim Broadbent is very impressive as Buckingham. Robert Downey Jr. acquits himself well as Rivers but his recent performances have been more nuanced than this.

On the distaff side, Annette Bening makes quite a good American Queen Elizabeth but Kristin Scott Thomas has the juicier role as the cursed Lady Anne, a year before Kristin earned an Oscar nomination for The English Patient. She even gets to spit on Ian. It is of course a given that Maggie Smith is compelling as the Duchess of York.

While it did not win any Oscars, it was nominated for both Best Costume Design (Shuna Harwood) and Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (Tony Burrough). It lost both to Restoration. The set design, costuming and even the choice of setting in Richard III are fabulous as each descends into darkness and severity as Richard comes ever closer to his goal of the throne.

While there are a few niggling plot holes, due to Shakespeare and streamlining in equal measure, the film overall is quite wonderful and definitely a showcase for Ian McKellan.

People Watch: Look for Black Adder ninny Tim McInnerny as a very serious Catesby and The Wire star Dominic West (James McNulty) in his feature film debut as the Earl of Richmond.

The Return of the King (Extended version)

Okay for the last day of Sword and Sorcery week, we have Peter Jackson’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King extended version. Only this third film in the trilogy is available on Netflix instant play.

The Return of the King

WATCH: The Return of the King (2003) – Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images

“Accompanied by the duplicitous Gollum (Andy Serkis), hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue their mission to obliterate the One Ring of power in the final chapter of director Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must confront his destiny and lead the fight that will determine Middle Earth’s future. This fantasy tale for the ages bagged 11 Oscars”

Finishing off Sword and Sorcery week with The Return of the King was a no-brainer. The Fellowship of the Ring captured 4 of the 13 Oscars it was nominated for. The Two Towers got 2 of the 6 Oscars it was nominated for and was royally snubbed. It received no nomination at all for costume design, cinematography,  makeup, or any of the performances. Oscar’s tepid response to the first two films in the trilogy was worrisome. An Oscar should not be a popularity contest (though by definition it is) but a recognition of the pinnacle of excellence by one’s peers. Sadly it has always been very hard for genre material to be taken seriously by the Oscars.

Thankfully the people voting decided to recognize Peter Jackson’s achievement with The Return of the King. On the other hand they may have gone too far because The Return of the King swept the awards winning all 11 Oscars that it was nominated for (though still no acting awards). Still it was nice to see a fantasy movie so feted at the Oscars.

There’s really not much to be said review-wise about this movie. If you have not seen The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, not only should this not interest you but it would be far too confusing to watch. If you have seen them then this movie concludes the story quite well.

Clocking in at well over 4 hours, this version is quite bloated. In fact the denouement seems to go on forever (and they still leave out the scouring of the shire from the book). If you have seen the regular version and wonder whatever happened to Saruman, that question is answered here. That is my favorite added scene and not just because Christopher Lee, one of my favorite actors, is in it. Many other small scenes flesh out the epic storyline but the ending which was too long in the theatrical version is even longer here.

As might be guessed at from the Oscar awards, all the technical aspects of this film are incredible. The music is inspiring – dire, rousing, or uplifting as needed and cued in perfectly. Cinematography has to have boosted New Zealand’s tourism by an amazing amount. Makeup, costuming, and special effects all make this seem real.

The performances, while ignored by the Oscars, are pitch-perfect for the most part. You can really tell and feel that Sam loves Frodo, that Gollum and Frodo are both tormented, that Aragorn is noble and determined, and that Merry and Pippin are frightened and committed.

In short, this film is still amazing some 6 years down the road. We think our children will always think of this as the trilogy and that it will hold up over time even more so than Star Wars did for my generation.  By the way while Frodo is most often thought of as the hero or protagonist of the story, our family is in agreement that Sam is the actual hero.

People Watch: Look for Fringe’s resident eccentric genius Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) in excellent form as Denethor