The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Hobbit - Five ArmiesDirector: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Orlando Bloom

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies marks a real milestone. Sure, it marks the end of Peter Jackson’s epic, 6-film Middle Earth saga, but it also marks the first entire trilogy that I’ve reviewed in real time as The People’s Critic. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the 20th film I reviewed and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be my 130th!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens with an action-packed preamble that satisfies the cliffhanger left by The Desolation of Smaug. With the treasure now back in the possession of the dwarves and Thorin (Richard Armitage) back on the throne of Erebor, it would seem all is well in Middle Earth. However, when the news of Smaug’s defeat spreads, the treasure of the Lonely Mountain suddenly seems up for grabs. Bard and the men of the now decimated Lake Town, Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the Elves of Mirkwood, Sauron and the rising army of Orcs, as well as the Great Eagles of the Misty Mountain all emerge to battle the dwarves over their claim to the treasure – hence that whole “Five Armies” thing.

This film is ultimately a showcase for a final cinematic showdown in the land of Middle Earth. Where the past two films have been criticized for their lack of action, Five Armies may catch criticism for the exact opposite. Jackson’s skill with this subject is on full display and Five Armies boasts some of the finest battle scenes in either trilogy, but overall, there’s not much to this film; it is too simplistic and underdeveloped. Some complexity is infused with Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) realization of Thorin’s corruption upon reclaiming his crown as well as the budding relationship between elven guardian Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). Still this is the most scaled down film of the six, and that’s not really a good thing.      

Jackson’s Hobbit films have struggled with the what it should be/what it needs to be/what it could have been dilemma far more than his Lord of the Rings films. In the case of this film, what it should be and needs to be is a fitting conclusion to this series of films. It more or less accomplishes that, but what it could have been is a great dovetail into Fellowship of the Ring. There are a few throwaway lines that refer to events yet to come, but they are a bit hokey. The decision to pursue a simplistic cap to the Hobbit films rather than an ambitious lead in to the Lord of the Rings films is evident in its title. The final Hobbit film was originally to be subtitled, There and Back Again but was changed to The Battle of Five Armies. There and Back Again feels like the film Jackson was hoping to make and the one I wanted to see, but The Battle of the Five Armies is the movie that was made. If The Battle of the Five Armies had to battle the other five films, it would lose that battle five times. B-

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 24 minutes.

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St. Vincent

St VincentI had always imagined that Bill Murray could be entertaining even if he was just watering a plant. His new film St. Vincent ultimately confirms my assumption but not before offering one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

St. Vincent is the story of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a selfish, filthy, cranky curmudgeon of a guy living alone in his Brooklyn home. However when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince’s deliberately isolated existence is suddenly shattered. With Maggie’s job as a CAT scan tech requiring late hours, she must, in an act of desperation, lean on the dissolute Vincent to watch Oliver after school. Oliver’s new school is a religious prep academy that is uncharacteristically non-denominational. And while the school is universally accepting, the students are less so making it hard for Oliver to make friends even with Brother Geraghty’s (Chris O’Dowd) lessons about sainthood and brotherly love. Thus, Oliver looks to Vincent for guidance, and what follows is a well-executed, though familiar, tale of unlikely friendship. Think Up with most of the “Disney” rinsed off.

Selfish adults paired up with circumstantially victimized children is a staple of American cinema, and that fact could have easily stacked the odds against St. Vincent; however, the charm, heart, and most of all performances in this film prevent it from falling victim to the clichés and mediocrity that this genre is capable of producing. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay does not meander or wander away from its strengths, the principal of which is Murray. Murray’s turn as the crotchety Vincent is as fine a performance as he’s ever delivered and certainly the most sentimental. Yet, the film earns every laugh and every tear without setting foot into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. While the screenplay does enjoy the occasional shortcut or coincidental predictableness, the larger motif about the existence of unconventional goodness in the world is quite successful. Newcomer Lieberher’s performance as Oliver is also very good allowing Murray’s character to feel that much more dynamic. McCarthy is great opposite Murray and Naomi Watts is surprisingly well cast as Vincent’s lady (of the night) friend, Daka.

St. Vincent is less a comedy than the trailers would have you believe. While occasionally funny, this film tugs at the heartstrings as hard as any drama ever dares. Still, genre-based confusion aside, the film works and delivers on a wide range of emotions that may help get Murray his first Oscar. A-

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. And if you want to see what I mean about Bill Murray being entertaining while watering a plant, click here or just sit through the film’s credits.

Gone Girl

gone girlGillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl was an immediate success and quickly became one of those novels everyone was talking about. The story of Nick and Amy Dunne contained all of the trappings of a top notch thriller, and it was only a matter of time (1 month to be exact) that the story would be optioned for a movie deal. 2 years after publication, Gone Girl has hit the big screen and in a big, big way.

Gone Girl is a fragmented and psychological thriller that depicts the ups and downs of a marriage in the midst of the disappearance of wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). Amy’s disappearance quickly becomes a tabloid phenomenon and husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is thrust into the spotlight as the hunt for Amy turns into a national affair. As Nick’s life is picked apart by public scrutiny it is not long before Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) suspect foul play. Now Nick, and sister Margo (Carrie Coon) are in the middle of a media frenzy fueled by the court of public opinion. Clues, red herrings, left turns and twists a plenty ensue resulting in this year’s most entertaining and engrossing film thus far.

Director David Fincher is no stranger to the strange and psychological given some of his films like Se7en, The Game, and more recently Zodiac. Nor is he a stranger to adapting ultra popular best selling novels like Fight Club and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher’s style fits Gone Girl like a pair of mysterious red panties and though Fincher saw tremendous success with his Oscar winning film The Social Network, this may be his strongest overall film to date.

Fincher certainly has fans of the novel in mind in this adaptation. While Flynn adapted her own novel for the screenplay, Fincher captures the novel’s tone beautifully keeping the audience at the edge of their seats for the film’s entire 149 minute running time. Comparisons to Hitchcock have been made in the past and while techniques vary, Fincher’s pacing, camera work, and tremendous use of score are very reminiscent of the great master of suspense.

And then there’s the acting! Affleck and Pike are perfect in this film. The nuances, layers, and personalities of Flynn’s characters are fully realized in both lead performances. Mystery thrillers are far more dependent on proper characterization than virtually any other genre and these performances make way for some of the most satisfying twists since The Usual Suspects. Supporting work from Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, among others, also help elevate this film.

Gone Girl is a triumph of modern cinema and one of the few films shot digitally that still manages to achieve the murkiness and grittiness of film. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth has worked with Fincher on four films, and he and Fincher have developed a distinctive and characteristic style that works very well. My one criticism of Fincher’s films is that he often drops the ball during his films’ final acts. Films like The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all kind of fizzle out at the end. Now with a film where its success almost entirely rests on its final act, Fincher finally puts my nit-picks to rest indefinitely. This is an excellent start to the fall movie season and a film that should kick-start the Oscar conversation both technically and creatively.  A

Gone Girl is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes.

Star Trek Into Darkness

ImageIt is fair to say that J. J. Abrams is a man who has found quite a bit of success within the entertainment industry.  In fact, his name likely appears on the top of a very, very short list of encouraging up-and-coming writers, producers, directors, and creators.  While few milestones are left for him to achieve, Star Trek Into Darkness does happen to represent his first responsibility as director of a sequel and a high-profile one at that.  Since it is no secret that Abrams will be helming the most highly anticipated set of sequels of all time in terms of the upcoming Star Wars episodes; Star Trek Into Darkness has a little more riding on it than usual.  Fortunately, Abrams and company have done it again, in that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing short of spectacular!

After a four year wait, the crew of the Enterprise is back on the big screen.  Into Darkness hits the ground running with a wild, stylish opening segment that reminds us that hot-shot Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules.  However, this time his cavalier philosophy finally catches up with him.  Kirk’s chance at redemption comes at the cost of an attack on star fleet by a mysterious mad-man by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Harrision’s attack and subsequent retreat to hostile space leads Kirk and crew on an inter-galactic man-hunt that tests their strength, courage, and relationships. 

The film looks very good and while heavy on special effects, they do not overwhelm the movie.  Abrams shot much of this film on the lot in Paramount Studios, but he was able to use realistic staging quite often, resulting in action scenes where the actors actually were able to interact with the environment and be immersed in the reality of it.  A clear example of this is a fantastic fight scene near the end of the film that takes place on top of multiple levitating barges.  The actors filmed this scene on actual moving platforms, which aid in creating a very intense tone for a pivotal scene. 

A major strength of Abrams’s first Star Trek was the expert casting, and that remains so in Into Darkness.  All of the iconic roles are filled with performers who understand how to balance the legacy of their characters’ reputations with the modern turn necessary to freshen up the franchise.  Especially excellent is Zachary Quinto who plays a more sensitive Spock, while still preserving the stone-cold-logical element that all fans have embraced for nearly fifty years.  While inside tongue-in-cheek references are aplenty, non-trekies will be none-the-wiser and will not feel like they are missing something.  Nonetheless, Abrams does not let the notoriously passionate fans down and creates another film that will certainly have devotees reeling, laughing, and gasping at several carefully nuanced touches; study up on your Klingon!   

Star Trek Into Darkness is far simpler in story and scope than its predecessor, which may disappoint those looking for twists and turns that fans of Abrams have come to expect from his work on television shows like Lost and Fringe.   While straightforward and uncomplicated in terms of plot, it is a lot of fun.  The pacing is swift, the action is great, and the all of the humor works.  Star Trek Into Darkness substantiates the latest voyages of the Starship Enterprise, which will surely live long and inevitably pro$per!  A-

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.  While it was apparently not shot in 3-D, it was shot in IMAX, and the 3-D conversion is top notch and not disappointing.  See it in 2-D or 3-D, but definitely see it on an IMAX or Xtreme screen.