The Legend of Tarzan

TarzanDirector: David Yates

Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Margot Robbie

Ahhhh AhAhAhAhAhAh Ahhhhhhhh! Tarzan is swinging back into theaters for like the 60th time in the last 100 years.  In the scheme of things with James Bond and superheroes, that’s not such a frequent appearance! Still, the problem with most Tarzan appearances is that they are all basically a retelling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel:  Parents are marooned, child is orphaned, child is raised by gorillas, scientist discovers Tarzan, Tarzan rescues scientist’s daughter, and they fall in love. So is David Yates’s new film, The Legend of Tarzan a “different story?” The answer is yes…and no.

In this film, we are introduced to an already grown Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Home in England during the mid 19th century, famous world-round, and married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie).  Tarzan (AKA John Clayton) has adjusted to life as an heir to his parents’ fortune and lives a most civilized existence, far removed from the one he knew in the jungle. When he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to sit in on a matter regarding King Leopold’s hold of a mining encampment in the African Congo, Tarzan is encouraged to use his celebrity and act as an ambassador. The Prime Minister’s hopes are that by traveling to the site, Clayton’s  presence will calm some rumors circling around Leopold’s interests and practices in the Congo.  American Historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers to accompany Clayton and Jane, but his true intention is to investigate his theory that indigenous Africans are being used as slaves to mine the Congo.  When that theory pans out, Williams easily persuades Clayton to join him in exposing Leopold’s private slave state, but they are thwarted by Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier sent by King Leopold to act as administrator of one of the major stations in the Congo.  Rom is devious and maniacal, and when he captures Jane, Tarzan will stop at nothing to get her back and bring Rom down.

So like I said, is this film’s narrative a different story than we’re used to? Yes, we are not dragged through a 60-minute plotline about a boy growing up as an ape man.  But no, we are not treading much new ground as Tarzan still spends most of the movie trying to rescue Jane. Fortunately, director David Yates tips the scales in favor of freshness as the story unfolds.  The filmmaking is vibrant, alive, and exciting. Yates takes that smooth, “Peter Jacksony” style he honed with his four Harry Potter films and transfers it beautifully to The Legend of Tarzan.  The visuals are sweeping and the film benefits tremendously from Yates’s touch.

The actors are equally enjoyable. Margot Robbie gives Jane real dimension; she even has a line where she mocks even the idea of being a “damsel in distress.” Skarsgård does well as the stoic Tarzan.  He looks the part and shows that he may be able to carry a big-budget action film.  However, as is the case in many films, the supporting cast is where Legend of Tarzan shines.  Waltz and Jackson are together again for the first time since Django Unchained.  This time, however, the roles are reversed and Waltz is the unabashed, racist tyrant, while Jackson gets to play the charismatic hero!  Mostly though, Jackson steals the show, and if you’re looking for that one extra reason to persuade you go see this film, Jackson firing off countless rounds from a machine gun turret is that reason.

The Legend of Tarzan is fun, summer blockbuster fare, and it’s better than the average film in that category. It clips along at a nice pace, and it doesn’t pander or feel false or ironic.  If you’re looking for something to see this summer that is (mostly) not animated, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy option. B

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

ImageI have struggled to accurately articulate my feelings about films being split into multiple parts.  I’m not talking about sequels, trilogies, or franchises, but rather the recent trend of taking one story and splitting it into different films with different release dates.  Mixed reactions have surrounded the decision to split films like Kill Bill, Breaking Dawn, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, and the upcoming Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay into two films.  Some appreciate the expanded devotion to detail these films receive while others feel they result in bloated, watered down films designed to get doubled the box office.  Director Peter Jackson is mostly known for his Lord of the Rings films.  While, the third film in that series, Return of the King, clocks in at nearly four hours, Jackson never considered dividing it in half.  The film went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won every single one of them.  Jackson took a different route with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dividing the book into three films.  If anyone can make a film that convinces me of the merits of this decision, it’s Jackson, and The Hobbit’s second installment, The Desolation of Smaug just might be that film.

In classic “middle-film-in-a-series” fashion, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with a brief flashback scene between Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) to remind the audience about what’s happening.  Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues his quest to assist thirteen dwarves in reclaiming their lost kingdom.  A pivotal step in the process involves recovering the arkenstone from a terrifying dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who dwells in the caverns of the Lonely Mountain guarding his riches.  Those who complain about how Jackson’s Tolkien films spend too much time walking will be happy to hear that Bilbo and company do arrive at the Lonely Mountain with plenty of time to spare.  Like in the previous Lord of the Rings films, the characters do not all stay united in one plot for long.  Smaug finds Gandolf abandoning the band of dwarves to investigate the rise of a being known as the “Necromancer” whose threat on Middle Earth was introduced in the previous film.  Furthermore, the Mirkwood Elven Guard led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are introduced.  Tauriel represents the first major evidence of Jackson’s and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s decision to expand The Hobbit into three films.  Her character is not in the book and is created for the film.  Her role appears to be to add some romance into the mix as she catches the eye of both Legolas as well as one of the dwarves.  While introducing a female character for  strictly romantic purposes would be a bit shallow, Tauriel fits in well and holds her own as both a lover and a fighter.     

The Desolation of Smaug, like The Two Towers, improves on the previous film.  There is more action, more humor, higher stakes, and purposeful character development.  Bilbo is in the throngs of ring delusion and Freeman plays this ambiguous stage in Bilbo’s life with deliberate hesitation and false bravado.  While the film catches a small snag when Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) enters the scene, it in no way minimizes the excellent final act where Bilbo and the dwarves square off against Smaug.  If you enjoyed the classic game of wits between Bilbo and Gollum in the first film, you will love the battle of egos between Smaug and Bilbo as he attempts to fulfill his role as Burglar. 

The Desolation of Smaug is an exciting, beautiful, and thrilling film with plenty of excitement for any moviegoer.  The debate on whether the decision to split this film into three parts takes a substantial hit as the second installment is quite good.  Tolkien aficionados may resent some of the additional material added like Tauriel or Gandolf’s scenes, but these additions are in keeping with the look, feel, and tradition of The Hobbit and the Tolkien universe.   A-

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.  It was released in both 3D and 2D, but the 3D craze is dying down and this film works very well in the traditional 2D format.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

11162899_detThere was once a beloved trilogy. One day, its creator decided a series of prequels were in order, so he directed…Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace. Thus was born mankind’s apprehension and speculation over prequel trilogies. A case is yet to be made for why Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit requires three parts. Nonetheless, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very good film…whew, what a relief!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes place sixty years before Frodo takes his first step towards Mordor. The story is simple this time around, as we return to Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is persuaded, or rather coerced, by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a party of 13 dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom. Freeman is very effective as the neurotic, Woody Allen-esque, Bilbo. His nuanced touch to the role gives the audience a very likable and enjoyable central character arch that is only accentuated by our familiarity with him from Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films. McKellen slips seamlessly back into his gray robes as Gandalf. While Gandalf is always wise and sensible, McKellen portrays him here as slightly less “urgent” given the lessened threat to Middle Earth and existence that occurs in The Hobbit. This lack of urgency translates to the entire film, which may disappoint die-hard Rings fans. There are more scenes in the “silly” category here than in the previous trilogy. Additionally, there is simply a lowered sense of critical doom and immediacy in this storyline. The film’s opening scenes go on for quite a while and while enjoyable, the end result is a slightly bloated film.

These criticisms are certainly legitimate, but they are truly its only faults. The film looks beautiful and lives up to what one would expect from Jackson’s take on the Tolkien mythology; New Zealand should probably be nominated for best supporting actor. The adaptation of Tolkien’s book is developed in such a way that it will lead up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy very nicely. Familiar characters appear along the way, and they are not unnecessary or false. All of them further the story and add something to the film, which is a credit to the host of screenwriters including Guillermo del Toro and Jackson himself. Furthermore, the dwarf plotline is elevated from the childish mood reflected in the novel to one that feels a bit more mature. This is a good decision and while younger kids can enjoy this film (if they have a long attention span), it is clear that the Hobbit films look to maintain a similar tone to the previous films in the series. At the end, there is quite a bit to like about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, the groundwork is set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers. B+