“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a disappointment

Peter Jackson has finally finished The Hobbit series, a series that pretty much everyone knew beforehand should have been at most two films. As the third entry ends, everyone’s worst fears are vindicated. This was too long, too monotonous with too much shoved in to create three films from what should have been a very simple story.

The film begins exactly where the last left off, the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) intent on destroying Laketown. After his demise, the kingdom of Erebor, long sought by Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company, is up for grabs, with orcs and men and elves and dwarfs all converging in one climactic battle. This battle consumes most of the film, but with no real characters of consequence other than Bard (Luke Evans) involved, there’s not a lot to be emotionally involved with, and the overabundance of CGI effects (in stark contrast to the first trilogy, which heavily used effects, but in conjunction with actual props and locations) renders the spectacle more tedious than thrilling. In much the same vein as the reviled prequel Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Jackson has sacrificed emotion at the expense of attempting to create awe, but awe is created with a blending of grand spectacle combined with concern for characters. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was immersive in scope, a grand attack on a large scale, but at its heart was a concern for the people of Rohan, our heroes laying everything on the line in a last desperate attempt to save humanity. The Battle of the Five Armies has several random armies fighting for gold and jewels and strategic advantage. With Bilbo, Thorn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pretty much on the sidelines, there is not a lot to care for. Bilbo needs more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series suffers from a lack of direction, torn between adoration for the original trilogy with its hardened war analogies, and Tolkien’s original novel, more whimsical and youth-based. For every scene where the dwarfs are in danger of being eaten by trolls (youth), there is a gory battle scene involving orcs and decapitation. The lack of a cohesive vision has hurt the series overall, giving it no real identity. Audiences can only wonder what originally-planned director’s Guillermo del Toro’s films would have been like. A new director with a new style may have served the story well, differing in tone from the first trilogy while still fitting into the same Tolkien world.

Somewhere hidden in this mess of forced romances, overlong battles and dismissive comic relief (the character of Alfrid is not only not funny, he is downright painful to watch) lies a pretty good four hour film. Perhaps some fan edit will give us the Hobbit film audiences deserve. What Jackson and company have given us however are three films that pretend to deliver heart, but abuse that sentiment under an avalanche of CGI nonsense and subplots that offer nothing to the tale of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the supposed protagonist who is often relegated to secondary status, the single worst sin by the filmmakers. Bilbo’s tale, and his relationship to Thorin and the other dwarfs, should have been the heart of the film. What we have instead is a mess.

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“Into the Woods” a solid film

Whenever Disney dabbles into fairy tales, especially darker ones, there’s an inherent perception that studio executives will dampen down the story and ‘Disney-fy’ it, making it more accessible for families and taking the darker tone out of it. With Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, there was fear that the studio would subdue the darker third act elements, some of them downright violent, but Disney, thankfully, has let director Rob Marshall tell the story as it was meant to be told.

Into the Woods tells the story of a Witch (Meryl Streep) who places a curse on the house of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). To remove the curse, the couple must retrieve several objects from other fairy tale creatures such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). As the tale unfolds, an escalating series of events and romances converge to bring about a dramatic finale.

Sondheim being Sondheim, the music keeps the film moving even as it struggles at times to maintain its footing with so many storylines and characters. Prince Charming played by Chris Pine, by far one of the most entertaining characters, is given far too little screentime while Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) is given far too much. Some of the CGI effects also come off as rather pedestrian and the direction at times lack focus. And while Disney should be applauded for keeping the darker tone and message of the original production, some of the intense moments are either only winked at or glossed over instead of emphasized for true dramatic effect. The strength of the characters however makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

All of the cast excels, Meryl Streep of course stealing the show, but Emily Blunt and James Corden, as the heart of the story, really help ground an emotional stake for the viewer. Even as some musical numbers fall flat for not being cinematic enough or unnecessary and some characters do not hit the mark (Johnny Depp as the Wolf in a rather hideous costume), the journey of the Baker and his Wife keeps the audience engaged in the story. The story is not a children’s tale where things end happily ever after, but a reflection on how those types of stories help us deal with the cruel world around us. That message comes across strong, and the resulting film is enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The Ideal NHL Playoff Format

The NHL season has started. The Oilers are off to a slow start. The Golden Knights have are off to a hot start. We’re currently about ten regular season games in. Then there are 72 games more. And, if you’re lucky, your team will play another 20 or so playoff games. At that point, it will be mid-June. The hockey season is ten months long. Ten long months of pounding bodies, relentless schedules and road-weary bodies. Even on the fans, and I consider myself a die-hard, it is an extensive, bloated schedule that tests commitment.

 

The reasoning for the long season is simple of course. A longer season means more tickets purchased, more TV games with paid advertisements and more opportunities to sell merchandise. Hockey, like all sports, is a business.

But the bloated schedule results in tired athletes, poorer quality hockey and viewer fatigue. It should be changed to allow the season to reach its natural conclusion and not pushed past the abilities of professional athletes.

The preseason should be moved up to the beginning of September. Then the season can start at the end of the month. And instead of 82 games, it should be shortened to 68. This will keep the players fresher and in turn will produce better hockey games. It will also add more importance to each game as points will mean more in a shorter season. The points system should also be changed to a 3-2-1 system instead of a 2-1 system. Making regulation wins 3 points, overtime/shootout wins 2 points and overtime losses 1 point will push teams to try harder to win in regulation, reducing the tendency of tied teams to play it safe late in games.

And the playoffs are entirely too long. They last two months and instead of build in quality, they lessen. The earliest playoff games are fantastic matches that utilize creativity and hard work. By the time the finals start, the last two teams are so worn down that it’s a battle of attrition, players just barely able to make simple passes, throwing pucks at the net and hoping they go in. And in June, with summer fully kicked in, ice conditions are usually terrible, resulting in poor puck management and sloppy skating.

Both the NFL and major league baseball do a great job of using a short tournament to build suspense. Baseball playoffs are three rounds and last about three weeks. The Superbowl is one game. It’s hard to maintain championship excitement over two months, no matter how compelling the playoff games may be. And more than any other sport, hockey fans are more passionate about their team rather than the sport overall. If the Flyers lose in the first round, it’s hard to get their fans to watch six more weeks of other teams play for a championship they won’t win. Most hockey fans, myself included, are team first and hockey second. Everyone watches the Super Bowl. Only two cities watch the NHL Finals.

If the playoffs were shorter, the anticipation to each game would mount and burnout would be less of a factor for the fans. And with a shorter season for the players, the quality of hockey would be better to the very last game. Stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, PK Subban and Steven Stamkos would still be able to display their creativity on the biggest stage of the year instead of running on fumes.

I would suggest that the top three teams in each division make the playoffs. The division winners get byes in the first round of the playoffs while the two lower teams in each division play a best of 5 playoff series. This rewards the teams that do well in the regular season, adding further incentive. The winners of the lower series go on to play the division winners in another best of 5 series. The four division champions then play the conference finals in a best of 7, but instead of being broken down into two Eastern teams and two Western teams, the point totals from each will determine who plays who. Now you could realistically align all the playoff rounds by points totals instead of geography, but that would unfairly punish teams travel-wise for simple luck so perhaps sticking with East and West up until the conference finals works best. Then the Finals remain a best of 7 and could realistically feature any two teams as long as they didn’t play in the same division.

This would ensure that the playoffs end around early May, before summer really kicks in, and, hypothetically, the quality of hockey will still be pretty high. The only deviance from this schedule would be the inclusion of the Olympics, which the NHL was foolish not to partake in next year. It’s worth pushing the season back to showcase hockey on the world’s biggest stage.

Now, this schedule will never happen. As I said at the beginning, the NHL is a business and businesses are meant to make money. If anything, the schedule will get longer before it gets shorter. But it is nice to envision an NHL season that emphasizes quality over quantity.

 

“Blade Runner 2049” a Great Sci-Fi Flick

Director Dennis Villeneuve has been steadily rising over the past few years. His films “Prisoners”, “Sicario” and “Arrival” are all solid works that hint at a filmmaker with vision and conviction. With “Blade Runner 2049”, Villeneuve practically blows the door off the cinema world and announces himself as one of the premiere filmmakers working today.

“Blade Runner 2049” features Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant, hunting down the previous generation of replicants who have broken free of society’s restraints and gone rogue. The world hates what he is, seeing him not as a person, but a sick creature pretending to be part of the human race. A mystery begins to unfold however as the bones of a dead replicant reveal a hidden secret. As ‘K’ delves deeper and deeper into the case, heroes and villains emerge and the possibility of a more pertinent life presents itself to him.

Gosling is solid in the lead role of the film, balancing the right amount of human tendencies with robotic insecurities. Side players Sappa (Dave Bautista), Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), Niander (Jared Leto) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) complete a diverse and interesting cast, but it is the characters of Joi (Ana de Armas) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) and their relationship with ‘K’ that really create the emotional core of the film. Joi and ‘K’ in particular share a very interesting arc of wondering whether or not their emotions are real.

The film tackles several absorbing existential questions regarding artificial intelligence and the ideas of living, building off the previous film’s themes in a great way. Do robotic beings have souls? Can they love? Can artificial intelligence in fact know more about life than the living? At what point do robots cease to be subordinate to man and become their own sentient race? This is a thinking man’s sci-fi film.

Special credit has to be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner for creating a world so rich and real. It is truly breathtaking especially combined with Hans Zimmer’s haunting score.

The original “Blade Runner” was able to build a world full of intricacies, but lacked great storytelling to cement it as anything more than a visual epic. This sequel builds a heart underneath that facade and give birth to something new, both paying homage to its predecessor and creating something far superior. It is one of the best films of the year, a haunting and soulful journey of consciousness that takes you into an unforgettable world so close and far from us.

“Battle of the Sexes” a solid crowd pleaser

“Battle of the Sexes” details the 1973 tennis match between professionals Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Dubbed as “man versus woman” as the feminist era was growing, the contest garnered national attention and illuminated feminist ideals in a changing world.

The film fully illustrates the personal lives of Billie Jean and Bobby, showing how their relationships with the men and women around them influence their tennis-playing ability. For the married Billie Jean, will her budding lesbian relationship with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) distract her and doom her chances? For Bobby, will the separation from his wife over his gambling addiction drive him to failure? For a film that is really all about the final 20 minutes, it does a good job of building the pressures up to that moment with filler that has purpose.

Carell and Stone are solid as Bobby and Billie Jean. Both have excelled in the past in these types of roles so it is no surprise to see Stone accentuate Billie’s determination and Carrel to highlight Bobby’s goofiness. As two of the premiere actors working today, they are at the top of their game.

The film mixes equal bits humor and drama. It is very much the type of movie you expect it to be. It doesn’t try to be flashy or wow your socks off. It just tells its story, imbued with a pertinent sense of feminism. You could maybe wish for a little bit more jazziness, but you can’t really ask for anything more.

“American Sniper” a modern American fable

Much like Achilles from Ancient Greek mythology, the story of Chris Kyle is presented in Clint Eastwood’s thrilling film as one of growth and acceptance, the tale of a warrior who fights the battle, returns home and must adjust to his new life. It is a classic story, but also a timeless one.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL who takes his expert marksmanship to the war in Iraq. As he becomes the best sharpshooter in American history, with a body count reaching into the hundreds, he struggles to adjust to his family life with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and kids, not understanding the toll that his desire to help his comrades takes.

A simple PTSD story is in itself not that new or interesting, but what Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall manage to create is something more than that. By basing the film on a mythical structure and viewing Kyle as the prototypical warrior sent to defend the homeland, they make something universal. By taking that same story and molding it around current events, they give the film greater meaning. The two together paint a picture of a highly relatable man that defines an American era.

It is not surprising that the film made so much money as it appeals to so many people. Regardless of its historical accuracy, it presents us with the American ideals we strive for and the cost those ideals take. It gives us the American hero we all root for and the flaws in him that we feel in us.

It is not a perfect film. The story is not that original when taken solely at its plot. The Iraqis in the film are not given full representation and are often marginalized. And it’s not as though there are any real surprises throughout the film. It’s pretty easy to see the plot points before they happen. When compared to other war films, it’s not even the best war film about the recent Iraq/Afghanistan wars (“The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are superior in my opinion).

It does strike a core though, right in the American spirit. It is a great example of the sacrifice for freedom, something that will always be an American ideal.

“American Made” a solid ride

The 1980s seem to be the decade of nostalgic choice at the moment. With “Stranger Things” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Americans” all paying homage to the style and attitudes about the times, that trend continues with director Doug Liman’s “American Made.”

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal. He’s a commercial airline pilot with a yearning for danger and excitement. When he’s approached by CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures over rebelling Central American countries, a series of events leads him to the drug empires, the Contras and a personal fortune that threatens to doom him with every branch of the US government.

The film is a lot of fun as we see Barry’s illegal deeds escalate over the story. It does a good job of building dramatic tension through Seal’s riskier and riskier behavior.

There is always a lingering sense however that we know that most of the story presented to us is fictionalized and dramatized. The real Barry Seal does not look like Tom Cruise. Nor did he have a wife who looks like Sarah Wright or a perfect family. Nor was he so personable and charismatic in his run-ins for and against the law. The lack of belief in the possibility of the narrative holds the story back somewhat, but if you just take it as a well-told spy story and throw logic to the wind, the experience is enjoyable.

Much in the same vein of similar stories like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Goodfellas”, the film glorifies crime as an American ideal. Filmmakers see the 1980s as an era of  capitalism run-amok and this film fits in well with that nuance. Whether or not that is necessarily true is up to interpretation.

While the film is not the most original story in terms of narrative, it is fun to watch and experience. As confidence in the United States government continues to erode, stories like “American Made” and the issues it represents seem to grow greater significance.

Understanding films from all angles