Category Archives: movie

‘Krampus’ silly fun

There’s a very thin line between scary and funny. Sometimes that line is blurred in movies, and you’re not sure if you should be laughing or screeching. So it is that “Krampus” (2015) is a movie that blends the pair with a holiday twist.

Handled with deft and also tongue-in-cheek, some will argue that the film can not make up its mind of whether to be funny or scary, but to those astute in the genre, it doesn’t matter. After all, this is a film about a malevolent demon who takes people to the underworld on Christmas by springing deranged and psychotic toys on them. You can not take this seriously.

Max (Emjay Anthony), suffering a horrific Christmas with awful family members, accidentally summons the demonic Krampus to his town during the middle of a blizzard. Taking his family members right and left, Max, his father Tom (Adam Scott), his mother Sarah (Toni Collette) and his grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler), must all come to terms with the force hunting them and what they need to do to survive.

The backstory to the demon is handled rather sloppily, and the characters are pretty much stereotypes, but the film is aimed at just being fun. It handles it’s premise well, keeping the film grounded just enough in realism for the humor of the plot to shine through. And the film should be commended for keeping CGI effects to a minimum, relying mostly on animatronics and makeup to create its hand-crafted ghouls.

Reminiscent of a modern day “Gremlins”, “Krampus” should not be taken too seriously as it is really just a Sci-Fi original movie with a beefed up budget, but it respects its audience enough to give them a worthwhile jolt.

(***/5)

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‘Finding Dory’ lacks the ingenuity of its predecessor

In general, sequels always start at a disadvantage. When you are compared to an earlier film, you not only have to stand on your own, you have to match up with a film already established and add to its legacy. Some sequels (The Empire Strikes Back) accomplish this feat. Others (Men in Black II) do not. You can’t just be a good film. You have to be a worthwhile companion, a continuation that illuminates the first stories’ characters and themes. And “Finding Dory” is just an okay film; compared to its predecessor, it doesn’t measure up.

The film begins a year after the conclusion of “Finding Nemo.” Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres) lives with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence), but she is lured on an adventure when she remembers her parents and how she lost them. The trio trek across the ocean to California and a rehabilitation center, encountering numerous animals along the way such as Hank (Ed O’Neill), a septopus that refuses to go back to the ocean, Bailey (Ty Burrell), a whale with broken echolocation, and Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a near-sighted shark.

If one were to view “Finding Dory” as its own film, the result would not be a negative experience. The visuals are great, the characters are fun and the story is pretty good. Dory goes from sidekick to protagonist very well, as she realizes her own worth despite her short-term memory loss.

The problem is that in the shadow of “Finding Nemo”, the film is lacking. Where “Nemo” is grand and adventuresome, “Dory” is claustrophobic. Where “Nemo” utilizes a full cast of characters, “Dory” keeps it simple and contained. Where “Nemo” was groundbreaking, “Dory” is a case of been-there, done-that.

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Marlin and Nemo have far too little involvement in the story and their character arc is simple and perfunctory. If they were absent, no one would notice. Bailey and Destiny are entertaining as are several of the other smaller parts (such as the sea lions), but after so many great moments in the original, they feel lesser. Hank regularly steals the show when onscreen, but there is little motivation for why he does not want to go back to the ocean. Some sort of backstory would have really helped make his arc more interesting.

And the ending is a bit too trite and predictable. Even though this is a “kid’s movie” (a term I personally loathe), the happy conclusion waters down the emotion of the journey. In the original film, Nemo’s mother and all his siblings die. Darla murders fish. Marlin and Dory get stuck in the belly of a whale. Marlin nearly witnesses the death of his son twice. The grit and reality of life felt more real. Trauma and heartache were real emotions. “Dory” feels just a tad too cartoony, especially at the film’s conclusion. It lacks chutzpah.

“Finding Dory” is not a bad film, and taken on its own merits, it stands up as a fun, if uneven, outing. But it is just a pale shadow to the original.

★★★ (out of five)

Could it Have Been Saved?- Man of Steel and Batman V Superman

Goodness gracious, where to begin? The tone is stone-cold dread, the characters are uninteresting and the camerawork and action are shoddy and incoherent. But this is Batman and Superman. The material is there for something great.

Looking at the implications of a standalone modern Superman film and a Batman versus Superman film, some fans will say that DC is rushing the story, and while that may be true, it does not mean two strong films could not have been made from their concepts. So how could Man of Steel and Batman V Superman have been saved? Let’s start with Man of Steel:

Man of Steel

  1. Make Clark Kent the central protagonist with real stakes and with deliberate choices in the film

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This is screenwriting 101, but was sorely lacking in the film. Basically, Clark Kent has too little to do with the actual narrative of the film. The events of the plot are initiated by his father, his adopted father, Lois Lane and Zod, leaving Clark pretty much as a puppet.

Taking away all the clutter, the narrative should focus on him, his character and his choices and should simply be this: Unsure of who he is, young Clark Kent, brimming with powers beyond his comprehension, wanders the world, searching for purpose, until he discovers a clue to his past that leads him to discover that he is the last descendant of an alien race. Listening to the guidance of the hologram of his father, Clark witnesses for himself firsthand the suffering of man and the need for a savior. He takes it upon himself to serve his adopted homeworld as a symbol of hope against evil.

Many complain about the tone being too dark in the film, and granted, that may indeed be a detriment, but it is not a film-killer. You can have a dark Superman film and have it be good, but you have to handle it well. What Snyder gave us in Man of Steel was simply darkness; you also need the light. You need ying to balance out yang in order to feel anything. Clark should see a world devastated by war and conflict, see people losing hope, and that could inspire him to give his very soul and identity towards a higher goal. That is a powerful sacrifice that should be examined, and it should start with Clark being the center of attention, driving the action and choosing his own destiny.

2. Themes: Establish the Idea of Gods and Make the Villain Essential to the Story

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The theme of Man of Steel is a little murky. Is it that mankind needs a protector (the destruction of Metropolis and Superman stopping Zod)? Is it that violent measures are sometimes necessary in a dangerous world (Superman killing Zod)? Is it that people are wary of a superpowered individual (arresting Superman and gaining the people’s trust)? What is the point of it all?

The focus should be on Superman and his relationship to Earth. Since it is established early on that Clark is an outcast looking to find his way, his quest should be fulfillment, finding a purpose. Everything that influences the plot should reflect that goal of his. For an example, look to the plot of the animated Hercules.

The theme would then be accepting the potential power of yourself to make your world better despite the road that got you there.

In act one, we would meet a young Clark Kent, raised by his parents in Smallville. He begins to show powers beyond what others believe possible, and he feels shunned. His father and mother tell him the truth: they discovered him in a strange ship no one has ever seen before.

At the beginning of act two, we find Clark traveling the world, from Kansas to Brazil to India to Russia, trying to find his place. Every now and then, he is forced to do something extraordinary, such as saving a family from a falling building, but in so doing, he has to keep moving because of other’s fear of him. His exploits draw the attention of a reporter, Lois Lane, who chronicles this “man of steel.” This is pretty similar to the film.

Also on his journey, he learns of the cruelty of man, meeting warlords and terrorists, stopping them when he can. Clark eventually discovers a clue to the Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his true nature and consults the hologram of his father. He wrestles with the realization that he will always be different from everyone else and the loneliness that comes with it, unsure of what to do.

In the background, sinister forces are at work, perhaps led by Lex Luthor with his own subplot. He is representative of the evil that man has in its midst.

At the midpoint, Clark finally meets and falls in love with Lois Lane, never letting on that he is the subject of her journalism piece. When he is forced to save her from something (a drug cartel, terrorists, etc.), he understands his purpose. Even though he is not of man, he is bound to them and will sacrifice his life for them if need be. He dons the cape and becomes Superman.

There are pieces of this sprinkled throughout Man of Steel, but they feel rushed so that the big fight at the end can occur or the excruciatingly long introductory Krypton sequence (all of which can simply go- it is not important to Clark’s journey). The importance is Superman’s journey into discovering his purpose and why he chooses to be that hero.

Once the world discovers him, people may fear him and his powers, unsure what to make of him. Luthor’s scheme of some kind of dastardliness gives Superman the chance to save the day, giving mankind a savior they have not seen in a millenia (there are plenty of Jesus references in the film and that is fine, but they can be less overt).

The biggest problem with Man of Steel is Zod and his entire storyline. Man of Steel never needed huge action set pieces and gigantic space battles. Zod hijacks the story away from Superman and his journey. Clark is trying to find himself, someone so different, the last of his kind, and at the end of the film, he has found himself. Zod as a villain is too complicated, attention-diverting and not a proper villain for an introduction to Superman. Luthor may not even need to be in there as he is also capable of stealing Superman’s thunder. Imagine if Superman simply tried to save the world we have now. Imagine if he tried to defeat terrorists or warlords and tried to give hope in a global sense.

From then, his entrance onto the world stage could invite all sorts of other super-powered individuals such as Wonder Woman, Darkseid and Aquaman. Perhaps Superman’s entrance changes the global dynamics of world power, elevating other superheroes who had been hiding out into the open.

I think Warner Bros. was confused as to how to make a Superman film that would appeal to modern audiences, much more jaded today than they were in the Christopher Reeves-era. They decided to go gritty and edgy and darker. Again, that does not equate a bad film, but they forgot or neglected to include the core of what has made Superman special for over 70 years: as spectators, we marvel at his powers as Superman, but as Clark Kent, we empathize with his inner loneliness. That dichotomy between man of steel and man of fears is endlessly fascinating, how one man so powerful could feel so weak. Man of Steel never attempted to go that deep, substituting action for heart. A laugh in a superhero movie never hurt anyone.

3. Make Everything Coherent and Build to Finale

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One last rebuke of Man of Steel that has somewhat been mentioned is its insistence on grandiose explosions and destruction. Zack Snyder seems to have an explosion fetish of some kind for the last 45 minutes of the film are non-stop action and devastation.

It is unfortunate that action is used to replace drama and heart. The greatest action battles and fight scenes are all pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by real stakes in the character’s life. When Batman tries to save Gotham at the end of Batman Begins, he is not just trying to save a city, he is staking his ideal of the world, a world that can still be saved, against that of a militant organization. The fact that he was once a member of the same League of Shadows and allowed them to rise up again fuels the rage that drives him to stop Ra’s al Ghul. And the fight at the end lasts at most ten minutes, delivering just what is needed for the emotional punch to land.

Man of Steel on the other hand features Superman trying to save the world against a villain he has never really met. To top it off, he never actually saves any people other than Lois Lane, and their relationship is underdeveloped. To top it off, the battle lasts so long that it is the equivalent of a short bald man driving a fancy car as if to reassure himself that he’s something special, even though just about everyone can see that he’s lacking self-esteem. It’s not the length nor the intensity of fighting and explosions that creates audience empathy but the character’s journey to that point and his or her emotional stakes in the action. Man of Steel flashes brilliant nothingness at us for an obscene amount of time.

The climax should be heartfelt, with Superman’s quest of discovery in the balance, his need to be mankind’s savior the emotional crux. This moment should be built up to to achieve full dramatic value and should only last as long as it needs to.

Really, I could go on and on about everything wrong with Man of Steel because the list is nearly limitless. It is almost a perfect representation of everything wrong with the modern blockbuster. But let’s move on to another mess, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (right from the title, you knew something was wrong).

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

  1. Establish the Protagonist and Whose Story You Want to Tell

batman-v-superman-trailer

Even buddy cop movies have a leading man. There is always a protagonist unless your film is a true-team movie (i.e. “The Battleship Potemkin”, “The Avengers”- though an argument can be made that Tony Stark is still the protagonist of a “The Avengers”). So it is that BvS needs a main character. The question the film never answers is; is it Batman or Superman?

The answer doesn’t come down to screentime or how many fight scenes there are, but to who drives the action of the story and who undergoes the emotional change through the course of the telling. Two characters can have journeys over the course of one story, but one should be the audience’s heart along the way.

But much like Man of Steel, we are left with nothing to really care for during the film. Neither Batman nor Superman is relatable. Neither of them has a true emotional arc. For all the fighting, talking of gods and whatnot, you still need the basic heart of a hero somewhere in here.

I would think that the protagonist would be Batman. Ben Affleck does a fine role as Bruce Wayne (though I can’t look at the screen and see ‘Bruce Wayne’, I see ‘Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne’) and he seems actively concerned about the power of Superman. His desire to keep power in check is admirable and the fact that he is a little crazy (as Batman is) works. So the story should focus on him.

Superman can still be in it, but he should serve as a secondary character, an antagonist to Batman’s goals. Especially with the Man of Steel already having his own film, he could play second-fiddle in the narrative to Bruce Wayne. Bruce would then go through the emotional journey of not trusting Superman, to trusting him to perhaps saving his life at the near-expense of his own at the end. Their relationship can build. The climax should not be Batman V Superman, but it should be the act two climax. The confrontation could leave them both broken in some form (Superman by kryptonite, perhaps Bruce’s suit out of juice and stuck in it). This would then give them the opportunity to bond before saving the world from some other catastrophe (i.e. not Doomsday- that’s a whole other storyline for an entirely different film).

The execution of the relationship between the two characters in the film is pathetic. There needs to be development, they need to go from hating to liking back to hating etc. A good example of how something like this is done would be Toy Story. The foundation between Woody and Buzz starts off rocky, they are forced together towards a common goal, drift apart again and finally gain true friendship. They need to save each other, learn a bit about each other, stick up for one another. It’s development that Batman V Superman is missing, and it should be the heart of the film.

2. Stop With the Sequel-Bait

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Wonder Woman is here. So is Aquaman for a second. Flash? Green Lantern? They might appear at some point. It’s hard to keep track anymore with all the sequel-bait.

It’s become an epidemic in the Hollywood blockbuster. One film is never enough anymore. Each film is a prelude to another film which is a prelude to ten other films. The result are mediocre films bogged down by less dramatic plot points and subplots that do not serve the main story other than to advance a future film down the line (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is very guilty of this).

Wonder Woman does not need to be in this movie. Nor really does Lex Luthor. Nor any of those other cameos. The story should only have as many characters as necessary to its plot. The Dark Knight Rises has many characters, but they all solve a purpose (mostly). X-Men Origins: Wolverine has many characters, but almost none of them serve a purpose. Batman V Superman has many characters, and most of them serve a purpose, but many don’t, and the film feels less because of it. It’s less impactful because it is cluttered in purpose. Batman should have a storyline. Superman should have a storyline. Characters that contribute to each of their storylines should be included. Anyone else should be excluded.

3. Focus on a Simple Story

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So now that we’ve cut away all the unnecessary bits and pieces and added an emotional arc between Batman and Superman, all you need now is a simple story to tie them together. It has to be more than Batman hates Superman because he’s dangerous. One of them actually has to be at fault for something so that that person can learn something over the course of the story.

If Batman is your protagonist, perhaps he views Superman as a dangerous weapon, tries to reason with him to no avail, has kryptonite developed just in case, but after repeated efforts, feels he has to take Superman down for the good of the planet. He has to view the situation as any of us would. We would try to handle the situation peacefully, try harder when that doesn’t work and then work towards drastic measures.

Perhaps Superman is recruited by the US government as a pawn to destroy rival governments (as in the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and this would also carry over themes from Man of Steel) and Batman hates that Superman can be used as a weapon of corrupt government officials. As he himself tries to clean up Gotham using whatever means necessary, it is rumored that the mayor of Gotham may call in Superman to deal with the bat menace. The two heroes can meet and have that pivotal conversation where they let each other know they won’t stop their duty. Perhaps Superman is plagued by self-doubt about confronting his friend Batman. Perhaps Batman feels the same way.

There needs to be something internal between the two characters that makes their choices have greater meaning. Two friends, pitted against each other, against the theme of devotion to the greater cause and godhood in the modern world. If only more of that was imbued into the narrative.

Summary

In conclusion, it’s hard to overstate just how much is wrong with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Character over action, internal growth, a commitment to story principles and climaxing drama… All of these things are necessary to create an engaging story. Zack Snyder’s films are superficial, uninteresting and nauseating. Warner Bros. is going down a poor road to generate profit and has sacrificed a great story.

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“The Force Awakens” solid, if familiar

For storytelling purposes, the “Star Wars” saga should be over. It should have ended with “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. That was a natural conclusion to the story with the destruction of evil, the redemption of a fallen character and the ascension of the hero. There really was no need for additional films.

But “Star Wars” is the most successful film franchise of all-time so the story will not end despite how natural its conclusion may be. There will be more and more. It’s a shame, but audiences are insatiable when it comes to this galaxy far, far away.

First came the prequels. They were awful. They contained everything that is wrong in today’s Hollywood: an overuse of CGI special effects, a lack of storytelling and character development, an assembly-line production that never hints at any goal other than profit.

But fans still went to see them in record droves which only meant that there would be more films. “Star Wars” may have lost its magic in the digital age, but it has not lost its money-making power.

So it is that we receive Episode VII: “The Force Awakens.” Expectations were sky high (which they should not have been after the disaster of the prequels). George Lucas had sidestepped his throne to the next generation, starting with J.J. Abrams, one of the fanboys who fell in love with the original films.

And amazingly the film delivers. Despite the fact that it is not necessary, that expectations are too high, that it is still purely a money-making machine rather than a storytelling experience, the film is an exciting adventure that utilizes character, reverence and nostalgia (though perhaps too much).

Needless to say, there will be more Star Wars films, there will be more toys and promotions and products, there will be more everything. But if the films can continue to reach this level of semi-competence, this level of pop art, it won’t be the end of the world.

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SPOILERS

“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker is missing and the shards of the old rebellion and the old empire are fighting once again (now called the First Order and the Resistance). It is somewhat confusing who is in charge of what and where everyone is, but that is beside the point. They are fighting, one is evil, one is good, move on.

There is a map to Luke stored on the drive to a BB-8 droid who is left on the planet Jakku after his master Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith, and the First Order. The droid befriends young Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and they join up with Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper. Together, they go to deliver the map to Luke to the Resistance.

While the prequels are stale and unfeeling, this film is nothing if not packed with emotion. Abrams and everyone in crew obviously love “Star Wars” and have created a film imbued with that love.  There is great attention to detail with many of the side characters, locations and gadgets having complexity and realness beyond the modern movie spectacle. It is a joy to see such adoration in every frame of the film.

However, the story suffers as it is a direct copy of Episode IV: “A New Hope.” Both films follow a young individual on a desert planet who befriends an R2 droid with secret information that needs to be returned to the good guys while the bad guys chase them. They both meet a potential love interest and are chased off the desert planet. They both befriend a scruffy, old, wise mentor from the previous saga (Obi-Wan/Han Solo) who ends up dying at the end of the film at the hand of his former pupil/son over a ravine while the heroes overlook the situation and shoot at the perpetrator. There’s a cantina scene in each where a character looks for a pilot. There’s a menacing creature that the heroes need to escape from (trash compactor creature/ranthars). There’s a confrontation involving X-Wings sent to destroy an evil space station that has already destroyed a planet. There in fact seems to be very little that’s new in the film at all.

Granted, there can be some allusions to the plot of the franchise’s first film to tie everything together, but at a certain point, the repetition gets to be a little too much, especially in regards to the Death Star-esque weapon and confrontation at the film’s conclusion. It would be nice if Episode VIII left the nostalgia at the door and presented a unique, new story, devoid of similar plot references. Otherwise it will feel like just another cashgrab based on nostalgia and sentimentality.

And personally, it would have been nice for few if any of the original characters to make an appearance as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher all seem a little long in the tooth for this type of movie. Perhaps just the character of Luke Skywalker was all that was needed to tie in this saga with the previous as Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are all engaging, interesting characters who could have carried the film themselves. All that needed to be mentioned about Han or Leia or R2-D2 is that they lived happily ever after or died in some explosion or something that ended their story so that a new cast of characters could get their narrative without being bogged down by the previous trilogy’s characters.

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So there will be more “Star Wars” films. One every year for the foreseeable future in fact. There will be product tie-ins, film spin-offs, excessive merchandising and a gluttony of fan tributes and speculation. It is the greatest film juggernaut of all-time, seemingly a religion for some people, and though “The Force Awakens” plays it a little too safe, it is fun, it is adventuresome, it avoids so many of the problems that plagued the prequels, and it is far better than many other blockbusters released over the last few years.

If the films can continue to be this engaging, the marketing will be easier to stomach.

Could it have been saved?- The Hobbit Trilogy

Peter Jackson’s sequel trilogy to his now-classic The Lord of the Rings had so many problems: it was too long, unfocused, relied too heavily on CGI, had random subplots that did not add to the story. It is quite hard to fathom just how wrong things went. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, which you could lay at the feet of George Lucas being out of the filmmaking business for so long, Peter Jackson is still a filmmaker at the top of his game. He has a deep love of Tolkien and accomplished a monumental feat with the previous trilogy that few thought possible just a few years ago. So, what exactly did go wrong?

We’ll never know for sure. Hubris, studio involvement and too much attachment to the original may have contributed. But could it have been saved?

Gandalf
Gandalf

Let’s start off by acknowledging that The Hobbit trilogy are not bad films. They are simply misguided. The filmmakers were so enamored with what they had achieved with The Lord of the Rings that they did not want to stray too far away from that formula. The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is about a band of individuals with one hope to save the world. The Hobbit is about a troop trying to slay a dragon and reclaim their home. It is far more fantasy than the real-world parallel that The Lord of the Rings has with modern day wars and conflicts. It is the adolescent to the adult novel. So tying it in to the first trilogy is inherently problematic because you suddenly have scenes with trolls trying to make dwarves into chili and characters riding down lakes in barrels in a world where people are brutally decapitated and mass genocide is taking place. It just doesn’t mix.

This is one instance where a new director with a new vision may have really improved the dynamics. For awhile, Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the films. His unique approach to storytelling may have really added a contrasting design that still fit in with the universe. Instead, Jackson stuck to the tone that was successful for him in the past, but inappropriate for the current story.

Then comes the problem of Bilbo Baggins. In the novel, he is often just carting around with the dwarfs, seldomly driving the plot. That is a major problem in a motion picture. The protagonist needs to initiate the action. He needs to be actively involved with the outcome of the film. He is the vessel we feel emotions through (so something better happen to him), and he is our view into the world. Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, but he is very underutilized. The best moments of the trilogy are when he has his confrontation with Gollum or saves the dwarfs with the barrels or meets Smaug. We relate to the story through him through these circumstances. We feel his apprehension, his relief and his desire. When the film pivots away from that interaction with him, we are left emotionally distant. More time is focused on Thorin and Gandalf, but their journeys are less defined and less empathetic. Bilbo is our vessel and for far too much of the story, he is unavailable to us.

Bilbo
Bilbo

Thorin and Gandalf’s narratives should have been told through Bilbo. Thorin can be unsure of Bilbo in the beginning, come to regard him as a friend, break away from him as Bilbo realizes his dissent into madness only to have Bilbo save him from his sickness and regain his trust. With Gandalf, there should have been some tension. He recruits him to join the adventure, Bilbo resents him for it when things get dangerous, Gandalf convinces him of the necessity of living one’s life and not lounging around at home all day, they get separated, get back together and on. Some of this happens in the film, but it is separated by hours of subplots and universe-building so its effects are nullified.

In short, Bilbo needs to be in just about every scene. We should see all the events through his eyes. He should build up relationships with each of the dwarves (some he trusts, some he doesn’t) and all of the characters. And through it all, he learns about the need to fight for one’s home and help his friends. The films greatly struggles with why Bilbo should even care about the dwarf’s plight since he has no personal stake in the outcome. Only through a strong emotional arc about living adventure and helping your friends can we understand why Bilbo acts the way he does. In the trilogy, we are given just about nothing.

Bilbo’s journey is muted primarily because of a strange insistence on the part of the filmmakers to overcrowd the film with secondary characters. It almost seems as if they were afraid to focus on a singular protagonist and needed to built up a supporting entourage of storylines similar to The Lord of the Rings, but those storylines diverged on one single goal: helping Frodo destroy the ring to save the world. Now there are storylines about Legolas and his relationship with his father, a romance between a she-elf and a dwarf, Gandalf discovering Sauron is still alive and Azog trying to murder Thorin. None of these exactly go together, and they clutter up the films. The overarching goal, just like the first trilogy, should be simple: Find the gold and defeat the dragon to reclaim their home. Anything outside of that endgame should be left out of the film.

An unnecessary subplot
An unnecessary subplot

This necessitates another drastic change to the story: abandon the idea of a trilogy. The subplots add extra weight to the films which can easily be cut down to two or even just one movie. Multiple films could have been used if there had been natural ending notes, but there are not. In The Lord of the Rings, the first film ends with the fellowship breaking. The second ends with a climactic battle and the gaining of the appropriate courage to finish the journey. There are no such breaks in the much shorter Hobbit source material. A single film would really focus on Bilbo and his plight, his relationship with Thorin and Gandalf and the overall lesson about friendship and adventure. This is what fans deserved.

The rest of the issues hurting the value of The Hobbit trilogy are trite in comparison. Fans can complain about the overuse of CGI or the portrayal of characters, but those points are moot if the final product had been great. The Hobbit is simply too long, too convoluted and too distracted with itself to be a worthy followup to The Lord of the Rings. A different approach was needed. Fans are just left wanting.

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A ‘fantastic’ failure

I did not see Fox’s recently opened Fantastic Four this weekend. More than likely, you did not either. That’s all right. Most everyone didn’t. As soon as the first reviews started coming in late last week, signs pointed towards a disaster. Not only were they negative, they were downright cruel. Peter Travers of The Rolling Stones said, “The latest reboot of the Fantastic Four – the cinematic equivalent of malware – is worse than worthless. It not only scrapes the bottom of the barrel; it knocks out the floor and sucks audiences into a black hole of soul-crushing, coma-inducing dullness.” A.O. Scott of the The New York Times similarly reported, “Ms. Mara disappears. Her character also has the power to make other things vanish. I would say she should have exercised it on this movie, but in a week or two that should take care of itself.”

What went wrong? How could Marvel Comic’s original flagship superhero team flounder so poorly again cinematically (the 1994 and 2005 films are similarly awful)? It is the classic story of Hollywood greed and incompetence.

20th Century Fox was about to lose the rights to the Fantastic Four franchise unless they released another film, and, rather than lose them for nothing back to Marvel, they rushed into production on a stopgap film. Suffice it to say, a rushed production for purely financial reasons is never a strong way to create a good movie.

There was hope in the beginning though. Director Josh Trank was hired, he of the indie hit Chronicle (2012). Up and coming actors such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell were cast in the lead roles. With that talent brought together, a hit seemed assured. The first trailer promised a darker tone and teen angst. This was a new version of the beloved superhero team, one that seemed to take them seriously. And then the rumors about the shoot started to creep up online.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that Trank was aloof on set, often isolated. It was rumored that he was in over his head, often unsure of his decisions and unable to answer questions to cast and crew. It was even rumored that things got so bad that producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker were forced to step in and finish the film, with reshoots as recently as just three months ago. Trank had been rumored to be a frontrunner for one of the upcoming Star Wars films. He has since been removed from consideration.

As the first awful reviews started coming in, Trank took to Twitter, posting that, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” The tweet has since been removed.

Josh Trank tweet
Josh Trank tweet

Whether Trank was in over his head or the studio interfered too much, it doesn’t really matter. The final product is apparently a Frankenstein-esque bore.

Early estimates for the weekend indicate that the film made $26.2 million for the weekend, a pathetic showing compared to the $191.2 million that Avengers: Age of Ultron opened to or the $57.2 million that Ant-Man earned. Even audiences who saw the movie gave it a measley C- cinemascore (for comparison, Pixels, a widely panned Adam Sandler film, received a B from audiences). It is highly unlikely, even with the international box office, that Fantastic Four will earn any profit, and a planned sequel and mashup film with the X-Men will almost surely never happen.

Hopefully, Fox will come to their senses the next go around and just let the Fantastic Four movie rights lapse back to Marvel. After their third failed attempt to jumpstart a  ‘Fantastic’ franchise, Marvel fans deserve better.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies a Mess

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 were 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 needed more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series has suffered 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, similar in scope to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic. 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.