There and Back Again (Eventually)

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 5.34.15 PMThis week on The Screen Addict: The Hobbit comes to an unceremonious end, Benedict Cumberbatch vs. the Enigma, reports of The Interview’s death were greatly exaggerated, and more.

This will be the last blog post of 2014. I might do a new Ones on 1 for New Year’s Day, but that depends on several factors. Nonetheless, we will resume our regular programming the week of January 5th, and then the following week I will reveal my picks for the best films of 2014. Since we’re in a new location, I’m thinking I’m going to do things a little differently this year. We shall see.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a disappointing conclusion to Peter Jackson’s frustrating trilogy
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At this point, it’s a bit tired to complain about how Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy takes one 300-page novel and splits it into three bloated films, but it’s also impossible to ignore. Most of the problems with this trilogy—and particularly with the third installment, The Battle of the Five Armies—can be traced back to that one, misguided decision. There’s no denying The Hobbit is a story that unfolds in three “acts,” but they are very succinct acts, and Jackson’s desire to turn this self-contained story into an epic on the scale of The Lord of Rings predictably backfired. It’s made all the more frustrating by the occasional moments of greatness that do seep through, only to be drowned out by the incessant filler. In that department, The Battle of the Five Armies just might be the worst of the three.

The previous installment, The Desolation of Smaug, built up to a climactic showdown with the titular dragon, only to cut to credits once he went out to destroy Lake-town. Well, fear not, because the dragon is dispatched in the opening minutes of Five Armies, and the rest of the film is almost entirely about dealing with the aftermath, and the conflict that arises over the gold Smaug left behind in the mountain. It all leads up (and leads up, and leads up) to a climactic battle between dwarves, men, elves and orcs, and our hero Bilbo Baggins (the great Martin Freeman) is mostly left as a spectator.

The eponymous battle takes up much of the film’s second half, but this isn’t the first time Jackson has stretched such a sequence out. Over a decade ago, he turned the battles of Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields into protracted, epic spectacles that truly felt like the culmination of all the events that had unfolded beforehand. The Battle of the Five Armies achieves no such thing. There are several reasons for this. First: these films have previously done a poor job of building the plot up toward this climax, instead unfolding like a series of occasionally interesting episodes. This battle just feels like one more obligation to get through before reaching the end. Second: the character development has also been lacking. In The Lord of the Rings, every character contributed significantly to the story, and when it finally got to butt-kicking time, audiences actually cared. Third: The Hobbit films are far more reliant on foregrounded CGI. The orcs and Uruk-hai of the original trilogy were frightening, utterly real creatures. Every big bad in this is just a big blob of weightless computer animation, and the environments themselves just feel synthetic. The Hobbit movies don’t feel like a return to Middle-earth as much as a visit to a series of soundstages that slightly resemble the Middle-earth we remember.

There are also several digressions that add little or nothing to the story being told. Several attempts are made at setting the plot of The Lord of the Rings in motion, but most of those moments fall flat. (One brief scene at the end that attempts to “tease” Aragorn is particularly painful.) Another embarrassing element is the comic relief character Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who brings the film to an absolute halt every time he appears onscreen. This isn’t Gage’s fault, since not even Daniel Day-Lewis could have made that character tolerable. It’s a thankless role in a movie full of them, and there’s no clearer example of how far Jackson had to go to stretch this final chapter to over 140 minutes. Through the first two movies, there was still hope that Jackson had a reason for all the bloat. Perhaps he was just building up to something big and surprising. While watching The Battle of the Five Armies, it was a little dispiriting to find out that wasn’t the case. It was always headed toward the exact destination we expected—it just took a long, long time to get there.

Other new releases:
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–There’s a truly fascinating subject at the heard of The Imitation Game, but it gets buried beneath too many layers of manufactured drama and other usual biopic traps. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as Alan Turing, and his performance hints at a far more interesting movie that deals more directly with the science, the history, the betrayal and the tragedy that lies at the heart of this story.
–Chris Rock’s Top Five is a funny, honest and unexpectedly affecting film that follows his alter ego Andre Allen as he walks around New York City with Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). The whole thing is a bit silly from a plot standpoint, and not every digression is as hilarious as Rock thinks it is, but it’s ridiculously charming in its best moments, and that’s normally when it is content to just watch its characters hang out.

Two more from earlier this year:
–Movies don’t get much simpler than The Trip to Italy, but that is precisely what makes it so enjoyable. Like its 2010 predecessor The Trip, it follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they travel from restaurant to restaurant, quipping at each other along the way. Additionally, there’s a melancholy to this installment that makes it feel far more essential than it should, and the gorgeous scenery of Italy proves to be the perfect backdrop. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, this film does what it sets out to do impeccably well.
Ida, a Polish drama from director Pawel Pawlikowski, tells the story of a young nun who discovers two shocking truths about herself: she is actually Jewish, and her parents were killed during World War II. The resulting journey is a fascinating one, and it’s only helped by some striking black-and-white cinematography. It’s available on Netflix, so check it out if you can.

The Interview Lives!
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Well, that didn’t take long. Just last week I was complaining about Sony (and the major theater chains) bailing on Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview after threats from possibly North Korea-based hackers who call themselves the Guardians of Peace. Well, after several days of outrage and tsk-tsking from the masses—including one President Barack Obama—Sony has decided to show The Interview in select theaters starting on its original release date: Christmas Day. Many independent theaters are stepping up, with the Alamo Drafthouse chain as the most vocal. (Many are reporting a VOD release is imminent as well, but that has yet to be officially confirmed.) As I suspected from the start, this whole mess has turned into something of a positive for the film, and it’s hard to imagine that these screenings will be anything but packed throughout the film’s brief theatrical run.

Will Sony be able to recover from the financial hit? We’ll see. But there’s no doubt that getting the movie out there in some way is the right move, money be damned. There’s no doubt the movie has a much higher profile now than it ever did before, and I imagine when all’s said and done Rogen may just want to thank Kim Jong-un for all his help with the publicity. For now, there’s no denying all the negative things that came out of this Sony hack, but with this release, they can claim at least one victory.

Classic of the Week
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I’m fully aware that I am stretching the meaning of “classic” here, because in this case all it means is “a really, really good movie from 2005.” I was looking for a fun “alternative” Christmas movie for this section, and one title kept coming back to me: Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This was Black’s first film as director, but he had been around Hollywood for decades beforehand as an actor and screenwriter. This wound up being his opportunity to turn all those years of experience (and pain) into cinema gold, and he brings a perfectly cast Robert Downey, Jr. along for the ride. I don’t want to discuss the plot in too much detail, but it’s a brilliantly funny black comedy about crime and showbusiness, and it was an early step in Downey’s mid-2000s comeback. It didn’t quite start the comeback Black was looking for, but several years later he got one heck of an opportunity: he re-teamed with Downey to write and direct a little-known film called Iron Man 3.

Trailer of the Week

In 2013, Ron Howard made one of his “edgier” movies with the stylish racing drama Rush, and his new film In the Heart of the Sea seems to be an attempt to bring his new look to a PG-13 special effects extravaganza. Much of the credit for this look likely belongs to Anthony Dod Mantle, and if he winds up being Howard’s new regular cinematographer, the finished films may well be better of for it. To me, Howard has always been a fine example of what a mainstream Hollywood director can be. Don’t go looking to his films for any personal statements, but the guy can tell a story and do it quite well. Now that he’s latched himself on to a guy who can provide some visual flair, there’s reason to think his films might take an extra step forward. I’m even willing to ignore the fact that this particular movie looks kind of silly.

Video/Streaming Recommendation
If you are someone who follows a lot of film/TV writers on The Twitter, then I’m sure you’ve seen several recommendations of the British series Black Mirror in the past couple weeks. It recently arrived on Netflix, and for those who don’t know: it is essentially an anthology series, with each episode focusing on a different aspect of humanity’s relationship with media and technology. As of now there are only six episodes, all of which are only 40 minutes to an hour long, so it’s fairly easy to burn through them in a couple days. (Or even one day if you’re feeling ambitious.) There’s also a new Christmas episode on the way starring Jon Hamm, so get excited for that. Collectively, Black Mirror is one of the best pieces of entertainment I have watched all year, and now that it’s on Netflix it is as readily available as it’s ever been.

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