Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

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Hello, Middle Earth. It’s good to see you again.

Nine years after director Peter Jackson completed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he opens a new chapter with a prequel trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” The former received 17 Oscars and a total of 30 Academy Award nominations. It’s kind of a lot to live up to.

This new journey starts much like its predecessor, with a bit of history and a trip to the Shire. Instead of young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), the hobbit protagonist of this trilogy is Bilbo (played here by both Ian Holm and an exceptional Martin Freeman). Called on an adventure by his old acquaintance, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo sets out with a group of dwarves to take back their home from a fire-breathing dragon.

One of the staples of these films has been the beautiful landscape of New Zealand. If nothing else, “The Hobbit” would make an excellent addition to the National Geographic channel. Ranging from the hillside country to mountaintops and beyond, nature plays an important part in all of the Middle Earth tales.

In order to link this series with that of the early 2000’s, several characters have been brought back to give the audience a familiar face to see. This first installment features Frodo, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the scene-stealing Gollum (Andy Serkis). Later on, we will also see Orlando Bloom as Legolas. While it does feel like a bit of a desperate move for Frodo and Legolas to come back, most of these characters are utilized in the film to where it is less distracting and more enjoyable.

I’ve heard from many that “The Hobbit” feels borishly slow and that it takes way too long for anything to happen. Did these same people complain about “The Fellowship of the Ring?” This film follows the same time structure as that one. It’s uncanny just how similar the flow of the two films are.

There are three main differences between this prequel and its more successful predecessors:

First, the characters are not as memorable. It’s fair to say that Gimli, Aragorn and others had three long films to develop their storylines. Still, this film features a dozen or so dwarves of whom the average viewer can distinguish roughly three or four. There hasn’t been enough development yet for the audience to care about the majority of these characters, though it may come in future films.

Second, the film has a different tone. The previous adventures were full of dread and had the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. “The Hobbit” is a much more light-hearted take on Middle Earth. Funny little dwarves sing songs while dancing with the dishes and a goblin king delivers a one-liner while expiring. The mission being carried out by Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves doesn’t carry near the same weight that Frodo’s quest does decades later. The film loses a little dramatic tension here and tries to replace it with humor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Lastly, and to borrow from Ian Holm in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” this film feels at times “like too little butter spread over a piece of bread.” This should not be a trilogy, especially not one where each installment is three hours long. Books are great in that they have more details than their film counterparts, but here Peter Jackson includes all of those little things. At times it’s like he can’t see the forest for the trees. The main story of the film gets bogged down by insignificant details.

Despite these three arguments, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is still a quality film. It doesn’t fully match up to the original trilogy, but there is an exciting adventure to be had.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Silver Linings Playbook”

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With mental health being something of a hot button issue these days, it’s nice to see it tackled in a light-hearted, but competent, manner.

After violently attacking his wife’s lover, Pat (Bradley Cooper) ends up in a mental institution. Upon release, he moves back home with his family, where his Philadelphia Eagle-loving father (Robert DeNiro) has become a small-time bookie. He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has recently died, and the two begin to work on their personal issues.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is at no loss for interesting characters. The protagonist obsesses with working out, reading and finding new ways to impress his wife, who currently has a restraining order against him. Tiffany’s problems are just as saddening as she tries to recover from the loss of her husband (and her actions shortly thereafter). It’s a film of flawed characters, but they are both strongly-written and well-acted.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give award-worthy performances (as evidenced by their nominations at this year’s Golden Globes), but I was also happy to see Chris Tucker acting again after 5 years off the grid. Bonus points for not being anywhere near his level of annoyance in 2007’s “Rush Hour 3.” Although Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are also solid, they get much less of the spotlight and therefore aren’t as memorable.

Director David O. Russell also wrote the screenplay, for which he has been nominated at the Golden Globes. The story is close to home for the filmmaker, as his son suffers from mental health issues.

While the storyline isn’t too complex or groundbreaking, the awkward humor and Philly sports fanaticism infused with the script make it exceptionally fun to watch. A great screenplay combined with a great cast make this one of the year’s best.

Grade: A-

Review: “Killing Them Softly”

Killing Them Softly

“America’s not a country. It’s just a business.”

The above is one of many references “Killing Them Softly” makes to the US financial crisis of 2008. Times may be tough for us everyday folk, but apparently organized crime is taking just as big of a hit.

After two low-life criminals knock over a local gambling joint, the bosses call in an enforcer (Brad Pitt) to clean house. Not exactly the most complex plot, but this isn’t a story-driven film.

What does propel the film is the amazing ensemble of actors and their respective characters. Aside from Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, Richard Jenkins as his handler and James Gandolfini as a company hitman make for some interesting characters. Everyone has their moments to shine, Pitt moreso in the second half of the film. Each individual plays their part in this allegorical little tale and its fun to watch them interact.

“Killing Them Softly” is not a film glorifying the life of a criminal. No one should be mistaking it for “Goodfellas” just because Ray Liotta has some screen time. Though one of the killings is heavily stylized, the majority of the film is gritty minimalism and filthy (especially if Ben Mendelsohn is onscreen). This is the criminal underworld when they’ve been bled of their cash and become all bark, little bite.

The film opens around the time of Barack Obama’s election as president and features many political themes of the 2008 bailout season. In fact, the audience hears several speeches made by both Obama and then-President Bush about the economic crisis. It’s a little exhausting, to be honest.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik, whose last film was 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” has a lot going for him with his latest effort. He is again able to get some great performances from his actors and some of the comparisons he makes between mob life and America’s political structure do have resonance. There are two main flaws in “Killing Them Softly” that keep the film from being one of the year’s best.

First, the story is too simple to get swept into. Great, albeit unsympathetic, characters and their development make up for a lot of this, but it’s a really simple plot stretched over an entire film. Half of the running time is dedicated to a drunk Gandolfini rambling about the women he’s slept with. After a while you just wish Pitt’s character would slap the guy so we can all get on with the film. But I digress…

Secondly, the film’s comparison between Wall Street’s financial crisis and these gangsters comes off too heavy-handed. Sure, there are similarities, but after the audience listens to a third speech by Obama, it becomes too much. If there is a single word that could be used to describe the film’s message, “subtle” would not be one of them.

I wish I could have enjoyed this film more than I did because the performances are great and the film itself isn’t bad, only disappointing at times.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.