Thursday, December 20, 2012


Peter Jackson’s superlative three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy set a high water mark for fantasy films and gave them some cachet.  Now, with a script he co-wrote with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, director Jackson returns to Tolkien’s well with his three-film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” the modest single-volume prelude to the epic trilogy.  This first installment, clocking in at nearly 3 hours, begins with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) coercing hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) into joining a band of dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim their ancestral home under the Lonely Mountain.  Many years ago the dragon Smaug desolated the kingdom and now sits on a vast horde of the dwarves’ wealth.  But do not expect more than a glimpse of Smaug before film’s end, because the road to the dragon must wind through three films.  The script captures every significant moment from the first third of its source material and adds more mythology than the simple story can take.  To compensate for the novel’s episodic structure, the writers devise a pursuit by a vengeful Orc bearing a genocidal grudge against dwarves.  They also spend a head-scratching amount of time with the dropping-covered wizard, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), mentioned only in passing in the books.  And there are still three hungry trolls to encounter, not to mention a harrowing climb through the passes of the Misty Mountains during a stone giant battle, and a daring escape from the lair of the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries).  However, the trolls’ scene lacks charm, the stone giants sequence feels like a theme park ride, and the goblin battle strains credulity in its scope.  Only the fateful riddle contest between Bilbo and the duplicitous Gollum (a terrific Andy Serkis) feels confidently paced and vital, and makes room for some honest-to-goodness acting.  In the original trilogy Jackson moved the unwieldy material at an urgent clip with bracing visual shorthand, but here he gorges on excess.  Somewhere in this meticulously crafted bloat is a wonderful two-hour movie.  If only it could be found.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


British writer/director Terence Davies has much in common with Terrence Malick.  Like his American counterpart Davies makes films infrequently (only six features released in 24 years); they are gorgeously shot, deliberately paced, and feel more like tone poems than narratives.  Both filmmakers make very personal films, but Malick’s are often obtuse and frustrating while Davies’ are relatable if often too slow.  Davies’ meticulous adaptation of the 1952 play by Terence Rattigan has all these qualities, but its languor becomes an asset thanks to a mesmerizing lead performance.  Set in 1950 London the story takes place during one fateful day and opens with Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), alone in her shabby flat, writing to her beloved that she wants to die.  She attempts suicide, but her nosy landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) foils the attempt.  We learn of Hester’s past in pensive flashback.  Years ago she married Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a respected older judge with a domineering mother (the marvelous Barbara Jefford).  Hester cannot quietly acquiesce to her mother-in-law’s demands (or accept her husband’s passivity in the face of them) and feels stifled by the obligations of her elevated status.  She falls in love with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot, who embraces excitement and flouts convention, and they begin a passionate affair.  Sir William discovers the infidelity and turns Hester out of the house, refusing to grant her the divorce she desires.  But Freddie, who suffers from what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome, also struggles under the yoke of expectation, both from society and Hester, leading to the crisis at hand.  Under Davies’ delicate direction Beale masks the dignified Sir William’s hurt with affection and kindness, while Hiddleston captures Freddie’s torment in civilian life and the burden of an all-consuming love.  But Weisz is revelatory, registering each of Hester’s contradictory emotions with crystal clarity.  As the post-World War II equivalent of Anna Karenina she carries the movie (and the audience) on sturdy shoulders through a quiet, harrowing heart of darkness.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Director Joe Wright breathed life into the often stale literary adaption with his lively 2005 film of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE.  Sadly, this success was short-lived.  Two years later he turned Ian McEwan’s devastating drama ATONEMENT into a turgid, dreary affair, despite the occasional flourish.  Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard double down on flourish in their approach to Leo Tolstoy’s beloved novel, and the results are bracing.  Rather than attempt period realism throughout, the film stages most of its action within the world of the theatre.  Actors, at times changing costume as we watch, enter and exit scenes with theatrical relish, moving from onstage to offstage to backstage as the eager camera follows.  Wright’s film opens with Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of stalwart government official Karenin (Jude Law), as she travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to see her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and persuade sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her husband’s latest dalliance.  While there Anna meets playboy military office Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is expected to propose to young Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  Kitty has rejected the proposal of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a rural landowner who has loved her for years, so she takes offence when Vronsky ignores her and falls for Anna instead.  The soldier pursues the married woman both emotionally and physically until his passion ignites Anna’s own, and tragedy ensues.  The filmmaker’s daring conceptual gambit of equating mid-19th century Russian society with an audience watching a play pays off in spades.  Theatrical artifice makes the ill-fated lovers’ towering emotions, by comparison, less histrionic and more relatable.  At key moments it also beautifully captures Anna’s devastated psychological state.  During her greatest humiliation a spotlight isolates Anna as all actors turn to her and freeze.  Wright elicits fine performances throughout, especially an understated Law and the ebulliently caddish Macfadyen, and has fashioned a spiritually faithful literary adaptation that’s both brazenly theatrical and fiercely cinematic.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


In 1993 the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, was devastated by the grisly discovery of the beaten, drowned and mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore) in a nearby creek.  Without any obvious suspects, prosecutor John N. Fogelman latched on to the occult as motive and convinced a jury in 1994 that three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and mildly retarded Jessie Misskelley) were responsible.  The film quickly establishes that, absent any incriminating physical evidence, the prosecution relied heavily on Misskelley’s coerced confession to obtain the convictions.  This is not the first documentary to claim the innocence of the West Memphis 3, as they became known.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made three films beginning with PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) to last year’s Oscar® nominated PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY.  But filmmaker Amy Berg focuses on the efforts of Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife, whom he met and married while on death row) to secure a new trial for her husband based on evidence obtained with the financial help and legal guidance of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who took an interest in the case in 2005.  Thanks to new DNA technology available in 2007, the investigation discovers that none of the teenagers left any traces either on the bodies or at the crime scene.  They also unearth quite convincing evidence and testimony that indicate the real killer may be the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.  But the bigger obstacle becomes the perceived infallibility of the Arkansas judicial system and the reputation of the presiding judge and prosecutor in the original case, and the request for a new trial is refused.  Only once the State Supreme Court rules in Echols’ favor in 2011 does the District Attorney consider a compromise that could release the wrongfully convicted men.  Berg’s film is somewhat overlong, and its alternate suspect theory is undermined by borderline exploitative interviews with the suspect’s best friend, who provided an alibi, and the suspect’s troubled daughter.  It is nevertheless a fascinating, frustrating and compelling film.