Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Monday, December 15, 2014
It was eleven years ago this month that Peter Jackson wrapped up his first foray into Middle Earth with The Return of the King, and I can remember every detail of seeing that film with my family, on opening night in a packed and enthusiastic theatre, as though it were yesterday. The hallway at the Colorado Mills multiplex where we stood in line, and the enormity of the big, dual-purpose auditorium we all filtered into; if I went back there today, I could probably pinpoint the row in which we sat. I could tell you what the movie looked like to me as an eleven-year-old boy, the sheer enormity, grandeur, and grace of it – the way I felt, at the end of those three-and-a-half hours, that I had left my body behind and taken a life-changing journey to another world. I think I even remember the moment my father reluctantly left the theatre to use the restroom, defeated, for the first time over the course of the trilogy, by the film’s runtime.
Of course, every detail of every time I saw a Lord of the Rings film theatrically, on first viewing or on repeat, has stayed with me over the past decade. We don’t choose our favorite movies. It is not the sort of thing one has a say in picking, but an emotional reaction one feels in one’s bones, the sensation that, no matter how many movies one loves, this particular picture is the one that lives in one’s heart of hearts – the shining, internalized soul that fuels one’s love of cinema. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, collectively, is that soul for me. I have no say in the matter, and I haven’t ever since my life was changed by The Fellowship of the Ring thirteen years ago. The Two Towers only solidified things further, confirming that my love of Jackson’s Middle Earth was no fluke, and that the sheer, awesome power of cinema the director had introduced me to was not restricted to that first film. By the time that cinematic journey finished with The Return of the King, my own journey, as a film critic and scholar, was just about to begin; the impact of that final chapter was the ultimate push to send me off. There are no cinematic memories I treasure more than seeing The Lord of the Rings in theatres, and no films I hold closer to my heart than these, because my devotion to cinema is synonymous with their existence.
Eleven years later, Jackson’s second foray to Middle Earth concludes with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and the film arrives in an extremely different landscape. The euphoric anticipation that met The Return of the King does not exist for The Hobbit films, for unlike The Lord of the Rings, they have not been groundbreaking or transcendent. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, was an inconsistent, overlong return to a Middle Earth filled with too much CGI and not enough plot; yet the film exceled where it counted most, delivering stupendous portrayals of every major character – Martin Freeman’s Bilbo in particular – and nailing the big moments – ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in particular – even as I found the lack of central focus troubling. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more confident and enjoyable feature in many ways, with better set-pieces and superior character work, though the film’s structure seemed even more haphazard than it did the first time around. All the while, I found myself unwilling to make any major judgment on the trilogy, as so many were both before and after the films started coming out. I wanted to see how Jackson would wrap things up, to discover whether or not the final chapter would satisfyingly pay off on the two films preceding it, before deciding whether or not this second trip to Middle Earth was ultimately worth the voyage. Suffice it to say, I doubt there are many people out there more invested in the idea of Peter Jackson recapturing that Lord of the Rings magic than I am.
And in The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson has finally tapped back into it, one last time.
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Sunday, December 14, 2014
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Thursday, December 11, 2014
The real-life story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is the sort of subject I could easily see being destined for simplistic Hollywood schlock. There are so many obvious avenues a studio could follow to wring all the humanity out of this tale, to exploit every ‘inspirational’ moment or personal triumph for maximum emotional manipulation, and to turn Cheryl and her story into a symbol or stereotype rather than a genuine human journey. Indeed, the most impressive thing about the film Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon have made is that it takes none of those easy paths. Wild is an insightful, deeply felt chronicle of a complex protagonist on a compelling, multifaceted journey, a modest and dignified film about overcoming grief, guilt, and other internal barriers. The film is emotionally rich, and absolutely inspirational, but it comes by these sensations honestly, only occasionally overplaying the story’s strong dramatic core, and always approaching the material with sensitivity and intelligence. As stories like Strayed’s go, I cannot imagine a more effective cinematic rendering than this.
Continue reading after the jump…