(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, October 2017) When I say I’ve been a Peter Jackson fan from way before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I specifically refer to watching The Frighteners in the late nineties, loaned on VHS from a friend who had been very impressed by the result. Twenty years later, the film has aged a bit (the early-digital special effects look particularly dated, although they’re still used very effectively) but it remains a solid horror/comedy with a sometimes-daring mythology, effective character moments and a dynamic performance by writer/director Jackson. The film does take chances in its treatment of the afterlife, and especially in the way it goes for comedy in the middle of death. But the tonal blend works most of the time, and lead actor Michael J. Fox is well-suited to the protagonist’s role. (Meanwhile, Trini Alvarado is so likable that it’s a wonder that her filmography since then isn’t longer.) Shot in New Zealand but made to look American, The Frighteners remains a bit of an under-appreciated gem today: not unknown, but not often mentioned. It’s worth a look for those who have never seen it, and a re-watch for those who haven’t seen it in years.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) I had to free my mind of two reasonable notions before starting to enjoy this second instalment of The Hobbit trilogy: First, that it ought to be faithful to the original novel; and second, that it had to be paced efficiently. Once you accept the idea that The Hobbit is going to be a grand fantasy quest put together using the same grandiose tone as The Lord of the Rings, it actually becomes a bit more bearable. The lavish, spectacular action sequences don’t feel out of place, and once you warm up to the tone, the lack of snappiness in the telling of the tale (which will eventually stretch a 300-page book for kids into a seven-hour trilogy of movies) simply becomes something to accept. It’s hard, of course, to fault Peter Jackson from doing the best he can in making The Hobbit seem like an important story and recapture the magic of The Lord of the Rings: This second tome never misses an occasion to harken back to the other trilogy, either by featuring the same people (Legolas, back in fine surfing form), mentioning them (“my wee lad Gimli!”) or setting up portentous signs of Sauron’s return. Still, this is fantasy-epic filmmaking of the highest order: the lavish details are all in place, the camera flows smoothly, the CGI is often flawless and the sheer excess of means used to put together this super-production seems worthwhile in itself. There are some crazy sequences in here, perhaps the best being a long-running battle around rapids –there’s a lengthy shot in there that’s nothing short of beautiful action filmmaking. There are small issues here and there (a shoehorned romance, overdramatic moments, arguably a sequence designed to trigger fits for arachnophobes), but the dragon pretty much makes up for it. The pacing, as languid as it can be, is quite a bit better than the first instalment of the trilogy, and the cliff-hanger ending promises much for the concluding volume. In the meantime, it’s a bit foolish to try to pin down a specific rating for this middle tome –best to wait until the end to take it all in. All seven hours of it.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Recasting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slight The Hobbit into a massive action/adventure fantasy epic trilogy mold means that it’s best to forget about any meaningful book-to-screen comparisons. It’s best to judge it as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and assume that it’s going to be cast in the same mold. In this light, first film An Unexpected Journey hits most of the expected notes by leisurely introducing the characters, sending them off on a quest and indulging into plenty of action-packed adventures. None of it is presented economically, meaning that fans get a lot for their money and non-fans can find the whole thing overdrawn. Still, much of what made The Lord of the Rings so successful is still visible here: the attention to detail, lavish set-pieces, depth of immersion in Middle-Earth… and the care with which Peter Jackson handles his directing duties. It’s presented with a quasi-reverential respect for Tolkien’s mythology, and a great deal of excess in the way its action sequences are conceived and presented. It fits rather well with the previous trilogy (something that the drawn-out prologues make sure to accomplish), ensuring that whoever expected a follow-up to Lord of the Rings is fully satisfied. It’s not quite as good, but the most accurate comparison is to the countless imitators that have tried to recapture the success of Jackson’s trilogy: An Unexpected Journey is a markedly better work than most of the fantasy adventures that have popped up on-screen in the near-decade since Return of the King, and that’s a significant achievement in itself. This newest trilogy won’t conclude for another two years, but no matter: it’s a safe bet to say that more of the same is in store.
(In theatres, January 2010) For viewers unfamiliar with Alice Sebold’s novel, Peter Jackson’s take on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones has two major problems: First; its determination to beef up an elegiac tone about the aftermath of a brutal murder with suspense sequences that aren’t just jarring, but drawn-out to an extent that they become more ridiculous than gripping. Second; its utter refusal to provide conventional closure on both the thriller as the dramatic elements of the picture. There are several small flaws (such as Mark Whalberg’s unremarkable “say hi to your mother” performance, the difficulty of literalizing heavenly metaphors, or Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top performance as a character who screams serial-killer), but those two stick out badly. The second is actually a feature, especially for those who have read the book: The point of The Lovely Bones is not vengeance from beyond the grave (even though the narrator is the murder victim speaking from heaven) nor police procedural success despite the fixation on tracking down the serial killer. It’s reaching that final Kubler-Rossian step of acceptance, letting go of horrible things and accepting with serenity the idea that some things are never avenged, explained or satisfied. Still, this leaves us with the troubling tonal problems in transforming a dramatic novel that uses genre elements into a genre picture that seems stuck in inconclusive drama. The differences between book and movie are both profound and trivial: the chronology is compressed, one dramatic climax is toned down to a simple kiss, various lines of the novel are rearranged wildly. Some of this is due to the demands of presenting material on-screen, while others are simple prudishness. Still, Jackson does make a few sequences last twice, maybe three times as long as they needed to be, and that simply reinforces the sense that his approach to the material is fundamentally flawed. The best thing about the film, in fact, may be that those who go read the book afterwards will enjoy hearing Saoirse Ronan’s voice as the narrator.