(On DVD, May 2018) While it’s a cliché to say that older movies are more impressive for their story than special effects, I found myself thinking the exact opposite about the 1933 version of King Kong—I found much of the special effects impressive, but the story underwhelming. That’s not a constant throughout the film, mind you—the first act of the film offers a compelling look at early-thirties New York City, especially when events conspire for some characters to get out of the city quickly … and finding no better place than a departing expedition. Alas! That expedition happens to go hunting for a mythical monster on an isolated island, and much of the rest of the story is familiar to the point of being dull. Fortunately, that’s when the special effects take over the story. Watching the film made me realize how indebted to the original was Peter Jackson’s over-bloated 2005 version. What the original h King Kong as in its favour is pacing—at barely more than two hours, it moves more quickly than we’d expect. When I’m not so happy is with the finale, which leads to a trite (and nonsensical) “beauty killed the beast” statement that really doesn’t wrap up anything. Still: 1933’s King Kong remains a landmark movie for the fantasy genre and for blockbuster filmmaking. It generally holds up even despite its significant ambitions in terms of special effects. And while I’m disappointed in the story, this may be more out of over-familiarity than anything else—when you can anticipate every sequence because the film’s been absorbed in the popular imagination, it’s normal to be less than surprised at the result.
(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.
(In theaters, December 2003) I may not be the biggest fan of The Lord Of The Rings, but the though of “reviewing” part or all of it makes me feel vaguely ashamed, as it sometimes happens when a film leaves the bounds of ordinary criticism to just become “it”, a referent about which critical qualifiers are useless. Certainly, The Return Of The King has a lot of spectacular visual effects and an overabundance of finales and a place for a really good knock-knock joke (“Who’s there?” “Aragorn” “Aragorn who?” “Aragornna Kick Your Butt!”) and some killer action scenes and exemplary direction by Peter Jackson and all that jazz. But really, I couldn’t care less about a star rating or the fact that this third volume is better or worse than any of the two others: It concludes a monumental fantasy epic in such a way that I can only gasp at the magnitude of the 11-some hours achievement. This is pretty much the best Lord Of The Rings adaptation we could hope for. And that is all that is worth writing down.
(In theaters, December 2002) The neatest thing about this film was being able to buy the ticket in absolute confidence. Peter Jackson is a god of cinema; the first volume of the trilogy was all we’d asked for. What could go wrong? As it turned out; presssciously little. The Two Towers is so close to The Fellowship Of The Ring in terms of pure cinematic quality that it doesn’t even matter discussing which one is better; it’s all good. Sure, there are more liberties taken here with the source material, but that’s because the second volume needs those liberties in order to be told in an engaging manner. The result is surely worth it, with one of the best medieval-era battle ever put to film, some scenes of astonishing beauty and an awesome variety of great images. Good action, a dash of horror, a stunning CGI performance by Sméagol/Gollum and some pretty amusing comic relief. What can I say? 2002 top ten material, must-buy DVD and quasi-instant classic. The Two Towers only reinforces the certitude with which we’ll buy tickets to The Return Of The King a year from now.
(In theaters, December 2001) As someone whose opinion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel is closer to “dull, dull, dull” than “masterpiece!”, I didn’t expect much of the film. So it pleases me immensely to see the film improve sharply on the faults of the written work, up to a level where I saw The Lords of the Rings that I really wanted to see, and not the interminable brick I had read. Peter Jackson’s work on the film version is nothing short of remarkable, adeptly condensing hundreds of pages in less than three exciting hours. Unquestionably, the film is still very long, but it’s almost all good. Good acting, fantastic direction and spectacular visuals easily make this one of the best films of the year. It’s amazing (and reassuring) to see how faithful the film is to the novel and yet how much more entertaining it is. After the awful series of cheap fantasy movies of the past decades, it’s heartening to see someone do it right. That such an eagerly-awaited film would end up being equal to the anticipation is simply miraculous.