(Photo by New Line Productions)

“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.

Bilge Ebiri’s interest and diverse taste in film started early. He grew up watching movies that could easily be classified as “movies aimed at kids” – such as Peter Pan and Pete’s Dragon – but he also saw a number of highly stylized and psychologically weighty movies, too, from Apocalypse Now and Aliens to The Deer Hunter.

“I was watching spaghetti westerns from a very young age, I think from third or fourth grade on,” he told Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie he’s seen more than any other is A Fistful of Dollars, a Sergio Leone spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood: “For a while, every day I would come home and just watch my Betamax of A Fistful of Dollars and eat ice cream,” Ebiri says. “I was a latchkey child, so I was just at home doing this by myself while my parents were at work.”

Now, he is excited by Gina Prince-Bythewood’s films (which he believes deserve greater recognition), and intrigued by the works of Lars von Trier (“He’s certainly made bad movies, but he’s never not made an interesting movie,” he says) and Zhang Yimou, some of which Ebiri considers “eternal masterpieces” while others are “middling.”

“The legacy of auteurism is that even filmmakers who don’t necessarily always make a great film, if they’re a great filmmaker, they’ll always make an interesting film,” Ebiri says.

Bilge Ebiri is a movie critic at Vulture and former lead critic at Village Voice. His reviews have been published in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, among others.


What do you think makes a good movie?

Oh, I can’t answer that. It’s all sorts of things. Anything I say would be wrong.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all model.

There are certain things that make one movie good, and then those same things can make another movie bad. There’s no way to answer that question without talking about a specific movie.

An example, I was just talking about this with somebody the other day, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. I love the Lord of the Rings movies. I despise The Hobbit movies. A lot of the things that make the Lord of the Rings movies so special are the things that make The Hobbit movies, for me, unbearable.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about critics?

There are two misconceptions about critics and they’re slightly at odds with each other. One of them is, “Well, all you have to do is watch movies, what a cushy job you have.” And the other one is, “Do you even like movies?” Both of these misconceptions are wrong, and they’re wrong in different ways.

I think critics would love to spend all their time watching movies, but the truth is, you don’t. Often, you’re usually writing or you’re researching or dealing with publicists or dealing with all sorts of other things. And only a very small part of your day, if you’re lucky, is spent watching movies…

And as far as not enjoying movies – different critics are different obviously, but I think most critics, when they go into a film, are looking forward to it. Sometimes you can enjoy the time you have at a movie without necessarily enjoying the movie or without necessarily thinking the movie is all that great. That’s why so many of us love the theatrical experience, even after all that – because in the end, we love the experience of seeing the movie, even if the movie itself isn’t great.

Who is an up-and-coming critic that you want people to check out? “Up-and-coming” is also obviously up for interpretation.

That’s the thing that I’m struggling with because I’m 47 years old. A lot of people are up and coming to me even though they’ve been doing this for a long time…

Monica Castillo is a critic I really like and she’s a friend. And she’s been around for a while. I don’t think of her as a newbie or anything like that, but she’s younger and she’s somebody who I feel deserves to write more and be better known.


20th Century Fox

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

What’s a Rotten movie that you love?

I find myself often in circumstances where I will love movies that get trashed. The Vacation remake from a few years ago with Ed Helms I thought was just one of the funniest films I’d ever seen, and that was just widely loathed by people. Freddy Got Fingered – everyone hated it at the time, although it has since become a classic. And now all you hear about is all the people who love it, but they were nowhere to be found back then, except I think A.O. Scott liked it.

Is there an actor or a director or a screenwriter that no matter what they make, you’re excited to see it and you tend to like their work?

I’ve yet to watch a Terrence Malick film that I didn’t love. I’ve yet to watch a Gina Prince-Bythewood film that I don’t at least like greatly.

What is your favorite childhood film?

I had different movies that I loved growing up. I was a big fan of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan. But I was a big fan of that movie before I actually got to see it because it was impossible to see in Turkey when I was growing up and I saw it later. When I was 13 years old, Aliens was my favorite movie for about a year. The Star Wars movies certainly had quite an effect on me.

My parents took me to see all sorts of totally grown-up movies when I was a kid. So I was a big fan of Apocalypse Now – saw it when I was seven, twice. I was a big fan of The Deer Hunter, which scarred me when I was nine. But I could watch those, but I could also watch children’s films.

What is your preferred seat in a movie theater?

I actually love to sit in the front row in part because I can stretch out my legs – I’m a sloucher. And if it’s one of those theaters where the front row is way too close to the screen, then I try to sit a couple of rows back. … I hate sitting in the back. I hate sitting in the balcony. I have not gone to movies simply to avoid sitting in the balcony. I hate sitting really anywhere in the rear half of the theater.

Is that because you like to have the screen take up your entire field of vision? What do you like about sitting up close?

I like having the screens take up my field of vision. I know people who go to the movies and are really devoted to going to the movies that they love to sit in the back. This seems to be completely anathema to going to the movies. My TV occupies more of my field of vision if I do that… I like to be overwhelmed by the image. I do want to be able to see it clearly. Again, that speaks to how close the screen is to the front row…

But as a critic, I will say, sitting up close, especially if you’re close enough to the screen, has another side advantage, which is you can use the light from the screen to see what’s on your notepad. I found that that’s actually very helpful.

So you take notes when you’re watching movies?

I hate taking notes, but I feel like sometimes I have to.

Do you have a record for the most movies that you’ve watched in a day?

I don’t keep score. I know I have watched more than six movies in a day at some point.


Warner Home Video

(Photo by Warner Home Video)

What do you consider required viewing?

You know what movie I’m going to say? It’s not even my favorite movie. It’s not even my favorite movie by this director. It’s not even my second favorite movie by this director, probably. But I feel like All the President’s Men is a movie that everyone should see.

It’s one of those films that is a very interestingly made movie. It’s also about an important period in American history. And it’s the kind of thing that when you watch it, you realize how much we lose by the slow death of journalism and the death of a particular kind of accountability in politics. But it’s also just a really well-made film. It’s a film where, if you watch it, you’ll walk away from it, I think, with all sorts of fascinating questions, not just about the subject matter, but also about how that film does what it does. And it’s a great time capsule.

What’s the hardest review you’ve ever written?

I don’t even know if it was ultimately a review, but writing about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book at Cannes. Actually, it was funny because I had just seen the movie, and Godard is one of my favorite filmmakers. I’ve written about him plenty of times, so it wasn’t like I was intimidated by Godard. But I remember there was a certain point, it was early at Cannes, and I remember I emailed my editor and I just said, “I can’t do this. I should just leave the festival. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this.” And he was like, “What the f–k are you talking about?”

I hadn’t been assigned anything. It wasn’t like I had to review this movie. But I felt obligated to review it. And I just couldn’t. And I thought about it and then I actually met with another critic with whom I had an interesting conversation about the film. And I did wind up writing about it and I thought the piece turned out okay. Honestly, you shouldn’t have to ever write about a film like that after just one viewing.


Bilge Ebiri is a movie critic at New York Magazine‘s Vulture. Find him on Twitter: @BilgeEbiri.

Amazon will soon bring the history of Middle-earth to its subscribers with a Lord of the Rings prequel series detailing previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings.

The possibilities for the series are endless as Tolkien devised thousands of years of history to precede the War of the Ring. Some of these legends – mainly concerning the First Age of Middle-earth – are not part of the Rings license and will not be part of the series, but the movements of Sauron and other geopolitical events with direct ties to The Lord of the Rings offer a multitude of options.

We’ve collected a few story line options from the histories that Amazon has to chose from. Rank them below. Don’t see your favorite story line below? Tell us in the comments!


In anticipation of the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we here at RT decided to take a look back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first two films of the Hobbittrilogy. Our latest installment covers The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which editors Tim Ryan and Ryan Fujitani rewatched for some fresh perspective.

The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug


 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Ryan: The two biggest issues I had with An Unexpected Journey were the jarring visual effects and the propulsive-yet-somehow-mundane narrative arc, which mostly consisted of the heroic ensemble scurrying from one perilous threat only to wind up in another. Fortunately, The Desolation of Smaug found a way to make the former much more palatable and, thanks to some thrilling action set pieces, the latter more compelling, even if the plot followed a similar structure. The Hobbit still feels like a lesser franchise compared to LotR, of course, but even as Smaug juggled a few competing story threads that felt decidedly like rest stops en route to an epic conclusion, it also more fully realized the nascent threat of Sauron, which helped raise the stakes. I have a few minor quibbles with the film, but overall I found it a much more enjoyable watch than An Unexpected Journey, and I’d like to get your general thoughts on Smaug before I delve into the nitty-gritty.

 

 

Tim: Judged against The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit films (the first two, anyway) can’t help but feel less substantial. But what’s wrong with that? If you scale back your expectations, An Unexpected Journey and (especially) The Desolation of Smaug are perfectly serviceable — and frequently outstanding — moviemaking on a grand-scale. The characters aren’t as vivid and the battles between good and evil aren’t as weighty, but as pure spectacle, Smaug mostly delivers. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage make for fine leads, and Ian McKellen brings gravitas by just showing up. The forest infested by giant spiders shows that Peter Jackson hasn’t lost his affinity for the creepy crawlies, and even though the barrel escape/orc battle may defy the laws of physics (and logic), it’s really exciting. The set design remains impeccable — the M.C. Escher-like twists of the elf lair, the creeky wooden man-made island town of Esgaroth, and the the tight stairs and vast rock sculptures that line the Lonely Mountain are vivid and picturesque. And the scene in which Bilbo enters Smaug’s vast treasure chamber emanates a sense of I’ve-got-a-bad-feeling-about-this dread that echoes the space slug scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, it’s probably at least 20 minutes too long (I have a sneaking suspicion that when it’s all said and done, the three Hobbit movies could be trimmed into one killer three-hour feature). But stretched-to-the-limit Peter Jackson is still more imaginative that just about any other blockbuster director out there.

Ryan: I remember some folks grumbling about the barrel scene when Smaug first came out, and I get that the physics are a little wonky, but like you, I thought it was pretty exciting. The action is visceral, inventive and easy to follow, if a tad cartoony, and the Mirkwood elves come off looking absolutely badass. But as long as we’re talking about that scene, I do feel the need to mention the level of violence in the film: there are a lot of decapitations and point-blank arrows to the face. I didn’t really have a problem with it, and in my opinion the orcs make for much more exciting action scenes than CGI trolls, CGI goblins, or CGI spiders, but I can’t deny I was surprised by the sheer brutality of it, however bloodless it might have been.

 

 

You also make a great point about the production design and Peter Jackson’s craftsmanship in general. I still think a Guillermo del Toro version of The Hobbit would have been really interesting, but there’s an explicit familiarity in what we’ve seen so far in Journey and Smaug that feels like a warm blanket — a slightly timeworn blanket with a few rough patches here and there, but a warm one nonetheless — and it makes it difficult to imagine anyone else in the director’s chair.

Having said all this, there were still a couple of things that bothered me about Smaug, which, to be clear, I thought was a far superior film to An Unexpected Journey. I could have done without the elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili, although I liked Evangeline Lilly; it felt completely unnecessary to me. The rest of the dwarves, save for Thorin and maybe Balin (the old, “voice of reason” dwarf), remain largely indistinguishable from each other. And there really isn’t anything substantive about the story, which essentially amounts to “a bunch of dwarves walk home… but there’s a dragon there!” I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to shoehorn in the rise of Sauron. Honestly, I was much more intrigued by the history between the dwarves and the elves — briefly referenced in the film — and it seems we may get some of that in The Battle of the Five Armies, so I’m looking forward to the franchise ending with a bang.


The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we here at RT decided to take a look back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first two films of the Hobbittrilogy. Our latest installment covers The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which editors Tim Ryan and Ryan Fujitani rewatched for some fresh perspective.

The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Luke: Thinking about the much-debated visual style of this movie, I can’t keep from hearing the immortal post-guitar-freakout words of one Marty McFly: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but your kids are gonna love it.” Yeah, I had very conflicted feelings toward The Hobbit. Like those ’50s squares puzzled by McFly’s discordant futurism, I simply could not grapple with the look of this. Let me rephrase that: I think it looked horrifying. We all went to a screening in 3D 48fps, so I was prepared for some ocular recalibration, but nothing could ready me for just how jarring this looked. The Hobbit‘s clarity is astonishing. Too much so, in fact. While many of Weta’s effects sequences looked outstanding, I felt like I was right there on set with the actors, which might be the kind of detail Peter Jackson was aiming for but, for me, just rendered everything too empty and everyday. I kept looking for boom mics or waiting for a make-up artist to roll up and touch up Gandalf. Call me a cinephile snob, but if I want high detail I’ll take 70mm. The other issue visually was the weird jerkiness of the high frame rate. Admittedly, my eyes may not have evolved — and, like the races of men in Middle-earth, my kind may soon be extinct — but I had trouble dealing with the staccato movements of the actors. In even the most mundane situations, like Bilbo and Gandalf taking tea, motion looked strange, as though someone had left the “2x fast forward” speed button on the Blu-ray player. It was kinda embarrassing to watch. I’m not sure human vision is equipped for this. Yet.

 

 

Tim: I love the following things, in no particular order: cinema, video games, and BBC series. However, The Hobbit taught me an important lesson: I don’t like it when my movies look alternately like video games and/or BBC series. There were moments in the film where I wasn’t sure whether I was watching the making-of featurette or a cut scene (for a millisecond after Gandalf showed up to rescue the dwarves from the Great Goblin, my brain instinctively steeled itself for an intense boss battle). I really don’t want to sound like the guy who walked out of The Jazz Singer and griped, “This talking picture business will kill the cinema!” (Presumably, such a sentiment would be pronounced in an old-timey mid-Atlantic accent.) But while 48fps may be the future of movies, it really doesn’t feel like the present of movies.

That said, I still found The Hobbit to be a pretty involving yarn; story-wise, it’s a cut below the original trilogy, but I didn’t think it was the draggy mess that some people did. The set pieces are thrilling and vivid as always; I particularly liked the campfire scene with the oafish trolls, and the escape from the underground goblin lair is propulsive and tense. Plus, Gollum remains a marvel CGI technology — name another digital creation that inspires as much revulsion and pathos. Overall, I thought The Hobbit was solid, but again, a word of advice: if you’re planning on seeing it and you have all the time in the world, I recommend watching it in 24fps, and then going back to see it in 48fps to compare and contrast.

Ryan: I will agree that the visual style was too aggressive for my taste. I suspect that Jackson’s aim was to draw the audience further into the picture, to make the experience more immersive, but it had the exact opposite effect on me. I don’t like being reminded that I’m watching a movie, but it was hard not to feel that way when I found myself thinking, “Whoa, that looked bizarre” at regular intervals throughout the film. That said, I still don’t think I hated it as much as you two did; every once in a while, just for kicks, I’ll watch a movie at home with that motion-smoothing effect turned on, so I was somewhat prepared for it here, even if the final product did sort of look like an extended video game cut scene.

 

 

What’s interesting for me is that, on paper, the film had a lot of narrative problems, but I still rather enjoyed it despite these problems, and despite the visual distractions. The whole movie is essentially one long chase sequence, with short breaks for some necessary exposition here and there, and chase movies tend to bore me. Bilbo and friends would escape narrowly from one life-threatening catastrophe only to find themselves in some other gargantuan peril, over and over and over again. What’s more, each time it seemed they were helplessly screwed, Gandalf would appear and save the day. Whether threatened by mountain trolls, orcs in hot pursuit, or underground goblins, never fear, for Gandalf will appear. And you know, he did this a couple times in the LotR series, as well — I’m starting to think Gandalf is just a stand-in for God, and he simply lets everyone get into trouble so they can learn valuable lessons from the experience. I don’t know how much of this was in the book (I’m speaking from a novice’s perspective again), but these are all things that would have bugged the hell out of me in any other movie. The bottom line is, though The Hobbit doesn’t quite capture the same sense of majesty and epic wonder as the LotR did, it was still an entertaining little romp that somehow convinced me to put aside my storytelling pet peeves and go with the flow.

Luke: Right. Well in terms of the story, my major concern going into this, really, was the potential for bloating Tolkien’s perfect little adventure yarn — and, at least on this count, I was somewhat relieved. The Hobbit‘s epic dwarves-and-dragon prologue felt unnecessary (as did the Frodo and older Bilbo framing device), but I get why they’re there: when you’ve fed audiences The Lord of the Rings, they’re gonna demand something equal in scope. It’s wrong for The Hobbit (I still wish it was a Guillermo-helmed single film) but it doesn’t do fatal disservice. Despite these and other diversions (the portents of Sauron, etc.), I found that once the movie settled into the groove of the actual story it was pretty faithful — and at times, really entertaining. Martin Freeman was a sound Bilbo Baggins, Andy Serkis was as good as he ever was, and the storytelling — at least in the back stretch — was well done. By the time the eagles arrive amid the final skirmish with the white Orc, I felt like I was at last deep in the real Hobbit again — and actually couldn’t wait for them to get on with the rest of it. But it still feels like a long way to The Lonely Mountain. And yeah, we gotta get there in high definition digital. But my corneal transplant should come through by this time 2013.


The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug

 In anticipation of the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we here at RT decided to take a look back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first two films of the Hobbittrilogy. Our latest installment covers The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which editors Tim Ryan and Ryan Fujitani rewatched for some fresh perspective.

The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug


 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Luke: I know some of us balked at the notion of an extended Return of the King — wasn’t the theatrical cut, with its endless endings (in the book, by the way) enough? Well I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Unlike the Two Towers, and even more than Fellowship, I ate up every extended moment in the longer Return of the King. In fact, not only would I say it’s my new favorite, it also — finally — elevated everything to that rousing level that I thought had been missing before. One thing I loved about the books was the feeling of dread that ran through the story, the idea that the world was ephemeral and about to be swallowed up by darkness at any moment. Return of the King captured that for me; it was like a series of climaxes where everyone’s fate was balancing on the precipice. And everything comes into its own here, too — visually, Jackson is less indebted to the “Spielberg face” and finds his own classical groove, and the characters (even Merry and Pippin, who bordered on annoying for me at earlier points) all pull their weight.

Tim: I totally agree. The first two chapters are undoubtedly visually masterful, and the story is propulsive, but I found the characters to be archetypes rather than great characters — sturdy archetypes, to be sure, but more defined by their quest than by distinctive personalities or emotional weight. However, The Return of the King is where the trilogy finally achieves the magisterial power I’d been waiting for. It’s able to juggle its multiple plot strands with greater ease; the characters feel more fleshed out, and there’s an apocalyptic urgency to just about everything, from Frodo’s precarious climb to Aragorn’s tense meeting with the King of the Dead (for me, the scene where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli escape from an avalanche of skulls is one of my favorites in a franchise overstuffed with astonishing set pieces — it’s the type of nightmarish threat that would make Indiana Jones wake up in a cold sweat).

 

 

Ryan: Tim, you took the words right out of my mouth regarding the scene where Aragorn and Co. confront the undead army. That entire sequence, though relatively short, is one of my favorites. In fact, the first half of Return of the King had me well engaged, what with its “rally the troops” vibe; it’s one of those common filmic themes that tend to excite me.

Having said that, though, I might disagree with your assertion that the film did a better job of balancing the various story threads, especially in the extended version; the film does cut back and forth between Gandalf at Minas Tirith and the forces of Rohan pretty effectively, but during the long middle stretch, Sam and Frodo are only visited sporadically. In fact, it seemed as though the quest to destroy the ring was far less important here than the large scale battles being fought elsewhere. The difference, at least for me, was that, while I found Sam and Frodo’s journey with Gollum the most compelling in the previous film, they were decidedly much less interesting in this one, so I didn’t mind that they disappeared from the story for long stretches. Plus, there were so many great moments peppered throughout that I remained wholly engaged.

Luke: Maybe that’s because Frodo was unconscious for a lot of it? I see what you’re saying though. I don’t think the quest to destroy the Ring was any less interesting for me, it’s just that everything else rose to the same level of engagement. Events here were just so much more vivid to me. (Granted, I was awake this time, too). Like, when Denethor asks Pippin to sing, and the melancholy hobbit ballad, set against scenes of battle, is intercut with those wonderful closeups of Denethor crunching and slurping on his food. The way Jackson shoots the Nazgûl (some excellent blood-curdling sound design work, by the way) against the ashen skies. Or one of my favorite mini-moments — when Sauron’s grisly emissary greets the heroes at the gate, and Aragorn cocks his head quizzically at the sight of the creature’s grotesque mouth and voice — a great, subtle bit of playing from Viggo Mortensen. Also, credit where it’s due: Has anyone given a more compelling monotone performance than Orlando Bloom here?

 

 

Ryan: Well, considering his role up to now has primarily consisted of firing arrows and periodically uttering vaguely ominous lines like, “A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night,” sure, I’ll grant you that. By the way, the scene with Sauron’s emissary at the gates of Mordor was cut from the theatrical version, and it’s actually one of the choices I agreed with. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t necessary, and I might argue that the bizarrely comical quality of his twitchy smile felt a little out of place in that moment.

Luke: Oh, I didn’t realize that. It was indeed comical, I guess which is why I enjoyed it.

Ryan: And while I’m speaking of scenes that were wisely omitted, what on Middle-earth was with that whirlwind romance between Faramir and Eowyn? They’d met, what, twice? I’ll grant that even when I originally saw RotK, the strange sexual tension between Aragorn and Eowyn, and Aragorn’s eventual rejection of her affections, left me a little sad for Eowyn and a little angry with Aragorn. I mean, is it just me, or was he totally leading her on from the moment they met? But even with that in mind, Jackson’s attempt to give Eowyn her happy ending by bringing her and Faramir together was poorly executed, and I’m glad that never made it into the theatrical cut.

Luke: Eowyn was totally playing all those dudes off of each other in an elaborate move to assert her proto-feminist agenda and take the glory by cutting down the black rider on the battlefield. And the chumps fell right into her trap. In seriousness, though, I agree the love triangles were one of the weakest elements of the series. Marks for the effort to make these elements accessible for a modern audience, but they didn’t quite sit with the way the other stuff was operating dramatically. But the arthouse spinoff feature, Eowyn and Aragon Take Broth, would make a lovely extra on the 145-disc set one day. In fact, I’ve ordered a copy for you Ryan, just in time for Christmas. Another spinoff movie that I would love to see — and Peter Jackson could go back to his Meet the Feebles sensibility to make it — would be a knockabout buddy comedy set in the ranks of the Orc army. Seriously, those guys are so pent up and angry seemingly all the time, I found myself laughing at their filthy antics and wondering if there were moments during the day where they were just hanging out, playing cards and talking about their crappy paychecks. There’d be some quality slobbering and slapstick in that movie, and I’m always in for that on film. Get Guillermo del Toro on it.

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we here at RT decided to take a look back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first two films of the Hobbittrilogy. Our latest installment covers The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which editors Tim Ryan and Ryan Fujitani rewatched for some fresh perspective.

The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Tim: I remember liking The Two Towers better than The Fellowship of the Ring when I saw it in the theater. It certainly contains more striking imagery, from the craggy Ents to the imposing Mûmakil (which, like the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back, are inefficient as battle weaponry but still look completely awesome). However, upon watching the extended edition, I wasn’t as involved. Unlike Fellowship, which supplemented the theatrical cut with plenty of seemingly essential side notes, I thought the special edition of the Two Towers longer, not more illuminating.

Ryan: Yep, Two Towers was my favorite of the three LOTR films for several reasons: I, too, love the Ents (my favorite characters from the series, in fact), Eomer and the riders of Rohan are badass, the destruction of Isengard and the climactic battle at Helm’s Deep are epic, and we get some of Gollum’s meatiest scenes, among other things. Unfortunately, this latest rewatch drastically changed my assessment of the movie. I don’t know if it was because it was the extended cut, or if I simply never noticed these issues before, but I found The Two Towers wholly unfocused, forced to split its time between several storylines that almost never converge. This was a big problem for me, and my love for the movie diminished quite a bit upon this viewing.

 

 

Tim: Still, credit where it’s due: that climatic battle sequence is breathtaking in its visceral power, and Gollum has to be considered one of the definitive movie characters of the 2000s. Therein lies another issue with the Two Towers, however: Andy Serkis is such a gifted physical actor, and Gollum is such a vivid creation, that he ends up overshadowing the human actors by a pretty wide margin.

Luke: I’m not gonna lie: I fell asleep in this movie. I don’t know if it was the pizza, er lembas bread, but I was out stone cold midway through. Thing is, like you guys, this was my favorite theatrically, but the extended edition throws the narrative wildly out of balance. I liked the Two Towers theatrically because it split its time judiciously between the Frodo-Sam-Gollum journey (the best thing, for me) and the machinations at Rohan leading up to Helm’s Deep, but in the long version it seemed Gollum disappeared for huge stretches in favor of more — so very much more — standing around and talking by interchangeable stock types anticipating battle. I think by about the four-millionth exhortation of “We ride!” — followed by another meeting — I was done. Pared back to the treachery of Gollum and his game of wits with the hobbits, though, there’s a good movie in here.

 

 

Ryan: I hate to admit it, but I also nodded off around the time Aragorn was pretending to like Eowyn’s battlefield broth (a completely unnecessary scene I’m glad was left on the cutting room floor), and at one point, there were, by my count, four narrative threads being juggled: the preparations at Rohan, Pippin and Merry with the Ents, Frodo and Sam, and the love story between Aragorn and Arwen. Thankfully — and wisely — the theatrical cut pared down the latter of those quite a bit, but with extended stretches devoted to the other three (lending to the long absence of Gollum from the screen, as noted by Luke), the longer cut just dragged on and on. For my money’s worth, the theatrical cut of this film is just right; my affection remains strong, if slightly abated, thanks to Helm’s Deep and the Ents.

Tim: You know, when a tree fell on my car last year, I was initially convinced it was a random accident. Now I know it wasn’t: I was the target of a plot devised at one of those Ent Moots.

Ryan: And they’d been planning it for centuries.

Luke: Speaking of Ents, Ryan we must make mention of one of our favorite moments in all the trilogy, I think. You know what I’m talking about?

Ryan: You can only be speaking of the copious amounts of ganj… err, Longbottom Leaf being smoked.

Luke: Well that was rather stirring, of course, but you must remember the cheer that went up when one of the Ents used the surging floodwaters of Isengard to quench his flaming hair of leaves.

Ryan: Oh, that! Such a small moment, yet so brilliantly comic. I thought to myself, “Yup, that’s what I would have done, too.”

Luke: [Laughs] I salute the genius at Weta who did that.

No surprises here, folks — other movies are coming out this week, but it’s really all about The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and when it came time to figure out who would be the focus of our list, there was only one choice. Yes, we’re talking about Peter Jackson, the director whose final(?) venture to Middle-earth is one of 2014’s most eagerly awaited sequels — and whose filmography is about so, so much more than hobbits and orcs. From gory comedies to vulgar puppets and beyond, Jackson has displayed one of the most artfully wandering spirits in Hollywood over the course of his career, and it’s high time we took a look at the critical highlights. Get ready for Total Recall!


10. Bad Taste (1987)   71%


Human fast food might be some of the grossest sustenance on Earth, but Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste dares to imagine something even more disgusting — alien fast food, derived from the human carcasses of unwilling victims. (Brings new meaning to “pink slime,” doesn’t it?) Gleefully embracing the promise of its title, Taste shows a side of Jackson that might surprise filmgoers only familiar with his work on the Lord of the Rings movies, but it’s actually of a piece with his eclectic artistic journey — and one that resonated with Dan Fienberg of Zap2It, who later lamented, “I miss Peter Jackson in his ultra low-budget horror mode. He always looked like he was having fun.”


9. Meet the Feebles (1989)  


Having explored the darker side of extraterrestrial life with Bad Taste, Jackson decided to warp another object of childhood fascination — puppets — for his follow-up, 1989’s Meet the Feebles. Dark and vulgar, Feebles was marketed with the tagline “From the creators of Bad Taste comes a film with no taste at all” — and as far as a sizable number of critics were concerned, it lived down to its proudly lowbrow advance billing (Janet Maslin of the New York Times predicted that it was “Destined to stand as an unfortunate footnote to Mr. Jackson’s career”). But for others, the ribald, felt-covered adventures of characters like Bletch the Walrus, Sid the Elephant, and Heidi the Hippo were undeniably entertaining; as Luke Y. Thompson admitted for the New Times, “Homicidal puppets with VD just get me every time.”


8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)   74%


With 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson found himself in a situation few filmmakers ever experience — namely, following up a movie that made more than a billion dollars worldwide but was still regarded as something of a disappointment. It couldn’t have come as a surprise to Jackson, given the marginally more contemplative pace of his first Lord of the Rings prequel, as well as the crushing weight of expectations generated by the epic blockbusting sweep of Jackson’s LotR trilogy. His Hobbit franchise rebounded with its second installment, 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug, which fell a hair short of its predecessor’s impressive box office take, yet enjoyed a far warmer critical reception — due in no small part to the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice and mo-cap spirit of the titular dragon, adding action and evil charisma to a series that needed both. As Betsy Sharkey put it in her review for the Los Angeles Times, “Peter Jackson’s newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon.”


7. King Kong (2005)   84%


Remaking King Kong had been tried before — and with less-than-stellar results — in 1976, when producer Dino De Laurentiis dragooned an all-star cast into a misguided attempt at updating the classic original. But Dino didn’t have Peter Jackson behind the camera, and that (along with nearly 30 years of advances in special effects technology) made all the difference for 2005’s King Kong, which matched an awesome-looking Kong against a well-chosen cast that included Adrien Brody, Jack Black, and Naomi Watts as the simian-bewitching Ann Darrow. Even with a running time that clocked in over three hours, Jackson’s Kong was king of the box office, drumming up more than $218 million in global receipts — and impressing critics like Tom Long of the Detroit News, who enthused, “Monstrous. Monumental. Magnificent. Use any term you want, there’s no denying the power, genius and spectacle of King Kong, which is certainly the biggest movie of the year and possibly the biggest movie ever made.”


6. Dead Alive (1992)   88%


Boasting one of the most memorably disturbing posters of the ’90s — as well as a storyline ripe with the sort of disgusting possibilities Jackson embraced so whole-heartedly early in his career — 1992’s Dead Alive tells the delightfully gonzo tale of a lovestruck teen (Timothy Balme) whose budding romance with his lady love (Diana Penalver) hits a snag due to the fact that his mother (Elizabeth Moody) has been turned into a flesh-eating zombie by a bite from a Sumatran rat monkey on exhibit at the local zoo. It gets enthusiastically foul from there — including the climactic appearance of a strategically wielded lawnmower — but as far as most critics were concerned, the gore was all in exceedingly good fun; as Rob Humanick put it for Projection Booth, “Rarely has the urge to expectorate one’s lunch been a feeling so sublime.”


5. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)  


It took a few decades to get there, but once J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books finally, officially made their way to theaters, they did it in a big way — and they did it the right way, courtesy of Peter Jackson’s sure-handed direction (and a $93 million budget), not to mention a pitch-perfect cast that included Elijah Wood (as the pure-hearted hobbit Frodo), Sean Astin (as his stalwart friend Samwise), and Ian McKellen (as the mighty wizard Gandalf), united in their quest to save Middle-earth from the malignant advances of the dark lord Sauron. Full of eye-popping special effects (including those used to bring to life the warped Gollum, played by Andy Serkis) and bolstered by a screenplay that did justice to its hefty source material, it was an unqualified smash — both with audiences and with critics like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who observed, “Watching it, one can’t help but get the impression that everyone involved was steeped in Tolkien’s work, loved the book, treasured it and took care not to break a cherished thing in it.”


4. Heavenly Creatures (1994)   93%


Jackson’s impressively violent early work might have made him a natural fit for a movie about the grisly true-life tale of two teenage girls (played by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) whose obsessive relationship leads to a shocking act of bruality — but few of his fans could have been prepared for Heavenly Creatures, an absorbing, assured film that blended elements of drama, science fiction, and romance while drawing beautifully compelling performances from its leads. Ultimately nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the Academy Awards, Creatures vaulted Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh to international acclaim, jump-started Winslet’s film career, and wowed critics like David Rooney of Variety, who wrote that it “Combines original vision, a drop-dead command of the medium and a successful marriage between a dazzling, kinetic techno-show and a complex, credible portrait of the out-of-control relationship between the crime’s two schoolgirl perpetrators.”


3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)   93%


After all that buildup, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had a lot of epic expectations to live up to — and by most accounts, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King met or exceeded them, delivering the franchise’s passionate fanbase a suitably sweeping conclusion to the saga that many of them had loved since long before Jackson ever stepped behind a camera. Clearly, given all the anticipation that later greeted The Hobbit, Jackson was the right person to adapt the beloved books that served as his movies’ source material; as Bill Muller put it for the Arizona Republic, “Not only has Jackson boldly and faithfully brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s world to life, he’s created the most epic and sweeping fantasy adventure of all time.”


2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)   95%


He set a high bar for himself with the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring — and then Jackson surpassed it with the second installment, 2002’s The Two Towers, which took a plotline that largely amounted to a lot of walking and turned it into a legitimate three-hour epic, complete with elves, dwarves, hobbits, amazing large-scale battles, and sentient, ambulatory trees. A two-time Academy Award winner (and Best Picture nominee), The Two Towers racked up nearly a billion dollars worldwide during its theatrical run, and prompted suitably hefty praise from critics like Salon’s Charles Taylor, who opined, “Yes, there are some ‘middle-chapter’ problems, but Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptation hasn’t lost its devastating humanity, its heart-stopping cinematography or its epic sweep.”


1. Forgotten Silver (1996)   100%


From Preston Tucker to Joe Meek and beyond, we love biopics about overlooked, overshadowed, and/or forgotten pioneers — so when Peter Jackson premiered Forgotten Silver, an alleged documentary about the unjustly forgotten New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, its claims that McKenzie was responsible for the first talkie and color film proved irresistible to many viewers. Only one problem: None of it was true, and Jackson — who co-wrote and co-directed with his friend Costa Botes — was actually perpetrating a skillful fraud, right down to the interview segments with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein and film critic Leonard Maltin. Some were understandably annoyed when the truth came out, but that didn’t prevent critics from bestowing universal praise; as Wade Major wrote for Boxoffice Magazine, “Forgotten Silver succeeds best because it was birthed by the filmmakers’ own innate love for the art and history of movie making, a joy that bleeds through in every frame of the film.”


Finally, here’s a (slightly NSFW) compedium of Peter Jackson cameos:


In anticipation of the upcoming release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we here at RT decided to take a look back at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first two films of the Hobbittrilogy. Our latest installment covers The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which editors Tim Ryan and Ryan Fujitani rewatched for some fresh perspective.

The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug


  

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Luke: Okay, in the interest of full disclosure — because there’s always that one person — I’m going to get this out of the way right now: I was one of the three people on the planet not especially awed by these movies when I first saw them in theaters. As someone who grew up loving Tolkien’s trilogy, I felt Peter Jackson did as competent a job as could be expected — the movies looked the part and covered the story’s key action beats — but due to their time constraints, or perhaps their tone, the sense of immersion I got from the books, that magic of getting lost in the rich worlds of lore, just wasn’t there for me. So I’ve always been curious to see these extended editions, to see if that wonder might be restored — or whether, you know, I was just missing something altogether. As we begin Fellowship I’m struck by how huge this backstory is in the prologue — and how much, curiously, it covers in short form the events that will be expanded for The Hobbit. Tim?

Tim: What’s kept me from revisiting the Lord of the Rings movies since I first saw them in the theater is not only their staggering length, but also the fact that I know only the barest outlines of Tolkien’s mythology beyond what I’ve picked up from friends who are LOTR fans and from a casual listen to various Led Zeppelin deep cuts (in fact, I’m gonna listen to “The Battle of Evermore” as I pound this out). But I have to say that I’d forgotten how effective the opening sequence is in Fellowship of the Ring. I think the problem with a lot of sci-fi/fantasy tales is that they mistake complexity for depth, and Peter Jackson does a great job of avoiding this trap. The opening sequence is visually terrific, but more importantly, it does a great job of providing a basic explanation of the world we’re about to immerse ourselves in. It’s as if Peter Jackson is saying, “Here’s the deal. Here’s what’s at stake. Here’s why you should devote 12 hours of your life to this story.”

And then we get the Shire, and what a wonderful way to establish the milieu of this epic. The Shire is teeming with life, and it’s a place that looks enough like our world to draw us in, and otherworldly enough to make it seem magical (in lesser hands, the Lord of the Rings films could have looked like a New Age nightmare). And I know these movies are wall-to-wall with state-of-the-art special effects, but the first visual trick that blew my mind was how they were able to make Gandalf tower over Bilbo Baggins.

 

 

Ryan: Same here. Even when I watched the bonus features and witnessed the trickery they employed to achieve the effect, I found myself no less dumbfounded by it. It’s really incredible and a testament to the time and effort Jackson put into the film. The visual aspect of this movie, from the gorgeous landscapes to the spiffy effects, is one of the best things about it.

Having said that, I have to confess that I, like Luke, was not head-over-heels for this movie when I first saw it in theaters, but that’s mostly because, unlike many of my friends, I’d never read the books, so I wasn’t heading into it with an entire childhood of expectations just waiting to be fulfilled. Also, it was a late showing and I was exhausted, so I fell asleep about two hours into it.

Of course, I’ve rewatched Fellowship several times since then, and let me be clear: I think this is a great movie. In fact, watching the extended version reinforced that even more for me, because while I expected the added material to bog down the storytelling, I was pleasantly surprised when I found that it didn’t. Even in its longer form, the film felt satisfying to me.

Luke: Yeah, as we were watching this one, I felt that all of the additional and extended scenes were in harmony with the narrative structure. The biggest compliment I can pay this edition is that I didn’t notice the changes, at least in an obvious way. I still think the movie has a sense of “checking off the boxes” about it, but coming back to it after all this time I can appreciate the craftsmanship — and the apparent love and care that went into it. I mean, just the fact that so much of this — with its interminable portentous speeches and glassy, widescreen eyes — could play as camp, but doesn’t, is a testament to the even keel Jackson keeps the movie on. As Tim says, it could have played as a New age nightmare (I’m politely ignoring all the pan pipes on the soundtrack typing that), and I think it’s Jackson’s horror training that gives these movies some of their ballast.

Speaking of the director’s horror pedigree, some of the stuff in Fellowship is done really well. The Nazgûl (conjuring a little of Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscopic menace, which Jackson saw at a formative age) are great indicators of what’s to come, and if the cave troll still seems a bit weightless and cartoon-like, then that Balrog gets two clawed thumbs up from me — if only for looking like it thundered straight off the cover of a Dio album.

 

 

Tim: Ian McKellen is such a terrific presence that he lends all the necessary gravitas to Gandalf. Ian Holm, as Bilbo, and Elijah Wood, as Frodo, look enough alike that they could be related. Christopher Lee exudes typical menace as Saruman, and John Rhys-Davies provides Falstaffian heartiness as Gimli. Still, the actor who made the biggest impression on me this time out was Sean Bean as the tormented Boromir. He doesn’t have a ton to do, but Bean’s expressive face conveys the degree to which the ring is a sought-after commodity, and what havoc it can wreak on weaker souls. (I also have to mention that when Bilbo’s face goes all Mr. Hyde when he looks at the ring… man, I forgot what a shock that was).

Ryan: Complete agreement on Boromir (as well as the freaky Bilbo moment). If I were allowed just one nitpick with the film (and really, with the series as a whole), I’d have to go with the sometimes overwhelmingly simplistic “good vs. evil” theme prevalent throughout. There are only a few characters in the series who demonstrate any significant inner conflict, and — Surprise! — they’re the most interesting ones to watch. I get that Tolkien basically defined a lot of these fantasy archetypes for generations to come, but for better or worse, a lot of these characters are, essentially, just archetypes, and they never waver.

As a viewer, I never once questioned whether Aragorn or Legolas or Gimli would ever betray Frodo the same way that Boromir, to an extent, kept me guessing he might. I never once questioned whether Saruman was going to come around eventually and honor some unspoken wizard code; he was always going to be bad news here. This is why Boromir was so interesting, and why, as we’ll see in The Two Towers, Gollum is possibly the best character in the series. In the end, Fellowship is a success because it works anyway and effectively sets up the various storylines we’ll see come to fruition later.

Luke: I’m with you here. Gollum is the best character in the movies, as he was in the books (and for me, that goes for The Hobbit, too). It’s his complexity that makes him fascinating because, as you point out, Ryan, the world of Middle-earth is often black-and-white (though in fairness, it was something of an analogy for WWII.) Tolkien doesn’t know what to do with his female characters, either (“as was the style at the time,” ahem), which is an element that Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh try and address — to varying degrees of success, as we’ll see. (Though any movie that gives Liv Tyler elf ears in service of a bigger arc is fine by me.) I also think it’s worth noting, in the Jekyll-and-Hyde stakes, Cate Blanchett’s spooky tranformation from peaceful Lady of the Lake to ring-crazed specter. Blanchett’s a big asset to the performances, alongside McKellen, who I agree was born to play Gandalf. Anyway, I think this movie’s really set the quest on solid footing thus far. I’m optimistic for a reappraisal.


The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers The Return of the King

An Unexpected Journey | The Desolation of Smaug

This week’s Ketchup saw Hollywood finally returning to work after what seemed like a long, two-week Thanksgiving vacation. Casting news for both The Hobbit and the Alien prequel are included, as well as a new action movie for the directors of the Matrix trilogy and the director of District 9, and new roles for Russell Brand, Matt Damon, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Adam Sandler and Chris Tucker.

THIS WEEK’S TOP STORY

CATE BLANCHETT RETURNING AS GALADRIEL IN THE HOBBIT

Most of the familiar characters seen in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies do not actually appear in the J.R.R. Tolkien book that preceded it. However, it appears that as part of Jackson’s extension to making the story of Bilbo Baggins, a company of dwarves and the dragon Smaug, the director (and cowriter) is bringing back some characters that weren’t actually in The Hobbit. First up is Galadriel, the royal elf played by Cate Blanchett, who will be reprising that role in The Hobbit. The casting of Blanchett is just the latest of many roles to be announced (or confirmed) this week. Sylvester McCoy, who is most famous for being the Doctor Who actor in the role when it was canceled after 26 years, has been saying for a while that he will be playing the wizard Radagast the Brown, and McCoy has now been confirmed. Ken Stott (Charlie Wilson’s War) will play the dwarf lord Balin, and New Zealand actors Jed Brophy and William Kircher will play Nori and Bifur, will play the last two dwarves to be cast. British actor Ryan Gage will play Drogo Baggins (Frodo’s dad and Bilbo’s cousin), and Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt will play the shapeshifter Beorn. Among the characters still left to be cast are Bard the Bowman and the voice of Smaug the dragon. Among the actors that Peter Jackson is talking to about reprising their roles in The Hobbit is Orlando Bloom as Legolas, although like Galadriel, Legolas didn’t actually appear in Tolkien’s original 1937 novel. Bloom is reportedly near a deal to return for what is reportedly more than just a cameo. Three actors who have not yet officially signed on yet are Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Gollum) and Hugo Weaving (Elrond), despite their characters all actually appearing in the book (and in the case of the first two, being quite prominent to the story). Filming of the two parts of The Hobbit is scheduled to start in February, 2011 in New Zealand, in preparation for the movies to be released in December of 2012 and 2013, respectively.

FRESH DEVELOPMENTS THIS WEEK

#1 THE ALIEN PREQUELS ARE GOING TO PARADISE… WITH MICHELLE YEOH?

This week, a lot more information was revealed about the two planned prequels to 20th Century Fox’s blockbuster Alien franchise, and it starts with the revelation that it might not even be called Alien… anything. The title for the first prequel is reportedly Paradise, with no hint that it would actually be something like Alien: Paradise, though it’s possible that Paradise may indeed eventually be a subtitle. On the other hand, Paradise may be an attempt to start a new franchise for director Ridley Scott, who directed the original Alien, if the story eventually goes on to touch upon elements separate from just humans running around trying not to get killed by, you know, aliens. The story for the prequels appears to be just that, however, as it “follows a group of space travelers who encounter a monstrous alien creature that picks them off, one by one.” In addition to Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) being the frontrunner for the lead role of Elizabeth Shaw, a few more characters are now known. One is David, an earlier version of the Bishop android model, who Michael Fassbender had been approached to play, but his agents pressed for a salary above the planned budget’s limitations. There’s also the role of Vickers, a “fortysomething, tough-but-sexy woman,” who Ridley Scott hopes to cast Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as. There’s also an older businessman and “Engineer 1,” who will be played by an actor in the six foot five inches range, but will be entirely CGI.

#2 THE WACHOWSKIS WANT TO TAKE YOU TO THE HOOD

Andy and Lana (nee Larry) Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer) have been working for a while on their controversial, formerly secret project called CN-9 (Cobalt Neural 9) for a while now. That movie is told from the perspective of “archeologists piecing together events from the U.S. occupation of Iraq using found footage and includes two male soldiers falling in love and a plot to assassinate George W. Bush.” However, CN-9 has been having problems finding financing, despite “talking head” filming already being done with people like Arianna Huffington, Salman Rushdie, Jesse Ventura and Cornel West. Now, the Wachowskis have signed with Warner Bros for a project that appears to be closer to their action movie roots. Hood will be a “modern, urban take on the Robin Hood myth,” and the siblings are already talking to actors, including Will Smith, about the lead role. The Wachowskis wrote the script (which is surprising in that it’s past tense), and will direct. It’s possible, but unconfirmed, that this could be a “one for us, one for them” deal in an attempt to get Warner Bros to sign on for CN-9.

#3 MATT DAMON MAY GO TO ELYSIUM WITH THE TEAM BEHIND DISTRICT 9

While fans are still waiting for news about a sequel to the surprise hit District 9, director Neill Blomkamp is moving forward with another science fiction movie called Elysium. In Greek mythology, Elysium was the underworld afterlife devoted to the souls of “the heroic and the virtuous.” Sharlto Copley, who was an unknown before starring in District 9, will be reuniting with Blomkamp on Elysium as one of the leads. Universal Pictures is partnering with Media Rights Capital on financing Elysium, but the distribution rights are still up for sale. Sweetening the pot greatly is the second news story for Elysium this week, which is that Matt Damon is in talks to also star in the movie, the premise of which is still secret. Damon has a strong history with Universal, having starred in the studio’s first three Bourne movies. There’s also the added irony that Matt Damon’s most recent movie was Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, which also dealt with the afterlife (if the title of Elysium does indeed give us a hint of what it’s about).

#4 WILL FERRELL AND ZACH GALIFIANAKIS WANT YOUR VOTE IN 2012

Warner Bros was the winning studio in an auction this week for an untitled comedy pitch from Jay Roach. Roach was the director of the Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers (but not Little Fockers), this summer’s Dinner for Schmucks and the HBO political movie Recount. This new comedy project takes Roach back to similar political territory as Recount, as it will star Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival candidates (although it is unclear what office they are running for, but it may be President). The untitled comedy is expected to be produced in time to be released in the middle of the 2012 Presidential election campaigns. The screenwriters are Chris Henchy, who cowrote the Will Ferrell movies Land of the Lost and The Other Guys, and Shawn Harwell, who has cowritten every episode of the HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride. Following up on this news, Jay Roach revealed in an interview this week that the premise revolves around smear campaigns, and that Will Ferrell’s character will be a “narcissist driven by his own confidence,” while Zach Galifianakis will play “something else” (possibly more of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington character).

#5 AFTER JAMES DEAN, JAMES FRANCO TAKES ON ANOTHER STAR OF REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

In 2001, James Franco was not yet a movie star, having appeared in just three movies and as one of the kids in Freaks and Geeks (Spider-Man didn’t come out until 2002). That year, however, Franco starred in the TV movie biopic James Dean, and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor, and an Emmy nomination. James Dean was, of course, a brilliant young actor who died in a car accident in 1955 at the age of just 24. His most famous movie is probably Rebel Without a Cause, which also starred three young actors all of whom had early deaths: James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. It is the story of Sal Mineo that James Franco is next taking on, as Franco has optioned the film rights to the recently released biography Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud. James Franco bought the rights with the intention of writing and directing the adaptation. Franco doesn’t intend to also act in the movie, but that could change (and even if he did, it’s very unlikely he would play Sal Mineo, though he could reprise his role as James Dean). With Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo had the distinction of being the youngest Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actor at the time (a record later broke by Kramer vs Kramer child actor Justin). In 1976, just a few years after coming out of the closet, Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in the alley behind his West Hollywood apartment at the age of 37 (his killer reportedly did not even know who he was).

#6 CHRIS TUCKER TO STAR IN A MOVIE THAT DOESN’T START WITH RUSH HOUR

Some actors (like Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson) appear in movies a couple of times a year. Chris Tucker, by contrast, has appeared in only two movies since 1999, and they both started with the words Rush Hour. There’s no current word on whether there will ever be a Rush Hour 4, but Tucker is now attached to star in a movie that has nothing to do with that franchise. Warner Bros has acquired a spec script called The Rabbit (no relation to Mel Gibson’s The Beaver), which Chris Tucker is attached to star in. Not much is known about the action comedy, except that it is in the same vein as Midnight Run, the bounty hunter comedy starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. The sale of The Rabbit could be an inspiration to the thousands of aspiring screenwriters out there, as its writer Micah Barnett has no previous credits. Hopefully, he will continue to sell scripts more often than Chris Tucker makes movies.

#7 DREAMWORKS ANIMATION REVEALS AN UPCOMING MOVIE THAT ISN’T A SEQUEL

Last week’s big news was the revelation that DreamWorks Animation has plans for as many as four Madagascar and six Kung Fu Panda movies. One could speculate that the studio apparently saw how the fans reacted to this news, because this week, DreamWorks Animation announced an original new movie that is not a sequel. Me and My Shadow will be released in March, 2013 and will combine CGI animation, traditional animation and 3D. As the title suggests, the story will be about “Shadow Stan, an extremely frustrated shadow who yearns for a dynamic life but happens to be stuck with Stanley Grubb, the world’s most boring human. Finally pushed to the brink, Shadow Stan breaks the singular rule of the Shadow World (“They lead, we follow”), and takes control of Stanley.” There’s no word yet as to who will be voicing Shadow Stan or Stanley Grubb. Mark Dindal (Chicken Little, The Emperor’s New Groove) will be directing from a script originally written by Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman (cowriters of Open Season, Brother Bear). The latest rewrite of the script is by the writing team of Tom Astle and Matt Ember (Failure to Launch, Get Smart).

ROTTEN IDEAS OF THE WEEK

#2 RUSSELL BRAND WON’T EVEN NEED MAKE UP FOR RENTAGHOST

Warner Bros has acquired the film rights to the 1976-1984 BBC children’s television series Rentaghost. The studio’s plans are to develop it as a comedy in the style of Beetlejuice as a starring vehicle for British comedian Russell Brand, who is also starring in WB’s remake of Arthur. Russell Brand will play Fred Mumford, a recently deceased man who was a slacker when alive, but sets out in death to be more enterprising, setting up an agency of other ghosts that hire themselves out to the living for various odd jobs. There’s not yet any other talent, including a screenwriter, attached to the movie version of Rentaghost. This story is borderline Rotten, mostly because along with Arthur, this appears to be part of a trend where Russell Brand revisits older, more successful movies, either as direct remakes, or in this case, as a thematic copy of (the extremely good) Beetlejuice.

#1 ADAM SANDLER AND KEVIN JAMES ARE THE VALET GUYS

Sony Pictures has acquired the rights to a comedy pitch called Valet Guys. The project comes attached with Adam Sandler and Kevin James as parking valets at a Miami South Beach hotel who witness a murder and have to go on the run. Valet Guys will be written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay, which makes this the third movie they have written together, after Paul Blart: Mall Cop and next year’s Zookeeper, all three of which Kevin James also starred in. Valet Guys is also a coproduction between the same production companies (which include Sandler’s Happy Madison and James’ Hey Eddie) that are producing Zookeeper. Valet Guys is this week’s most Rotten Idea based mostly on the Tomatometer scores for their recent movies. Any movie based on a “comedy pitch” that starts with “Adam Sandler plays a guy who…” also gets bonus Rotten points for sounding like a quote from the “AWESOM-O” episode of South Park. Studio execs aren’t paid to think, Mister Scientist!

For more Weekly Ketchup columns by Greg Dean Schmitz, check out the WK archive, and you can contact GDS via a RT forum message.

In This Week’s Ketchup, Edward Norton gets to take over the role of Bruce Banner in "The Incredible Hulk," Heath Ledger will portray a darker, scarier Joker than what audiences are accustomed to in "The Dark Knight," and "Spider-Man 3" received some glowing early reviews.

Also, Sam Raimi comments on "The Hobbit," as does Kirsten Dunst on "Spider-Man 4," and Optimus Prime speaks in the latest "Transformers" spot. Read On.

This Week’s Most Popular News:

Edward Norton is "The Incredible Hulk"

What was your first reaction upon reading that headline? Be honest. Mine was "Edward Norton as Bruce Banner?? Excellent choice, and one I never would have thought of."

Ledger’s New Joker to Be Scrappy and Scary

If you were hoping for a Jack Nicholson-style Joker in Christopher Nolan’s "The Dark Knight," then you might be disappointed by the adjectives being used to describe the new character design. Words like "raggedy" and "scary."

"Spider-Man 3" Reactions Starting to Come In

A prickly one again for me: There’s a brand-new "spy review" of "Spider-Man 3" over at AICN, but since I refuse to read extensive opinions about a movie until I see it for myself, I’ll just have to point you in the right direction and say "The spy really liked it."

Sam Raimi Talks "Hobbit" and Dunst Discusses "Spidey 4"

It’s been a while since we first heard that "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi could be in line to direct "The Hobbit" for New Line — and now the director has actually spoken about the possibility. In other news, Kirsten Dunst says a "Spider-Man 4" without her or Raimi or Tobey Maguire would "flop."

Optimus Prime Speaks in New "Transformers" Spot

Wow, I’ve never seen this many different websites respond to one TV spot like I have here. I guess it only makes sense, since "Transformers" hits a lot of different geek demographics: The movie nuts, the toy collectors, the animation buffs, the automobile enthusiasts…


He will be a tad scarier than this.

In Other News:

  • "Crash" producers Robert Moresco and Mark R. Harris are teaming up on an untitled feature film about Whitewater figure Susan McDougal. Moresco will write and direct, and is co-producing with Harris.
  • Elijah Wood will produce his first film, teaming up with Anthony Moody and Rob Malkani’s Indalo Productions on "Black Wings Has My Angel," an adaptation of the Elliot Chaze novel.
  • "Vacancy" director Nimrod Antal will direct another thriller for Screen Gems, "Armored," from a screenplay by James V. Simpson.
  • Tony Leung Chiu-Wai has rejoined the cast of John Woo‘s "The Battle of Red Cliff" after Chow Yun-Fat dropped out. Leung had quit the cast last month due to scheduling conflicts, but agreed to return after Chow’s sudden departure.
  • Ron Lieberman will direct the psychological revenge thriller "Tortured," based on a script by Marek Posival for Twisted Pictures.
  • Paramount Vantage has acquired Harris Wilkinson’s script "Ink," a horror film centered around the tattoo industry.

Meet the new boss.

It’s been a while since we first heard that "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi could be in line to direct "The Hobbit" for New Line — and now the director has actually spoken about the possibility. In other news, Kirsten Dunst says a "Spider-Man 4" without her or Raimi or Tobey Maguire would "flop."

In an upcoming interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mr. Raimi offered words like these: "First and foremost, those are Peter Jackson and Bob Shaye‘s films. If Peter didn’t want to do it, and Bob wanted me to do it — and they were both okay with me picking up the reins — that would be great. I love the book. It’s maybe a more kid-friendly story than the others."

So there you have it: Sam Raimi would gladly do "The Hobbit" if Jackson and Shaye give him their blessing. Too bad Jackson and Shaye disagree on just about everything these days. But the clock does seem to be ticking: New Line only has a finite (yet undetermined) amount of time in which to start the production before the rights revert back to someone else named Saul Zaentz. (Did any of that make sense?)

As to what this potential gig might mean for the "Spider-Man" series, well, Kirsten Dunst is making no bones about her feelings: "Audiences aren’t stupid. It’d be a big flop without me, Tobey, or Sam. That would really not be the smartest move." — with "it" being a "Spider-Man 4," of course.

Sony’s production president makes things as clear as possible (for right now, anyway) when he says: "Listen, we’re making Spider-Man 4. Our hope, dream, and intention is to do it with Sam. But I don’t have a crystal ball." Boom, that’s that. So let’s just all enjoy "Spider-Man 3," which opens on May 4th. (Or one of the other flicks. You know you have ’em on DVD.)

Source: Entertainment Weekly

With that ugly little feud with Peter Jackson in the rear-view mirror (for the time being, anyway) New Line chief Bob Shaye recently had a few vague things to say about the state of the "Hobbit" movie.

Apparently New Line has claimed 2009 as a release year for "The Hobbit," most likely because they have to plant some sort of flag in order to hold on to the book rights. There’s no script yet, no director in sight, and a whole lot of other questions floating around. Not to mention the lawsuit. But yeah, "2009" is what we’re being told.

Mr. Shaye kept mum on the Sam Raimi rumors, and he continued to be throw around phrases like "difficult filmmakers," but I suppose this is how deals get done in Hollywood. Frankly I liked it a whole lot better when we all just wondered if there would ever be a "Hobbit" movie. All this drama is getting pretty tiresome if you ask me.

[ Sources: IGN Movies, The New York Times ]

At first it just seemed like a smart fanboy’s best-case scenario: If Peter Jackson can’t (or won’t) direct "The Hobbit," then how about that Sam Raimi guy?!?!? Well, now it seems that the filmmaker has actually discussed it with some studio folks!

That’s pretty much all we know (courtesy of IGN Movies and The L.A. Times) — that Mr. Raimi (director of "The Evil Dead" flicks, the "Spider-Man" trilogy and a bunch of solid genre titles like "Darkman," "A Simple Plan," and "The Quick and the Dead") has informed his Sony pals that he’s considering/discussing/pondering about "The Hobbit" project.

Which has got to annoy the folks at MGM, who definitely still seem to want Jackson on the job. But let’s face it; New Line’s gonna get this project moving well before the rights revert back to the Saul Zaentz company … and we all know how likely it is that Peter Jackson will work for New Line again.

Hollywood studios try to inject some juice into the North American box office this weekend by unleashing three big new releases aimed at getting people back into the habit of going to the movies.

Boys will be courted with the fantasy adventure pic "Eragon," girls will get to play with "Charlotte’s Web," and adults looking for a feel-good story to counter their holiday shopping blues will have the father-and-son Smith team in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

The dragon tale "Eragon" attacks the cinemas on Friday giving fantasy audiences the entertainment they’ve been missing this holiday season. Fox’s PG-rated actioner will try to fill a void in a season without a "Potter," "Narnia," or "Hobbit." Don’t expect grosses to come close to the numbers posted by those megahits, but if "Eragon" can still reach a portion of that huge audience, the studio will be happy. Ordinarily, the effects-driven film would probably have a tough time at the box office but thanks to a severe lack of competition, Fox has a golden opportunity. The marketing push has been strong and young males have little else to be excited by. Gamers might also be interested in seeing this adventure on the big screen and leave behind their new hardware for a couple of hours. A built-in audience of readers of the book will help too. Landing in 3,020 theaters, "Eragon" could open with around $23M this weekend.


The latest fantasy novel turned fantasy epic: "Eragon."

The beloved children’s story "Charlotte’s Web" hits the multiplexes with Hollywood’s favorite young girl Dakota Fanning in the lead role. Paramount’s G-rated tale will aim for family audiences and is using the starpower of voice actors Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, and John Cleese to connect with parents. With "Happy Feet" being the only major family film to do well over the past few weeks, kids should be ready to move on to something new. Girls will probably outnumber the boys here especially with "Eragon" opening at the same time. But the brand is known and the rating is tame so parents will look at this as a safe bet for their younger ones. Good reviews will help too. With children going on their school holidays soon, look for long-term strength as many will wait until Christmas week to go and see it. Opening in over 3,000 theaters, "Charlotte’s Web" might take in about $21M this weekend.


"Charlotte’s Web," no longer in animated form.

Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden Smith hit the big screen together in Sony’s uplifting drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" which aims to give adult moviegoers something to see this weekend. Based on the true story of Chris Gardner, the PG-13 film tells the story of a man who hits hard times and becomes homeless and moonlights during the day in a stock broker training program hoping for a new lease on life. "Pursuit" has gotten Smith some notice for his acting performance (including a Golden Globe nomination) and the novelty of seeing father and son in a movie together will certainly help sell tickets. The man in black has some of the strongest pull among Hollywood stars at the box office with appeal that transcends all age, race, and gender lines. It’s no wonder that he is now pursuing his tenth $100M blockbuster.

Reviews have been mixed for the film overall even though Smith is hearing buzz about a possible Oscar nomination. Sony must have been hoping for better reactions from critics though. Instead, the studio will appeal directly to adult moviegoers and their desire to see an uplifting feel-good story anchored by a popular star at this time of year. Don’t expect "Pursuit" to reach the levels of the actor’s last film "Hitch" which bowed to $43.1M from 3,575 theaters for a $12,068 average. But if good word-of-mouth circulates, it could stay in the top ten throughout the holiday season and go on to be a winner. Appeal looks solid with both men and women plus a strong turnout from African Americans will help to boost the grosses. Opening in 2,852 theaters, "The Pursuit of Happyness" might debut with around $19M.


Will Smith and son, playing Chris Gardner and son, in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

Opening with special solo engagements in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco is the lavish musical "Dreamgirls" starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson. Paramount and DreamWorks are putting on a special live roadshow performance with these engageemnts for ten days before the film expands across the country on December 25. In New York City, "Dreamgirls" opens exclusively at the giant Ziegfeld theater which has already sold out its five weekend performances. With a giant auditorium of 1,200 seats and ticket prices of $25, look for this one theater to contribute over $100,000 to the weekend gross. West Coast venues hope to contribute similar numbers. Though the gross will be inflated by the ticket price, sky high demand thanks to critics awards, Globe nods, and Oscar buzz has already led to Friday’s opening night shows in California to sell out as well.


"Dreamgirls," opening in limited locations.

Other new films entering the marketplace in limited release include Steven Soderbergh‘s World War II drama "The Good German" starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Tobey Maguire from Warner Bros. MGM counters with its Iraq War drama "Home of the Brave" starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, and 50 Cent. The Weinstein Company platforms the Jude Law thriller "Breaking and Entering" from director Anthony Minghella in an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles.


Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson in "Home of the Brave."

Among holdovers, last weekend’s top film "Apocalypto" moves into its all-important second weekend which will indicate what type of staying power Mel Gibson‘s latest film has. Curiousity and media hype helped to bring out moviegoers on the first weekend, but will they keep coming? The Buena Vista release fared much better than expected on Sunday grossing $840,000 more than originally expected. The studio expected a Sunday drop of 38% but was pleased to see the bloody epic dip only 23%. This weekend’s three new offerings do not look to give too much of a direct threat to "Apocalypto" so a 35% drop may in order. That would give the Mayan adventure about $9M for the frame and $29M in ten days.

Warner Bros. will see some competition for its penguin blockbuster "Happy Feet," but its hit toon has been holding up quite well each week. A 35% fall would leave "Feet" with around $8.5M and allow it to flirt with the $150M mark. Sony’s "The Holiday" got off to a decent but not spectacular start with its $12.8M bow. The Cameron DiazKate Winslet starrer may slide 35% to roughly $8.5M pushing the total to $25M after ten days.

LAST YEAR: Leaping into the number one spot, although with less muscle than expected, Peter Jackson‘s "King Kong" opened with $50.1M over the weekend and $66.2M over its five-day debut. Universal’s mega-budgeted ape flick went on to gross a commendable $218.1M domestically and $549M worldwide which fell a bit short of the film’s lofty expectations given its budget and filmmaker. "Kong" knocked fellow effects-driven actioner "The Chronicles of Narnia" to second place with $31.8M dropping 51% in its sophomore frame. "Narnia" would eventually climb back into the top spot. Debuting in third was the romantic comedy "The Family Stone" starring Sarah Jessica Parker with $12.5M on its way to $60.1M for Fox. Warner Bros. rounded out the top five with "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" which grossed $6M and "Syriana" which collected $5.6M. No other films dared to open against "King Kong," however the critically acclaimed "Brokeback Mountain" expanded to just 69 theaters in its second weekend and jumped into the top ten with $2.5M for a scorching $36,355 average.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

So Peter Jackson is definitely OUT as director of "The Hobbit." And then MGM and producer Saul Zaentz chime and say "well, maybe not." Meanwhile every movie site on the planet is grasping at the newest and most hopeful "Hobbit" news they can. Leave it to the New York Times to get us all up to speed.

From the NYT: " he contretemps over “The Hobbit,” those involved say, is really about the lawsuit over revenues from the “Lord of the Rings” series, which has taken in a staggering $2.9 billion in box office receipts alone.

In February 2005 Mr. Jackson sued New Line, saying he was owed money from the trilogy. Mr. Jackson has said he sued over profits from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” after he was unable to get New Line to submit to an independent audit of its books. The lawsuit, which was unsuccessfully mediated, still has no court date, and so far no audit has taken place. New Line executives have complained that Mr. Jackson has become vastly wealthy from the Tolkien trilogy and is unjustifiably portraying himself as a victim."

Click here
for the rest of the article. Oh, and to see what Elijah Frodo Wood thinks of the situation, click here.

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