Sunday, December 27, 2015

DIGGING DEEPER INTO MIDDLE EARTH



This month has me especially excited about posting our featured excerpt from The DVD – Laser Disc Newsletter written by Doug Pratt. My elevated level of enthusiasm is because readers of this blog get the chance of enjoying the review (in its entirety) even before subscribers to Pratt’s Newsletter will see it! 




Movie Sequels are usually the safest bet in Hollywood today. On one level (often described as “the bottom-line” in the industry) you can’t blame a movie executive who green lights a sequel over any other potential project, especially production based on an original screenplay, which must be marketed in a way that begins at square one with orientating the prospective audience about why the movie will be worth seeing. Marketing departments at studios hate that kind of assignment. And yet, despite sequels having the best bottom-line odds at succeeding, there are creative elements that make it an uphill battle for the filmmaker who is behind the sequel. 
Mr. Pratt reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, the third film in the hugely popular franchise and finds the movie “still works fabulously well almost entirely because its star, Jennifer Lawrence, is acting her heart out, giving the material the same respect and energy that she would some drama that was more designed to earn her an Oscar than to sweep up at the box office.” 

In his review of the DVD's extras, Pratt comes up with another reason I treasure his newsletter -- 
"Director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson supply a commentary track, talking about how the story was adapted from the book, the logistics of shooting both the movie and its sequel at the same time, and how they managed to get most of (actor, Philip Seymour) Hoffman’s part onto the screen. They also explain why his contributions were so valuable, such as when he would overact when the camera was on Moore, to push her, but then tone it down when the camera was on him, to make her look even tougher."
How many filmmakers/film enthusiasts have the time to listen to a commentary track? If it wasn’t for Pratt, I would have missed this truly insightful look at the craft of an actor who will obviously be missed by movie fans, but perhaps even more so by his acting peers. 



Another film sequel that Mr. Pratt covers in his newsletter is TERMINATOR GENISYS, the fourth entry in the movie franchise. The first two movies in the series were written and directed by James Cameron (with William Wisher his co-screenwriter on T2). Both are now considered classic films, but the first sequel, T2, I have often written about as a near-perfect screenplay/film. So I clearly believe its a really tough act for any filmmaker to follow when working on another movie in this SF franchise.  Mr. Pratt enjoyed the latest entry, but points out the diminishing creative returns that often occur with a sequel -- "Not only does the plot make less and less sense as the tale advances, but the busy action scenes do not have the sense of monumental thrills that James Cameron brought to his original movies. That said, however, the film is still a highly satisfying mix of wit, special effects and mind-bending plot surprises…" 


This month’s featured review is THE HOBBIT THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES Extended Edition
I believe The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films is one of cinema’s greatest artistic achievements. Whether the movies are watched separately, or all three films “binged” (hopefully in the non-theatrical/Expanded DVD Version) in one sitting, the trilogy will no doubt end up being watched repeatedly in the same way The Wizard of Oz is treasured today as an ageless movie landmark recruiting more and more viewers with every new generation. 


The original plan was not for Peter Jackson to direct THE HOBBIT trilogy. Jackson originally intended to hand off the conductor's baton to another filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. Everyone within the industry understood Jackson’s decision not to direct. He had spent many years on the LOR trilogy, and it was time to move on as a director. Often times the mark of a great artist is finding brand new challenges that will allow one to push their creativity to a higher level. This is sometimes only achieved by attempting a completely different creative endeavor. James Cameron walked away from the “Terminator” franchise after two movies. The director of the original “Hunger Games” movie, Gary Ross, exited the franchise after guiding just the first film. 

When the planned baton handoff didn’t work out, Peter Jackson ended up deciding to direct THE HOBBIT trilogy himself. I believe Jackson’s decision winds up as the best creative fate for the film franchise because it made possible a grand, unifying vision of a universe rendered by a truly talented and dedicated filmmaker (who was also working with the same team of screenwriters on all six films, Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens). 
This artistic consistency can be more fully appreciated when compared to other film franchises which usually feature different screenwriters and directors brought in after each production, with the threat of any of the hired artists creatively hijacking the franchise strictly prohibited.  At its worse, the difference can be like watching a child being raised by a parent... or a series of different babysitters.   





THE JOURNEY CONCLUDES

DOUG PRATT

More heads roll in the Warner Home Video Blu-ray release, THE HOBBIT THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES Extended Edition (UPC#8839294-77142, $36).  Many more heads.  The grand battle that takes up the final two thirds of the film is a great deal grander and a great deal more violent in the 164-minute Extended Edition than it was in the 144-minute theatrical version (Apr 15).  Along with all of the head chopping, the elves and the dwarves actually do have a set to before the real villains show up (in the theatrical version, they are just about to come to blows when they hear the other army), and the dwarves have this awesome
weapon that neutralizes all of the elves’ arrows in midair, and then takes out a bunch of elves after that.  There is also an elaborate and lengthy chase up an iced-over river (not only a thrill ride in itself, but an explanation to the geography of the battle that is completely lost in the theatrical version), and a sequence where one of the heroes takes control of one of the bad guy giants (much like the elf does near the climax) and starts rampaging with it on the whole
nasty army.  Ryan Gage’s smarmy character, who just kind of disappears in the theatrical film, comes to quite a gruesome (and witty) end.  Sure, there are a few sequences that also embellish the movie as a set up to The Lord of the Rings, enhancing the mythology and pushing more political details forward, and there is also some added material to the romance between the dwarf and the elf that doesn’t bother us nearly as much as it has bothered purists. But for all of those considerations, it is the battle that you want and it is the battle that Extended Edition delivers.
And now that everything is before us, it seems that it was never Jackson’s intention to make a movie of The Hobbit, however enjoyable that movie might have been.  Instead, what he has made is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, an appetizer that runs almost as long as the main course—making it a two-day marathon instead of a one-day marathon—and has way more sophisticated special effects.  Because Jackson helmed everything, and used many of the same artists throughout—he may not have intended it this way, but Howard Shore’s musical score for The Hobbit series feels like a simple pre chorus to the magnificent work he did in
Lord of the Rings—all six films have a consistency of tone that effectively unifies the experience of viewing them, especially that tricky transition from this final production effort, with its most elaborate special effects on the Extended Edition (25% of the film’s footage is entirely animated and 95% is at least partially animated) to the earliest production that follows.  For all of Jackson’s flaws that have manifested over the years since he made the first film, this is one thing that he has done superbly, creating a consistent work unparalleled in its scope of literary fantasy (although Game of Thrones may be knocking at the door) and Hollywood grandeur.
The picture and 7.1-channel DTS sound are identical in quality to the theatrical release.  The letterboxing has an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The image at times seems a bit compromised in terms of contrast detail or matching the foreground with background, but such curiosities are fleeting.  The audio track has many directional effects and a wonderfully booming bass.  As with the previous Extended Edition releases, the Scene Selection menu details the chapters with revised material.  There are alternate French and Portuguese audio tracks, optional English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, the New Zealand travel promo that appeared on the theatrical version, and three trailers.  A music video promoted on the jacket cover does not appear to be included.
Jackson supplies his final commentary track, accompanied by co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens.  He admits that he’s never listened to one of his commentary tracks, and also admits that there are six or seven armies, depending upon how you count them, and not five (something that is elaborated upon with even more detail in the other special features).  At the very end, he and Boyens wonder if another remake will be made in their lifetime.  But for the bulk of the talk, the two share all sorts of details about the choices they made with the story, about the actors and their experiences during the shoot, and plenty of other
interesting details about the film.  They also speak about the world author J.R.R. Tolkien conceived.  “Exactly how orcs were created and made and reproduced is something that was never really fully discussed, I don’t think, by Professor Tolkien.  I mean, let’s put it this way, I’ve never heard a reference to a female orc.”
And then, there are two more platters, identified, in keeping with the series format, as The Appendices Part 11 and The Appendices Part 12.  They represent part of the most exhaustive filmmaking documentary ever created, and even free standing, they offer a more extensive look at the filmmaking process than almost anything else on home video.  Part 11 runs 293 minutes and Part 12 (which, truth be told, is partially an extension of Part 11) runs a complete 300 minutes, i.e., 5 hours.  The Appendices have seventeen subtitling options. 
Part 11 is broken up into stories and stories within stories about the production, from pieces on the participation of the stars, such as Ian McKellan, to bits about the extras and things like an ADR session featuring children making noises, or the trials of an actor whose pants keep getting split by the action in a scene.  There is so much material that along with the different production events that are being depicted, you get a genuine sense of what life on any film set is like, from the flareups and mistakes that can occur, to the joys, friendships, camaraderie and humor (“I ride in on an elk, played by a horse named ‘Moose.’”) that makes it all worthwhile.  At one point an actor hits himself in the forehead with a sword and a medic comes running over, convinced that he needs to go to the hospital for stitches.  “You do realize,” the actor told the medic, “I’m wearing a silicon face.”  Because this was the last film, there is a lot of footage of people saying goodbye and otherwise celebrating the conclusion of the work, which, in this case, turned out to be a false alarm, since it was decided, after about half of the movie had been shot, that the film would be split into two.
Part 12 continues the chronicle of the production itself, revealing the big secret of the disc, the film and the entire Hobbit series—the battle celebrated in the movie’s title was not finished by the film’s December 2014 theatrical release date.  Many sequences had to be discarded to meet the deadline because there was not enough time to complete the digital effects.  Rather than canceling them altogether, however, Jackson just pushed what he really wanted to do onto the Extended Edition, which becomes the definitive version of the film in a manner that sets it apart from the initial two Extended Editions. 

How Jackson shot the battle is also pretty amazing.  For a number of scenes, a ‘virtual world’ of the battle was created, and then Jackson, holding a monitor device, ran around a soundstage all by himself, as if he were a documentary cameraman in the midst of the fighting.  As is pointed out in the program, it is somewhat ironic that you have this enormous, big budgeted production, but Jackson is shooting it like a small, independent movie, operating the ‘camera’ himself.  Of course, it took hundreds of animators and so on to create the raw material that he would then refine, but it suggests a nice circularity of creativity within an otherwise vase industrial machine.
After the story of the production is finished, Part 12 then segues into profiles of the characters and the settings, similar to the second special feature platters on the other extended editions, essentially deconstructing the production again from an entirely different perspective.  The presentation closes out with a reflection upon the series as a whole, including behind-the scenes footage from the Lord of the Rings films, and what working on the movies has meant to the cast and filmmakers.  In addition to the 5 hours on the third platter, there is a playful 12-minute piece that was shot for an Austin, Texas film festival, a jokey 5-minute music video that is not the music video promoted on the jacket, another humorous 5-minute piece about supporting performer Adam Brown, and a 6-minute tribute to the Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who passed away in 2015.