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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Wilmington on DVD: The Hobbit, Lawless, Killing Them Softly, Battleship

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (A)
New Zealand/U.S.: Peter Jackson, 2012, New Line Home Video

Nine years after Peter Jackson's The Return of the King, the third of his Ring trilogy, seemed to close the book on his movie Middle Earth, back he comes with his company's (WingNut) version of Tolkien's prelude novel from the '30s: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Hurrah. This new movie, which only a goblin would call a prequel, is a delight.

Concisely yet spectacularly, it fills in the context of the great goblin-dwarf wars that preceded the events here, and then swoops us over to Hobbiton and Bilbo's comfortable Bag End, where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) shows up to recruit little Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman, of the original British The Office) for the quest. A seemingly strange choice, this small homebody creature, but the towering Gandalf wants little Bilbo to act as burglar for the group. The wizard wants him to crawl beneath the monsters and pilfer their riches and the ring.

Bilbo and Gandalf are then joined in a memorably rowdy banquet in Bilbo's packed Hobbit-hole by 13 dwarves, led by the heroic but sometimes ill-tempered Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). All of them want to regain the kingdom they lost to the goblins and the wolfish wargs. But Thorin doesn't want Bilbo as part of the troupe, doesn't think he's the heroic type. So off they go, and soon they're battling or sneaking around the goblins, and marching through forests and clambering over mountains -- which magically come alive and turn into living, heaving, malevolent rock beings -- and eventually whooshing down goblin roller-coasters to the torchlit bowels of the earth.

As for little Bilbo, he encounters the greatest riches of this Ring movie, and I don't mean the ring itself, which does indeed make its first chronological appearance. Instead, I'm talking about the reappearance of everyone's favorite revolting cave creature Gollum (played by everyone's favorite computer-enhanced actor, Andy Serkis). Ah Gollum -- the lovable monstrosity who crawls around caverns looking like the pale, super-animated corpse of some slimmed-down Peter Lorre, and talking like death warmed over. Gollum, who plays with Gollumesque intensity the riddle games with Bilbo, the contests that provide this filmed Hobbit's most memorable moments.

Jackson's movie of The Hobbit got a thunderous reception from the world public, but also a mixed vote from American critics. I think these nay-sayers were wrong, or ungenerous. But I see their points. Jackson made three very long movies out of The Lord of the Rings, and then he put out expanded editions, which brought the whole film trilogy to something over 10 hours. Now, amazingly (to some) he has made, or has in post-production, three more long movies (The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey itself is a smidgeon under three hours) out of what was originally a single book, and a shorter one than any of the three single volumes of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The script -- by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippe Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (the original designated dirrector) -- seemed to me both gratifyingly Tolkien-reverent and glowingly alive. Jackson and his production returnees and newcomers -- including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hannah and composer Howard Shore -- deliver the Ring once more.

What of the actors in The Hobbit? Well, holdovers and all, it's a splendid cast, starting with Freeman and Armitage and with the veterans McKellen, Sierkis, Ian Holm (old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (elf lord Elrond), the splendiferous and lovely Cate Blanchett (elf queen Galadriel ), the somewhat sinister wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Of the 12 dwarves who accompany Thorin, my favorite was wise old Balin (played by an actor Ken Stott, who was the cop in Shallow Grave).

So another major achievement, as far as I'm concerned. Movies were made to tell stories like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and we should be glad that Tolkien dreamed them up and clothed them in words, and that Jackson came along later, to put them all into moving pictures. This is what more movies should try to do: to be faithful to (and imaginative with) good or great literature. And to be, when it's called for, sturdy, comfortable, scrumptious, Hobbitish, Gollumesque, action-packed, gorgeous, full of wonders, full of marvels, courageous, loyal, brilliant, dry, bare, sandy, bathed in smiles -- and impervious to hype. (Extras: Featurette New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth; video blogs; game; trailer.)

Lawless (B)
U.S.: John Hillcoat, 2012, Starz/Anchor Bay

The sometimes exciting, sometimes pretentious crime movie Lawless takes place in Franklin County, Virginia -- "The Wettest County in the World," according to the book on which the picture is based. And it deals with a legendary family of moonshine-makers and bootleggers, the Bondurants, as they wage war against both their gangster rivals and the sadistic dude of a Chicago law man, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who's come down South to shut them down.

Rakes is played as a pure, rotten villain, and the Bondurants are shown as at least semi-heroes, so the movie, somewhat like the crime thrillers and neo-noirs of the '70s, scrambles our responses -- and it would probably have been better if it scrambled them even more. Directed and written by the team of John Hillcoat and rocker-scenarist Nick Cave (who also joined forces on the nerve-jangling 2006 Aussie western The Proposition), Lawless is a very arty film about a rustic underworld -- and it's arty in both good and grating ways.

The design and cinematography here remind you of James Agee and Walker Evans' classic book on the Depression rural poor, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the Bondurants are far from impoverished. They're prosperous criminals who make the best moonshine in Franklin County and also run a restaurant and are handy with guns. Maybe that's what partly wrong with the movie; it tries to paint a realistic picture of 1931 Virginia and to bring us close to the Bondurants, but it also heroizes them in ways that don't quite ring true. The book that Hillcoat and Cave adapted was written by a Bondurant descendant, Matt (the grandson of Jack Bondurant), and sometimes the two Australian filmmakers tell the story like loving relatives too.

The Bondurant brothers are played by Jason Clarke (as Howard, the eldest and their terrifyingly fearless enforcer), Tom Hardy (as the near superhuman head man Forrest) and Shia LaBeouf (as Jack, the youngest and most ambitious). Their ladies are played by Jessica Chastain (as Forrest's ex-stripper friend) and Mia Wasikowska (as Jack's lively preacher's daughter of a girlfriend). Gary Oldman takes stage as the boss gangster Floyd Banner. There's also a sympathetic sheriff who likes good moonshine whiskey (and good moonshiners), played by Bill Camp, and Jack's fragile sidekick Cricket, played by Dane DeHaan. They're all good, though the most memorable character here is Pearce's Charlie Rakes -- a fancy Dan with plucked eyebrows and expensive suits, reeking of cologne. Rakes makes a snazzy villain.

The story begins with the Bondurants as kids, and the revelation of Jack's sensitivity: he won't shoot a pig though the pig's time has come. The movie then glides past World War I, which messes up Howard's mind, the Spanish Influenza epidemic (which Forrest miraculously survives, the first of his many miracle) and into 1931, the Prohibition era and the thriving Bondurant hooch business. Forrest and Howard (now played by Hardy and Clarke) run it without Jack -- you never know when another pig has to be killed -- and we see Jack (now played by LaBeouf) champing at the liquor bit, enlisting Cricket to help him set up a rival operation, and then selling his booze to Banner.

But Lawless doesn't really plunge toward fraternal strife. Rakes is the antagonist and a mean one. His sadism keeps escalating. So do the Bondurants' survival skills, none more formidable than Forrest's. At one point, Forrest has his throat slit and walks 12 miles through the snow -- holding his throat together with his fingers.

Lawless is reminiscent in mood and style, and angle of vision, of the period outlaw epics of the late '60s and '70s, especially Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, Boxcar Bertha and The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. If it doesn't really match its classic predecessors, or fulfill all its sometimes considerable ambitions, or justify its plentiful, harsh violence, it's a movie that definitely achieves more than the average crime show these days.

Killing Them Softly (B)
U.S., Andrew Dominik, 2012, Starz/Anchor Bay

Hard-boiled, high-style. That's the name of this game. In Killing Me Softly, a crime movie without alibis, people die suddenly and meanly, very meanly -- sometimes with their blood and brains splattering like a Sam Peckinpah death ballet across the dark frames, sometimes after being kicked and beaten almost senseless, sometimes fast and straight up, with a shot in the head. We're in Hell, U.S.A. It's an ugly world, sometimes a funny one and a brutal one, even when Ketty Lester's heart-tearing rendition of Victor Young's "Love Letters" -- with Floyd Cramer jabbing unforgettably on piano -- is on the soundtrack. And it's a greedy world revolving around money and power, with a lot of the mayhem coming from a cool deadly guy named Cogan. (You guessed it: Brad Pitt.)

Cogan is a cynical hit man. He was also the main character in Cogan's Trade, by George V. Higgins, the classic 1974 crime novel from which New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik fashioned the scenario for Killing Them Softly -- which is as bleak and rough a modern neo-noir as I've seen recently. Pitt plays him as a deadpan-sexy, no-nonsense, sometimes acid-tongued killer who insists "very few guys know me." (Damn straight. Not healthy.) He has been hired to kill two dumb low-life crooks who made the mistake of knocking over a mob-run poker game. The hapless pair: a gabby driver named Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and an out-of-control Aussie junkie named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).

Other guys will have to get whacked too, including Frankie and Russell's boss Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), who runs a legit dry-cleaning business, and who made the mistake of hiring these two irresponsible jerk-offs to pull the robbery. And there's also the guy who runs the poker games, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who made the mistake of robbing his own mob-run game one other time in the past, which means, for the sake of public relations, Markie has to get iced too.

You need a painstaking workman to handle multiple stuff like this. So the mob, through their dourly efficient attorney Driver (Richard Jenkins), engages the classy operator Jackie Cogan, who farms out one of the jobs to his friend, the once first-class killer Mickey (James Gandolfino). Mickey, though, has lost it. He's turned maudlin drunk and hooker-happy and he has to be replaced. Cogan is up to that too. He'll do it himself. ("I like to kill them softly, from a distance," he says, explaining his modus operandi.)

All of this, in Higgins' novel, took place in the Boston criminal underworld, a realm that Higgins, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Massachusetts (and a prosecutor, defense lawyer, newspaper columnist and teacher) knew very well. While investigating local criminals and sending some of them to stir, Higgins listened to them -- soaked up their clipped, brutal lingo -- and that's maybe where we get this movie's terse zingers and brass-knuckle gems.

Killing Them Softly, the movie, has been transplanted to New Orleans and the year reset from 1974 to 2008, which puts it in in the post-Hurricane Katrina, post-financial crash period. The place we're in, dark and barren and a real City of Night, is more generic, an Everycity. The streets are in New Orleans, but the people and their talk, the verbal rhythms and the nasty slang, still remind you of Boston.

Greig Fraser's cinematography is Altonesque neo-noir stuff: hard-boiled; high style. But the script and the acting carry the movie. Gandolfino is super. Jenkins: nobody plays a pill like this guy. Liotta: give him more lines. And, as for Pitt, the guy can definitely act, and he's a movie star, definitely, and wait until you hear him say the line about America isn't a country, it's a business, now pay me.

Battleship (C)
U.S.: Peter Berg, 2012, Universal

Battleship? Why? The idea of spending of two hundred million dollars and change to try to adapt a Hasbro board or video game into a huge would-be blockbuster war-action movie with TV star Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, John Carter), and swimsuit model and would-be movie star Brooklyn Decker (What to Expect When You're Expecting) struck me as a waste of time, sight unseen.

Sight seen, it's even worse.

Visually dopey, punishingly loud, choked with absurdities and screamingly overproduced, Battleship shows, once again, the primacy these days of big, dumb, loud movies with what are regarded as "surefire" commercial tie-ins. Battleship has some good stuff every now and then, and it's "state-of-the-art" in some ways, I suppose -- chockful of CGI extraterrestrial monsters and their space ships and ocean fortresses, destroying everything they can. But it's also nonsensical and clichéd -- possibly thanks to writers Erich and Jon Hoeber (Red), possibly not.

The inanities attack almost immediately, before the monsters even arrive on earth. (Their hangout is a distant world dubbed Planet G by Terran scientists ). Kitsch, as rebel-without-a-clue Alex Hopper, is out drinking with his straighter-than-straight-arrow Navy Commander brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), when he spots a tall blonde hottie (Decker) in a bar, having troubles with the bartender (Louis Lombardi), who refuses to microwave her a chicken burrito. A brawl develops, and somehow they all wind up in Oahua, in an otherwordly ocean fight with otherwordly goateed monsters on huge monster-vessels.

If all of that sounds pretty stupid, believe me, it is. The story may be ridiculous, the sound track deafening, and most of the actors (including Liam Neeson as an admiral) may look trapped, but the effects, as usual, blow you out of your seats -- or your couch. But even by the standards set by all the loud, dumb action movies of the past, Battleship strikes into new, louder, dumber territory.

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