Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

Aging Gracefully

They Shall Not Grow Old

by Hope Madden

For those of us who haven’t experienced it, war is nearly impossible to fathom: the horror, terror, inhumanity and chaos of it. Filmmakers have been trying to make sense of it for audiences since film began.

Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehension as any director has, not by dramatizing war or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.

The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war.

He then recreated sound and audio, employing lip readers and researchers to guarantee the quality was a match for the beautiful restoration.

Over this he layered audio, pieces from BBC interviews with WWI veterans conducted in the 1960s and 70s—candid, moving and oh so British.

These he braids together into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then—with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity—into battle.

At about the 10-minute mark of They Shall Not Grow Old, the obsessive maestro differentiates this film from any war doc you’ve ever seen.

Quite unlike the disastrous 48 frame per second gimmick Jackson employed for The Hobbit, the restoration, colorization and even 3D here all serve a singular purpose: to immerse you in these moments, these lives, these battles.

The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.

The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death—all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.

Watching Jackson’s Tolkien films betrays the filmmaker’s perfectionism, vision and—perhaps above all—deep respect and love of the source material. The same shines through the images of these young men. And though, as the storyteller here, his respect borders on awe, he never for a moment stoops to sentimentality or emotional manipulation. He is not trying to make you feel something. He is trying to tell a lost story, and one that has no business being lost.

Wheels Keep On Turnin’

Mortal Engines

by Cat McAlpine

As the credits rolled, I turned to my friend  and said, with horror, “I think that would’ve been better…as a trilogy.”

What’s that? You’ve had your fill of YA Dystopian trilogies? You’re damn right.

But Mortal Engines suffers from the age-old curse of having a book’s worth of content in a single movie. And while that movie is OVER TWO HOURS LONG, it still feels overstuffed with backstories and subplots around the basic premise: large, predator cities on wheels roam the landscape consuming weaker cities.

It starts off well.

Okay. That’s a lie. It starts off with an exposition voice over providing bare minimum world-building that we get again in dialogue, not 10 minutes later.

Then, it starts off well. We’re treated to an opening high speed chase that delightfully plays like the bastard child of Howl’s Moving Castle and Mad Max: Fury Road that Mortal Engines so desperately wants to be.

Robert Sheehan is effortlessly lovable as Tom. Hera Hilmer is brooding and feral as Hester Shaw. And to the credit of both, Tom and Hester have some sputtering chemistry. There’s just nothing in the script to support a real connection between them. Which leaves Hugo Weaving to shine as he savors his villainous role, simplified though it is, as Thaddeus Valentine, .

With fun action sequences, CGI that melds almost seamlessly with the set, and a rousing score the movie is set up for success. Despite director Christian Rivers’s best efforts, ultimately the script just isn’t good. Penned by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson (who also produced) the Mortal Engines script stuffs so much context into two hours that it all but abandons real character development. And decent dialogue.

The ending of the Mortal Engines novel, the first in a series of four, is much more emotionally complicated than that of the film. The film, in fact, is painfully predictable. The more I investigate the source material (thanks Wikipedia) the more it seems the writers have sacrificed all the wrong parts of this story to make it more marketable.

Mortal Engines has a lot to say about colonialism, class struggles, capitalism, environmentalism, life after death, the will to live, and the courage to love. But it’s boiled all of its points down to catchphrases delivered in passing by characters whose names you can’t remember.

The whole b plot and an easy five supporting character could’ve been cut to give this story room to breathe. Instead, supporting characters randomly disappear to never be heard from again. An additional tragic backstory adds a full 40 minutes (give or take). These moving parts fill out a novel; they bloat a two hour adaptation.

Every time a new wonder was unveiled—an elevator made from the London Eye or a city floating among the clouds—I giggled with glee. Every time someone opened their mouths, I rolled my eyes. Mortal Engines exists in a fascinating and bizarre world, but we’re never really given the opportunity to fall in love with that world.

Fright Club: Best Horror/Non-Horror Double Features

There’s always reason to be proud when one of he most established and respected directors decides to dabble in horror, and likewise, when one of our own makes it big in the mainstream. It put us in the mood for some double features: great directors, one horror movie, one non-horror movie. And the possibilities are endless. How about Scorsese’s Cape Fear/Taxi Driver? Or something a little more contemporary – maybe Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and Blue Ruin (if you’re feeling colorful)? Oh, what fun! Let’s get started!

5. Ben Wheatley: Kill List (2011)/ High Rise (2015)

Kill List
Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in this genre bender. Without ever losing its gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

Set inside a skyscraper in a gloriously retro London, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is a dystopia full of misanthropic humor.

Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates his own story of life inside the “grand social experiment” – a high rise where the higher the floor, the higher the tenant’s social status. Performances range from slyly understated (Hiddleston, Elizabeth Moss) to powerful (Sienna Miller, Luke Evans) to alarmingly hammy (James Purefoy), but each contributes entertainingly to this particular brand of dystopia. Still, the wicked humor and wild chaos will certainly keep your attention.

4. Peter Jackson: Dead Alive (1992) / Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Dead Alive
This film is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageous bloodbath. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), destiny, a Sumatran rat monkey, an overbearing mother, a prying uncle, and true love are bathed in gore in the Kiwi director’s last true horror flick – a film so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it.

Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.


Heavenly Creatures
Jackson’s first non-horror film still follows rather horrific circumstances – New Zealand’s infamous Parker-Hulme murder case. Even fans of the director’s work to this point couldn’t have suspected he (and writing partner/write Fran Walsh) had anything this elegant and fantastical in them.

Certainly, spellbinding performances from young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey didn’t hurt. Jackson and Walsh received their first Oscar noms for the screenplay in a film that eschews the trial, barely witnesses the crime, and focuses instead on the intense friendship that went horrifyingly wrong. It respects its source material and every person involved in the historical event, but it also understands the delirium of adolescence in a way few films do. Hobbits be damned, this is Jackson’s masterpiece.

3. David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981) / Eastern Promises (2007)

The film that made Cronenberg an international name in the genre is about mind control – a very sloppy version of it – and that societal fear of being dominated by a stronger being. At its heart, this is another government conspiracy film wherein an agency foolishly believes they can harness an uncontrollable element for military purposes. Scanners is hardly the best of these (Alien is, FYI). But it’s gory fun nonetheless. What makes the effort undeniably Cronenberg (besides the exploding heads) is that connection between human tissue and technology.

The acting is silly, the technology is comically dated, and the computer nerd toward the end of the film inexplicably boasts a band aid on his face. But Michael Ironside is on fire and the movie ratchets up tension by keeping you wondering when the next head will explode.

Eastern Promises
In 2005, Cronenberg produced his most acclaimed and most mainstream film to date, A History of Violence. That success spawned more than an interest in non-genre fare, but also a fruitful collaboration with the underappreciated and versatile actor Viggo Mortensen.

Two years later, Mortensen would join an impeccable cast including Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Naomi Watts in what would be the Canadian auteur’s finest film. Eastern promises is Cronenberg’s characteristically off kilter, visceral take on the mafia movie.


2. Stanley Kubrick: The Shining (1980)/ 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Shining
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That freaky guy in the bear suit? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

2001: A Space Odyssey

After a less than enthusiastic reception from both audiences and critics in 1968, 2001 persevered, establishing its legend as perhaps the most magnificent science fiction film ever made.

Kubrick and legendary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke adapt Clarke’s short story with ambitious vision, epic scope, precise execution. More than a film, 2001 transcends the screen to become a mind-bending look at “first contact” that elicits levels of awe and wonder reserved for timeless pieces of art.

Very simply. 2001 is essential cinema of the highest order.


1. William Friedkin: The Exorcist (1973)/ Killer Joe (2011)

The Exorcist
Thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this impossible situation.

Friedkin balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre. Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.

Killer Joe
Following a long, fairly quiet period, in 2011 Friedkin returned with something bold and nasty:Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular killer, a predator in a cowboy hat making deals with some Texas white trash. The deal goes haywire, and some crazy, mean, vividly depicted shit befalls those unthinking trailer folk.

Subdued, charming, merciless, weird, and oh-so-Southern, Joe scares the living hell out of any thinking person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really describe the Smiths – an exquisitely cast Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, and a flawless Gina Gershon. This is an ugly and unsettlingly funny film about compromises, bad ideas, and bruised women. And it is the best thing Friedkin has done since The Exorcist.



Fright Club: Best New Zealand Horror

Sure, New Zealand is known for that delicious fuzzy little fruit, the kiwi, but there’s some fun horror to explore there as well, not all of it courtesy of Peter Jackson. Pre-LOTR, he established a legacy of particularly messy horror comedies that his countrymen have kept alive and well since his move to more mainstream efforts. From killer sheep to evil-awakening rock tunes and more, let’s dive into the top 5 horror exports from NZ!

5. Black Sheep (2006)

Graphic and gory horror comedy seems to be the Kiwi trademark, no doubt a product of the popularity of native Lord of the Gastro-Intestinal-Splatter-Fest-Laugh-Riot, Peter Jackson.

First time writer/director Jonathan King uses the isolation of a New Zealand sheep farm and the greedy evil of pharmaceutical research to create horror. He does it with a lot of humor and buckets full of blood. It works pretty well.

Evil brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has bred some genetically superior sheep while smart but sheep-phobic brother Harry (Nathan Meister) has been away. But the new sheep bite (a recurring problem with bio-genetically altered farm animals). Victims turn into, well, were-sheep. Of course they do.

The result is an endearing, often genuinely funny film. Cleverly written with performances strong enough to elevate it further, Black Sheep offers an enjoyable way to watch a would-be lamb chop get its revenge.

4. Deathgasm (2015)

Blood! Guts! Heavy metal!

New Zealand teenage outcast Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) knows he and his friends are losers, so of course they start a band to get loud and be cool!

But when their rocking involves playing an ancient piece of music known as the Black Hymn, they unwittingly summon an evil entity and the body count starts rising.

In his feature debut, writer/director Jason Lei Howden, a veteran of Peter Jackson’s special effects team, borrows heavily from Shaun of the Dead-style pacing and camerawork while managing to poke some blood-spattered fun at the “devil music” stereotypes often thrown at heavy metal.

You’ll find plenty of laughs, some rom-com elements and winning performances from both Cawthorne and Kimberley Crossman as Medina, the school beauty who can also swing a pretty mean ax.

Clever and surprisingly self-aware, Deathgasm is fine excuse to feed your inner metalhead.


3. Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Dead Alive is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver), but his overbearing sadist of a mother, does not take well to her son’s new outside-the-home interests. Mum follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay).

The bite kills her, but not before she can squeeze pus into some soup and wreak general havoc, which is nothing compared to the hell she raises once she comes back from the dead.

Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.


2. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.

Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. It’s hard to get into the good clubs (they have to be invited in) or find a virgin. Forget about tolerating the local pack of werewolves (led by the utterly hilarious alpha Rhys Darby).

Jemaine Clement is reliably hysterical as Vladislav, and the film benefits from the same silly, clever humor seen in his series Flight of the Conchords. The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.

1. Housebound (2014)

You need to see Housebound.

Funny and scary, smartly written and confidently directed as to take full advantage of both, this is a film that makes few missteps and thoroughly entertains from beginning to end.

Gerard Johnstone writes and directs, though his brightest accomplishment may be casting because Morgana O’Reilly’s unflinching performance holds every moment of nuttiness together with brilliance.

O’Reilly plays Kylie, a bit of a bad seed who’s been remanded to her mother’s custody for 8 months of house arrest after a recent spate of bad luck involving an ATM and a boyfriend who’s not too accurate with a sledge hammer.

Unfortunately, the old homestead, it seems, is haunted. Almost against her will, she, her hilariously chatty mum (Rima Te Wiata) and her deeply endearing probation officer (Glen-Paul Waru) try to puzzle out the murder mystery at the heart of the haunting. Lunacy follows.

Good horror comedies are hard to come by, but Johnstone manages the tonal shifts magnificently. You’re nervous, you’re scared, you’re laughing, you’re hiding your face, you’re screaming – sometimes all at once. And everything leads up to a third act that couldn’t deliver any better.

The film is so much fun it all but begs to be seen with a group.


Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST!

Day 5: Dead Alive

Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Dead Alive is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver), but she has eyes for someone less milquetoast. Until, that is, she’s convinced by psychic forces that Lionel is her destiny. Unfortunately, Lionel’s milquetoast-iness comes by way of decades of oppression via his overbearing sadist of a mother, who does not take well to her son’s new outside-the-home interests. Mum follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay).

The bite kills her, but not before she can squeeze pus into some soup and wreak general havoc, which is nothing compared to the hell she raises once she comes back from the dead.

Mama’s boy that he is, Lionel can’t bring himself to do what he must until it is spectacularly too late. He chains up an entirely unwholesome family down the basement, which works out well enough as long as he keeps from being bitten, and keeps conniving Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) out of there.

Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!


Bilbo’s Misty Mountain Hop

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

by Hope Madden

This Christmas, Peter Jackson gives us the gift of his final trip to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Enough Already).

I went reluctantly to LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001. I am not a big fan of fantasy and was never able to make it through one of Tolkien’s epics as a kid, so a cinematic adaptation held no interest. But I did go, and immediately celebrated that decision.

Peter Jackson (previously know to me solely for splatter-gore comedies) had such a facility for the landscape and heart of these Middle Earth sagas that I was immediately beguiled. And while by hour 4 of the third installment I had wearied of this first trilogy a bit, still I marveled at the accomplishment. Jackson and his versatile cast had carved out genuine characters, which made the peril and adventure all the more absorbing. The fact that Jackson’s native New Zealand lent an authentic backdrop to the derring do completed the fantasy.

The Hobbit has become a tougher slog. Though Martin Freeman continues to be a joy as Master Burglar Bilbo Baggins, the balance of the cast struggles to find dimension for their characters, and Jackson falls back far too often on swelling strings, dramatic lighting and lengthy, ponderous shots to emphasize drama.

What drama? Well, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) flies toward innocent Laketown to unleash his fiery fury; meanwhile Thorin Oakenshield (of the Glorious Mane Oakenshields) (Richard Armitage) begins his descent into madness, victim of the Dragon Sickness. Unbeknownst to him and his band of wee warriors, Azog the Defiler (now that is an awesome name) leads Orc armies to claim the mountain Smaug just vacated. Plus some fairies have grievances.

Unfortunately, the most interesting character is done away with before the opening credits, and though the film boasts almost constant action, it fails to hold attention.

Jackson’s first trilogy worked as well as it did because he managed to ground the high fantasy in something authentic. His second go at Tolkien abandons authenticity, creating stagey sets and falling back on theatrical performance and uncharacteristically so-so CGI. The late-film nods to the LOTR films only serve as reminders of that trilogy’s superiority. It’s time to ramble on.



Two Bloody Kiwis For Your Queue

New Zealand has a distinguished history in horror-comedy (well, as distinguished as that category gets). Long before Hobbits and dragons, kiwi Peter Jackson filled New Zealand cinemas with laughs and screams while covering their screens in blood and body fluids. The torch has been passed to Gerard Johnstone, whose Housebound releases for home viewing today. A funny, clever, heart-racing horror flick about a potentially haunted house, it’s among the very best of the genre released this year.

Naturally, you’ll want to pair this with something from Jackson’s goofy, bloody past. May we suggest Dead Alive? A Sumatran rat monkey, young love, overbearing mothers, sketchy uncles, and a positively inspired use of a lawnmower come together in Jackson’s very best and most entertaining horror film.

Great Directors’ Horrifying Output

This week, the great writer/director/Ohioan Jim Jarmusch releases just another masterpiece, the vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. While Jarmusch is certainly not an easy artist to peg, a vampire film was not exactly a predictable choice.

Still, loads of the most prestigious filmmakers have made horror films. Back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock made it acceptable for directors of immense talent to take on the genre. In 1991, we even had a horror film win best picture (and actor, actress, director, and screenplay).

Some filmmakers, like Sam Raimi or Brian DePalma, are as well known for horror as for their more mainstream titles. Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski were equally at home in horror as they were in any genre. Other giants in the industry, like David Cronenberg and David Lynch, cut their teeth in horror before moving on, while a few, like Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese, dabbled in the genre late into an established career.

Here is a peek at the horror output of some of the greats that you may have missed.

Ingmar Bergman: Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Like all Bergman films, this hypnotic, surreal effort straddles lines of reality and unreality and aches with existential dread. But Bergman and his star, Max von Sydow, cross over into territory of the hallucinatory and grotesque, calling to mind ideas of vampires, insanity and bloodlust as one man confronts repressed desires as he awaits the birth of his child.

Peter Jackson: Dead Alive (1982)

Long before Peter Jackson went legit with the exceptional Heavenly Creatures, or became infamous for his work with hobbits and apes and more hobbits, he made his name back in New Zealand with some of the all time goriest, bloodiest, nastiest horror comedies ever produced. The best of these is Dead Alive, a bright, silly, outrageous bloodbath. For lovers of the genre, the director, or the Sumatran rat monkey, it is essential viewing.


Michael Haneke: Funny Games (1997, 2007)

The Oscar winning director behind Amore, The White Ribbon, and Cache, made a horrific experiment of etiquette in 1997, and then again in 2007, with Funny Games. Made first in his native German, and a decade later, with nearly shot for shot integrity, in English, Funny Games upends the comfort of societal expectations in a number of ingenious and terrifying ways.


Lars von Trier: Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier’s cinematic output had been punishing viewers for decades. In 2009, he finally embraced the genre that he’d been courting his whole career. Antichrist is a beautiful, poetic, painful, horrifying examination of guilt, laden with all the elements that mark a LVT effort. What’s unusual is that he takes, for the majority of the film, a traditional “cabin in the woods” approach, depositing his unique vision in well-worn horror territory. And once there, he embraces the genre with much zeal. And a few gardening tools.


Francis Ford Coppola: Dementia 13 (1963)

Copolla began his career under the tutelage of B-movie god Roger Corman, and Dementia 13 was one of his first solo flights as director. It wasn’t his last attempt at horror – we all remember the abysmal Dracula remake – but Dementia 13 marks the early promise of a guy who understands the power of killing a loved one in a rowboat on a lake.


James Cameron: Piranha Part Two:  The Spawning (1981)

Just three years before taking Hollywood by storm with The Terminator, James Cameron showed absolutely no sign of competence behind the camera when he helmed the sequel to Joe Dante’s B-movie Piranha. This time around, those deadly man-eaters manifest a new mutation. They can fly! Sure, it might look like someone standing just off screen is throwing them at naked women and minorities, but they can fly, I tell you! This one is an underseen gem of bad cinema, and it offers an early peek at Cameron’s fixation with water, strong female leads, and Lance Henriksen.

Suffering Middle Child Syndrome

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

by Hope Madden

The fantasy film genre boasts some great sequels, even when those films are little more than bridges from Episode 1 to 3. While the second born may lack closure, it doesn’t bear the burden of exposition that tends to weigh down any first episode, and it lacks the need to tidy up every minute detail that sometimes derails a final installment.

The Empire Strikes Back is the classic example, but the genre offers many others. The Hunger Games sequel, for instance, far surpasses the first. Even the wingnut Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy offered the swiftly paced and satisfying center, The Two Towers.

His next Middle Earth middle child, the beardtastic The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, hits screens this week, and it, too, benefits from a groundwork set in the first installment, and the freedom to end without tidying up.

And Arkenstone be damned, Ian McKellen is the gem of this franchise. Once again, he brings the right mix of humor and gravitas to make Gandalf the coolest guy – excuse me, wizard – in the realm.

Martin Freeman is also spot-on as Bilbo – a perfect mix of humility, courage, and British manners. His Bilbo is very easy to relate to, which is rarely the case in a Tolkien production. Still, many of the million-ish supporting turns, though universally one-dimensional (regardless of cinematic presentation), animate the tale appropriately.

There’s a lot holding it back, though.

Mainly, it suffers from the same condition as An Unexpected Journey, which is that there is no defensible reason to make three films out of the novel The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings was conceived by Tolkien as a trilogy, where The Hobbit is a single volume, so Jackson had to carve it into three, padding and elongating here and there to accomplish this mission. Because if there’s one thing Tolkien needs, it’s more stuff.

The needless bloat is an obstacle to enjoying all that’s right about the film, because the story just becomes tedious too soon and too often. The fact that you realize there will be no satisfying conclusion does not make the pace seem any less leaden, and the result feels more like a rip-off than a cliffhanger.

Yes, the dragon looks cool, the Orcs continue to frighten, and as a tourist video for New Zealand, the location shooting works miracles. But many filmmakers, Jackson included, have been devoted enough to the stepping-stone sequel to craft a film that succeeds where the rest of the franchise fails. This time around, Jackson just adds filler and cashes checks.