Category Archives: Russ

Hobbit: The Battle of Fantasy Fighting Action

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The final movie in the Hobbit franchise (at least until Peter Jackson decides to adapt the Simarillion into a three or more part epic) premiered last week to an opening weekend total of $90 million. It closed out the storylines of the previous Hobbit movies effectively, and it opened a few links to the Lord of the Rings movies that it precedes temporally. It had an all-star cast, great music, stunning visuals, and it will continue to rake in money over the next few weekends as people take time off during the holidays to finish out this epic series. It has many incredible parts to it, but do the pieces together form a cohesive whole? Let’s take a look at whether The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth seeing in theatres.

 

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If you’re going to this movie expecting a lot of plot, you’ll be disappointed. This is the weakest part of the film. Since this is the third piece of a book that takes less time to read than it takes to sit and watch the movies, there is not a lot of story left to tell. Within 10 minutes of the film’s beginning, the largest cliffhanger from the previous movie is resolved, and whispers in the theatre begin commenting, “Well, that was a short movie.” The rest of the movie is spent concluding the quest of the dwarves and conducting the titular battle. Now, to say there is little plot is not to say that there is little action. The whole movie is action, as one would expect from a subtitle like Battle of the Five Armies. Even though we know how some of the action sequences will turn out thanks to the Lord of the Rings movies, that doesn’t detract from the excitement of the fight scenes.

What does detract from the movie is the insertion of two minor plots that steal from the action for no apparent reason. These plots come in the form of the wood-elf Tauriel and the human Alfrid Lickspittle. Tauriel is an elf woman who first appeared in Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. She’s the equal of (or perhaps even greater than) the ever-popular Legolas in terms of bow skills, beauty and general elven bad-assery. Then she falls in love with a dwarf. While this romance subplot does not diminish her skills, it does somewhat weaken her character. Her choices seem somewhat haphazard in relation to the other characters; whereas they are fighting for their homes or for revenge or for riches (no one ever accused their motives of being noble), she seems to totter into scenes just to shoot things in the pursuit of her dwarf. Her final lines in the movie even fall back on being a romantic cliché. This lack of direction of her character is likely due to the fact that she was created by Peter Jackson for the purposes of these two movies. Tauriel does not appear in the source material, and so she has no plot relevance. A weak personal ending and a lack of direction unfortunately hampered an otherwise impressive character.

 

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

 

Alfrid Lickspittle, on the other hand, was exactly what you’d expect from someone with the name “Lickspittle.” Long, greasy hair, sunken eyes under a unibrow, a pedophile-type mustache… he’s the quintessential “worm” character. He does everything he can to look out for his own interests, and clings to the person with the most power in the foolish belief that it keeps him secure and well-off. He seems intended to provide comic relief to a movie heavy with death, but he fails at that task. By his third appearance, groans can be heard from most moviegoers. Alfrid does come off as exactly the character he is intended to be, but he was not a necessary part of the film. He could have easily been removed, and no part of the plot would have been altered even slightly. He was another addition by Peter Jackson, though he was based on an unnamed advisor to the Master of Laketown that appeared in a single scene in the original book. Perhaps the movie character would have been better had he received the same treatment.

 

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

 

Though it may seem like I’m stuck on the negatives of this film, it does have some powerful factors in its favor as well. Most notable, of course, are the graphic elements. The scenery is gorgeous, with wide, sweeping shots that give a sense of scale to the battle sequences. The special effects and the CGI are expertly done, and no one can ever get enough of exploding walls and glittering elven armies and terrifying orcish hordes and flaming cities and swooping war bats… I mean, unless you’re living through it… There is no part of this film that is not visually stunning. It is well worth the extra money to see it in 3D or in IMAX, particularly when it comes to the battles.

 

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

 

The action sequences in the movie are well worth the price of admission. While the movie is mainly focused on the action, it is paced well so that the audience can catch a breath between scenes. The best examples of this happen when aerial views are given of the clashing armies, or when the melee is too hectic to focus on a single character. It’s ironic that the smaller battles have the bigger impact, the more intense fighting. Though, it also makes sense; when the audience can focus on a character that they know and have connected with in some manner, it drives the fight home more. Still, there is plenty of fighting to keep any action fan happy and bouncing up and down in their seat as hearts are stabbed and heads are rolling. On a side note, orcs seem to be the most easily decapitated characters ever created.

 

Army of Orcs heading into battle

Army of Orcs heading into battle

 

Two other major highlights of the film were the actors and the music. The Battle of the Five Armies has an all-star cast, led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage. Even small roles had big names filling the part, such as Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Christopher Lee reprising his role as Saruman the White and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown. This acting talent was backed by a gorgeous score composed by Howard Shore, who has won three Academy Awards for his work on other movies in the Lord of the Rings Saga. His music fills the air perfectly for each situation, and the scenes without music are made more sharply distinct by its absence.

 

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

 

Overall, this is a movie worth seeing. Go in expecting action and beauty, but not a lot of substance. See it in 3D or in IMAX to get the most out of it. While The Hobbit probably would have been better served by not being split into three movies, it’s too late to change that now, and the movie should not be faulted for decisions that can’t be changed. The Battle of the Five Armies fits nicely in its place as an ending to the Hobbit trilogy and an introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is fun, pure and simple. So, go to your local theatre and experience The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s the last Peter Jackson directed movie in Middle Earth… for now, at least.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in theatres now. It is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and directed by Peter Jackson.

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How to Make Today a Great Day

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With 104 days at your disposal, what sort of adventures and activities could you come up with to keep busy? For most of us, work or tv or books or video games would consume our time, cementing us to our couches and chairs. We wouldn’t take advantage of all the adventure and excitement that the world holds. The Disney X D show Phineas and Ferb explores this idea of making the most of each and every day, turning 104 days of sitting in front of a screen into 104 days of exploration and imagination. With three seasons and a full-length movie on Netflix, anyone can and should spend time watching how these creative kids spend their time.

 

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Before delving too deeply into this review, I should point out that, yes, this is a cartoon, and one originally aimed at kids. However, Disney is masterful at making cartoons for kids that appeal to adults too. The company knows that the parents are going to be dragged into watching whatever the kids are watching, so small jokes and references are added into most Disney cartoons. Phineas and Ferb takes that to an even higher level. Many of the jokes are ones that kids would never get without explanation, ones that adults will find uproariously funny. So, even if you think that cartoons are for kids, and that you won’t enjoy the show, give it a chance. You may find the show funnier than you imagined. Each episode of Phineas and Ferb follows a pretty standard formula. Without commercials, the runtime of each episode is around 23 minutes, broken into two parts. Sometimes a storyline will take the whole 23 minutes, but most episodes have the two separate stories. Within each story, there are three intermingling plots.

 

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

 

The first revolves around the titular characters, Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, step-brothers who are inventive and mechanical geniuses. The pair are not content with just sitting lazily around, they have to be building something new or else they get stir-crazy. These inventions often defy logic, explanation and physics. The science of the world seems to bend itself backwards in order to accommodate the brothers. Also included in their story for the episode are their three closest friends, a bully named Buford, a nerd named Baljeet and Isabella, the leader of the local Fireside Girls troop (think Girl Scouts meet Navy SEALS).

 

Linda and Candace Flynn

Linda and Candace Flynn

 

The next story involves their older sister, Candace Flynn, and their mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher. Candace is spending her summer caught between trying to “bust” her brothers to their mom – her version of tattling and getting them in trouble – and trying to pursue the boy she likes. Linda tries to keep her daily life going despite all the interruptions by her daughter, and she never manages to see the crazy contraptions that her sons build, much to Candace’s dismay. Over time, Candace begins to believe that there’s a mysterious force at work that is plotting against her, ensuring that their mother never sees what the boys are building. More often than not, though, it’s just the work of an evil scientist fighting his nemesis.

 

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

 

The third plot line centers on the family’s pet platypus, Perry. While it’s weird enough for a family to have a pet platypus, this particular platypus also happens to be a secret agent named Agent P working for a group known as OWACA – the Organization Without A Cool Acronym. OWACA utilizes unusually smart and strong animal agents to combat evil; though the animals are talented, they cannot speak – they are just animals, after all. Perry the Platypus spends his days fighting Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an inept evil scientist scheming to take over the Tri-State Area. Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a new device – which he calls an “inator” (as in “forgetinator” or “turn everything evil-inator”) – that complements whatever painful backstory he has in mind that day. The fight between Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz follows roughly the same formula each episode: Dr. Doofenshmirtz traps Perry in an overly elaborate trap, gives his backstory monologue, begins to activate his machine (which invariably causes whatever the boys are doing to escape the notice of their mother), and then Perry escapes, blows up the machine (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at the same time) and flies back home, where he resumes his secret identity.

In the course of these three interwoven stories, there is always at least one musical number. The music is original to the episode, and the songs are often catchy enough that you’ll find yourself humming them days later (one of the most popular songs can be found below). Disney even released a cd of the top songs from the first season, well worth a listen. The songs are usually either funny or touching, sometimes both, and the stellar vocal cast that the show has gathered performs them to perfection. In fact, the musical numbers have earned the show four Emmy nominations, an impressive feat for an animated show.

 

 

One of the best features of this show that separates it from other cartoons is how it deals with the characters. Most cartoons – especially ones aimed toward children – will give the main character some sort of flaw that lasts for exactly one episode, and that they must overcome in order to beat the bad guy and resolve the story. Phineas and Ferb doesn’t do that. The characters have remained fairly stable since the beginning. Major changes in character are due to long-term story arc changes or due to outside forces such as one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s devices, not some personal failing that suddenly surfaced just in time for the character to learn some important lesson.

The language used in the show is a key factor in its appeal to adults. Now, by that, I don’t mean to suggest that the cartoon kids are doing their versions of the “Seven words you can’t say on tv.” Rather, the show does not talk down to the audience, either the kids or the adults. In fact, at times the show’s use of words may be beyond what a child could handle. Words such as sesquipedalian, techno-mimetic and septuagenarian have all appeared in just the last few episodes that I re-watched. The show managed to work them in seamlessly, too. Sesquipedalian is not an easy word to use in a punchline, but Phineas and Ferb found a way.

 

Final shot of the musical episode "Rollercoaster: The Musical!"

Final shot of the musical episode “Rollercoaster: The Musical!”

 

No show is perfect, though this one comes close. Apart from the pains of waiting for more episodes to go up on Netflix and the suspense of whether the show will continue to run, the only downside is in comparison to itself. The show has some phenomenal episodes, including two episodes that featured Disney’s recently acquired properties Star Wars and Marvel Comics. While there are no truly bad episodes of the show, some are weaker than others. This is mainly noticeable if you watch multiple episodes back-to-back in marathon style, though it can also be seen in the first few episodes of the series, while the show was still working to set itself up. Fortunately, there’s no real over-arching plot, so you can skip the early episodes and come back to them once you’re a devoted fan of the show.

 

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

 

Overall, I rank this in my favorite shows, so I recommend it to anyone of any age. I was introduced to the show by my 40-year-old high school physics teacher and my 22-year-old (at the time) best friend, independently of each other. I was resistant at first, thinking it to be a show for kids, and then laughed my way through the whole series. Multiple times. I’m even re-watching it as I write this review. There’s a lot of humor that will resonate with people of all ages. Give the show a try; watch two episodes, and if you’re not in love with it by then, you don’t have to watch any more. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be singing along to the theme song as you make the choice to start the third episode.

Phineas and Ferb is written by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and airs on Disney and Disney X D. Three seasons and the movie are available to stream on Netflix Instant.