RETRO REVIEW: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

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Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” was an extraordinary introduction to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It not only introduced us to its compelling assortment of characters, but it also firmly planted us within J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast enchanting world. But it’s the second installment, “The Two Towers” where the series truly hits its stride.

“The Two Towers” takes the story of its predecessor and expands it in every way. Fascinating new characters, more lands throughout Middle-Earth, and even higher stakes than before. But one of Jackson’s many great accomplishments is how seamlessly he blends these new pieces into the existing fabric. And despite the immensity of his scope, the movie never loses its intimacy.

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Picking up where “Fellowship” left off, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam’s (Sean Astin) journey to destroy the One Ring has grown more arduous and the weight of the ring more burdensome. As the two struggle to find a path to Mordor, the sallow, emaciated Gollum (Andy Serkis) secretly follows them. He was the ring’s former owner, consumed by its power and desperate to reclaim it. When Gollum is discovered Frodo shows pity and uses him as a guide against the pleas of a concerned Sam.

A second story thread follows Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) as they follow the trail of their abducted Hobbit companions Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They are led through the war-torn lands of Rohan whose King Theodin (Bernard Hill) lies under a spell of the wicked wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).

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And yet a third story thread follows the aforementioned Merry and Pippin who manage to escape their Uruk-hai captors after the Orc soldiers are attacked by Éomer (Karl Urban) and his exiled Riders of Rohan. The two Hobbits hide deep within Fanghorn Forest where they encounter a mysterious tree beings called Ents.

The challenges for this incredible three-headed story are obvious. Huge in scale and with a ton of ground to cover, yet vitally important that it all comes together. Jackson melds together his many moving parts with remarkable precision. And of the several new characters introduced not a one feels wasted or undeserved. Each fit and have a place in Tolkien’s tumultuous world yet have their own personal storylines that take form without ever feeling pointless or intrusive. It’s a remarkable mixture of character and narrative.

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Then there is the genius of Jackson’s technique. From his sweeping camera combing the exquisite New Zealand landscapes to the subtlest of closeups capturing every worry, concern, and pain of the characters. Equally exhilarating are the action scenes both small and epic in size. It’s hard not to be blown away by his framing of the action as well as Weta Workshop’s extraordinary special effects. Jackson really opens it up with the first of the series’ huge battlefield sequences. The Battle for Helm’s Deep remains my favorite segment in the entire trilogy.

Much more could be talked about including Jackson’s knack for not only building tension but maintaining it throughout a sequence. Also “The Two Towers” highlights Jackson’s keen ability to convey to the audience an incredible sense of the mystical and magical. The world he and his teams place us in are rich with imagination and the fantastical. But the greatest thing about the series is that it’s far more than eye candy and sparkly window dressing. It’s the characters and their stories that form the heart of trilogy. That’s especially true for “The Two Towers”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5STAR K&M

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REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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The biggest question swirling around Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy has been centered around the amount of content. Is there enough of it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book to warrant three Jackson-sized films? That question has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve watched each of the ‘Hobbit’ movies. The first two films sometimes struggled to suitably fill their time yet they managed to keep me engaged. Now we have Peter Jackson’s third ‘Hobbit’ film and final trip to Middle Earth. It’s “The Battle of the Five Armies” and I can see where people would say it is stretched too thin.

But to the question – Could “The Hobbit” have been adapted into two movies instead of three? I think the essential material could have definitely been covered in two installments. But at the same time “The Battle of the Five Armies” actually manages its time better than the previous films. Essentially it’s the trilogy’s big action-packed ending. The vast majority of the film is spent building up the climactic battle and then letting go with an epic-sized blow out. I had fun with it and it was far from the snoozefest I feared it would be.

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The film picks up exactly where the last one left off. There is no time jump. There is no setup. Smaug the dragon is loose and attacks Laketown. Bard (Luke Evans) guides the displaced people to safety and becomes their de facto leader. Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves have taken back The Lonely Mountain and its immense deposits of gold and riches. Problem is Thorin has gone mad with what is called “Dragon Sickness” and refuses to share his new-found wealth with Bard so that the people of Laketown can rebuild.

Then you have Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his elf army who come to the mountain to claim a white diamond necklace from the treasure. A blinded Thorin refuses and would rather fight than give up one piece of the mountain’s riches. With war about to break out between elves, dwarves, and humans, Gandolf arrives bearing news of a massive Orc army coming to take the mountain. The question becomes can they put aside their differences and come together to fight a much bigger and more deadly threat?

It’s hard to call this film a standard sequel considering the way it’s structured. It is much more of a direct continuation and I simply can’t objectively look at it as a stand-alone movie. It’s impossible to separate it from the previous film, and anyone watching this one without seeing part two will undoubtedly have a lesser experience. But as a follower of the series I think the film does a good job of picking up the story and bringing it to a conclusion. The performances are strong and steady and the effects are simply incredible. The action-fueled final hour features some great sword play and a cool host of creatures.

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But let’s face it, the series has several things working against it. It’s almost impossible to keep from comparing it to the superior “The Lord of the Rings”. First let’s take the characters. I love Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf, but the secondary characters, while good, aren’t up to those in LotR. Then you have the big conclusion itself. This big sprawling final battle is extremely cool, but it carries almost no connection to the previous two films. In LotR the buildup to the big finale started in the first film. Everything worked towards that epic point. In this film the battle doesn’t carry near as much weight, and I wasn’t left feeling quite as satisfied. But is it really fair to compare this film to LotR? I don’t have a good answer to that.

I do think this is a stronger film than some give it credit for. It’s a tighter and more focused movie and runs 20 minutes shorter than either of the first two Hobbit films. More importantly it feels in tune with the previous movies and offers us an exciting and fitting conclusion filled with great action and emotion. Could the series have been better as a whole? It probably could. But I find it hard to point a finger at this film as the reason for that. Narratively speaking this may be the best film of the three. It just had the difficult task of also wrapping everything up. It certainly did that well enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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Excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and division. These are just some of the words that describe the reactions to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Was there enough material to stretch out into three films? Was there enough character depth? I’m certain you’re familiar with all of these debates and concerns. With the tablesetting done in the first film, the attention now turns to the second installment. In many ways this is the film that will tell whether the trilogy decision was a mistake. With the first movie set around introduction, does the second film have enough meat-and-potatoes to satisfy an audience especially considering Jackson’s format of near 3 hour movies.

The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Desolation of Smaug” is another huge sprawling Middle-Earth epic loaded with special effects and ambition. Better yet, it’s actually a nice step up for the trilogy. The film carries with it a true sense of adventure and I felt a much greater sense of urgency and peril than in the first film. These were big reasons why I really liked “The Desolation of Smaug”. While the first Hobbit picture was a fun and entertaining experience, I felt it lacked the big dynamic threat or plot driving exigency. That’s certainly not the case here.

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After a strange but brief opening flashback, the story picks up right where the last film left off. Gandolf, the hobbit Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve fellow dwarves continue their quest to retake their home within The Lonely Mountain. Hot on their trail is the pale orc Azog and his troops. Their journey takes them through cursed forests, ancient runs, and expansive mountains. They encounter skinchangers, giant spiders, elven warriors, and of course a deadly fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. The urgency grows, the stakes get higher, and by the end we are set up for what should be a tremendous final chapter.

I have to admit I was really surprised at just how well the story moves along and how much ground is covered. I’ll admit there were a couple of points where things slowed down a tad and Jackson does buy some time while his camera pans around admiring the beautiful scenery or impressive set pieces. But as a whole these things didn’t bother me. The story is compelling and the excitement moves from one great action sequence to another. The best is an amazing barrel escape down a white rapid river as an army of orcs attack our heroes from the shores. It’s an incredible spectacle to watch.

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I think the decision to include sections from Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” appendices was a key reason this worked. Having read neither “The Hobbit” nor the “Lord of the Rings”, I can’t say how well the film melds the contents of both books. But from a cinematic standpoint the appendices do a great job of not only adding more content and weight to the story but also connecting it to the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Some have taken issue with this creative choice but for me it worked very well and it helps bring together Jackson’s massive cinematic universe. There is a clear link being formed between the two trilogies which go beyond simple references. Old favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has an action-packed presence in this film. The true corrupting influence of the ‘one ring’ begins to surface. And there are several other cool connections that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Once again the characters of the story are a real treat. Ian McKellen is great as always although he is given a few too many overly dramatic lines. You know the ones – the camera zooms in on his face and he utters an intense one-liner about the peril that lies ahead. Martin Freeman hits another home run as Bilbo. There is a real transformation (both good and bad) going on in the character and Freeman’s performance wonderfully captures that. But perhaps my favorite performance again comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin. This strong but emotionally driven character is tough as nails but he is constantly trying to reign in his sorrow, anger, and thirst for revenge. It’s a great character and a great performance.

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But there are also some really good new characters introduced. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a headstrong elf who can certainly hold her own. Then there is Luke Evans who plays Bard, a single father who finds himself thrust into the middle of Thorin’s quest. Both have significant roles and add a lot to the picture. I also like Lee Pace’s small but intriguing part as an Elvenking from Mirkwood. And then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who voices Smaug the fearsome, treasure-hoarding dragon. There simply couldn’t have been a greater choice than Cumberbatch. Then you have the twelve other dwarves. Thankfully we do see an expanded role for a couple of them, but unfortunately the majority of them remain indistinct making empathy for them rather tough.

So let me get back to the original debate. Could “The Hobbit” story be told in two films? Probably so. Am I glad they expanded it to three by adding content from “The Lord of the Rings”? Absolutely! “The Desolation of Smaug” is a solid answer to the questions and criticisms thrown its way. The special effects are superb, the action sequences had my heart racing, the danger and imminence is there, and we spend more time with some wonderful characters. On the flip-side there are a couple of lulls and the indistinct tag-along dwarves still bug me. But those gripes do little to hurt the overall experience and Peter Jackson has me hooked for what the third installment will bring. It should be a blast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“West of Memphis” – 4 STARS

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I’ve watched several documentaries over the years but I’m not nearly as well versed in them as I should be. To showcase my negligence even more, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a documentary in the theater. That finally changed with my viewing of “West of Memphis”, a film that looks at the 1993 murders of three 8-year boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case has seen a resurgence of media attention, much of it due to the HBO “Paradise Lost” trilogy and now this film. There have also been a vocal group of movie actors, directors, and music stars who have rallied to defend the three men convicted of the murders.

Usually when I see entertainers latch themselves onto high-profile news stories like this, I’m a little skeptical. To be quite honest, seeing Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and the Dixie Chicks chiming in can sometimes do more to push me away than draw my interest. But “West of Memphis” is much more than a group of self-important celebrities posturing for attention (although there is some of that in the film). I found it to be an interesting documentary that had me challenging popular thoughts as well as weighing the wealth of new evidence and theories surrounding the case.

I was a 22 year-old Arkansan when the three young boys, Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were found murdered. Their bodies were discovered underwater in a drainage ditch, all three were nude, hog-tied, and showed signs of mutilation and sexual abuse. It was a horrific crime scene and the murders, the investigation, and the court cases captured the attention of the entire state of Arkansas. At the time, the buzz surrounding the events was enormous. And even now, after all these years, I like many other Arkansans who are old enough, still remember the details surrounding the sickening homicides and the highly publicized arrests and convictions that followed.

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The film starts by going back over the case. It uses archived news footage and interviews to lay out the disappearances and subsequent discovery of the three children’s bodies. I found this to be the most impressive and effective part of the entire film. With amazing care and precision, director Amy Berg resets the table for those familiar with the case and gives a history lesson to those who aren’t. She captures the tension and emotion that soaked the entire community during the time. She also does a wonderful job of bringing the audience into this simple blue-collar part of the country. The film instantly refreshed the timeline in my mind and almost immediately my heart was once again heavy for these families that suffered such terrible losses.

But the documentary quickly shifts to its main focus – the three young men convicted of the murders. Known as the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and James Baldwin were teenagers at the time they were arrested and convicted for the murders. Misskelley and Baldwin would receive life sentences while Echols, the perceived leader of the group, received the death penalty. They would spend 18 years in prison before a movement would arise and promote new evidences that some believe prove their innocence. “West of Memphis” clearly has a slant and a motive behind it. In fact Damien Echols is one of the film’s producers so I was questioning how objective and forthcoming the film would be.

The film’s defense of the West Memphis Three begins with attempts to discredit the police’s questioning of the suspects particularly during a confession made by Misskelley. It then attempts to show mistakes and flaws in the prosecution’s handling of the case as well as forensic incompetence my the state medical examiner. Now some of the filmmaker’s arguments raise some interesting questions, but others don’t seem to hold water. I also found it interesting that the film leaves out some of the more important questions surrounding the three teens, their statements, and their behavior during the investigation and trials. But even though I wasn’t completely sold on the filmmaker’s defense, they do offer up enough compelling questions to cause you to believe there may be a reasonable doubt.

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But then the film takes another interesting turn. It removes the focus from the West Memphis Three and places it on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steven Branch. It begins by linking new forensic evidence to him as well as documenting inconsistencies in his own story. The film also shows several interviews with people who speak of Hobbs’ past, his personality, and of inconsistencies that may implicate him in the murders. This is where I really found myself questioning the credibility of the state and the prosecution of the West Memphis Three. I did find it interesting that the film used some of the same tactics that it confronts the earlier prosecution of using. Uncorroborated statements, out-of-the-blue accusations, and questionable witnesses. But there are also several pieces of fascinating information that bruises Hobbs’ credibility.

All of this leads to the reason I really appreciated this documentary. The filmmakers have a strong and obvious opinion but they lay out enough facts, bits of evidences, and testimonies to allow the audience to decide for themselves. I was thoroughly engaged and constantly found myself moving from one side to the other while trying to deduce what was truth and what wasn’t. I also appreciated how the film moved at a crisp and fluid pace as it went from one investigative premise to another. Well, except for the end where the filmmakers go to great lengths to make heroes out of the West Memphis Three. If they are innocent, they should have never been unjustly convicted. That’s a travesty. But aside from the murder accusations, these weren’t the best of kids especially Echols and to place them on a pedestal felt a bit uncomfortable.

At just under two and a half hours, “West of Memphis” does get a little long-winded. It could have trimmed down the attempts at credibility through celebrity appearances and some of the prison scenes meant to endear Echols to the audience. But these shortcomings did little to hurt the overall effect of the picture. It’s an impressive piece of investigative filmmaking and it had me completely involved. I questioned the prosecution. I questioned the detectives. I questioned family members. I questioned the West Memphis Three. So after all the compelling food for thought, what’s my conclusion? I still don’t know who killed those three little boys. And without a doubt that’s the saddest thing of all.

5 Phenomenally Goofy Horror Movie Villains

It’s the Halloween season so this is the second Phenomenal 5 that’s about the scares. But lets start the week on a lighter note. We all know the Jasons and the Freddys of the genre. We are all familiar with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy. These horror movie villains have made names for themselves and to some degree or another gained large followings. But not every horror movie terror is all that frightening. In fact, there have been many that are just plain goofy and that’s where this list comes in. We’re looking at five of the silliest, goofiest horror villains to ever grace the movies. There are so many to choose from therefore I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But I think we can agree that these are five phenomenally goofy horror Movie villains.

#5 – THE GREEN GOBLIN SEMI-TRUCK (“Maximum Overdrive”)

Maximum Overdrive” was an odd horror movie about machines coming to life after a comet passes by the earth. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? The machines, ranging from vending machines to automobiles, begin attacking people. At a North Carolina truck stop Emilio Estevez and a handful of survivors are trapped inside as a number of “living” semi-trucks continue to circle the building. What’s even goofier is that they have a leader – a menacing black semi with a huge Green Goblin face mounted on its front. There’s a big final battle between the human survivors and the trucks (no, I’m not kidding) which is almost as absurd as the concept behind the movie. But ultimately it comes down to stopping the green-faced 18-wheeled evil. This film was based on a Stephen King short story and it marked King’s one and only foray into directing. I think it’s easy to see why.

#4 – KILLER CLOWNS (“Killer Klowns from Outer Space”)

Yes, this is a movie that’s just goofy as it’s title. Now to be fair, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” knows it’s idiotic and it does have a little fun with it. But it’s still a horror picture with antagonists that fit perfectly on this list. Do you need proof? Ok, how about this – an army of “Klowns” land on Earth in their circus tent-shaped space ship and begin killing the residents of a California town. We find out these Klowns (and yes they are actually clowns) are here to harvest us as a food source. But the town fights back and soon find the Klowns have one big weakness. Remember how zombies die with a bullet to the head? Well Killer Klowns can be killed by taking out their bright shiny noses. Shoot them in the nose and watch them spin like a top before blowing up into pieces. But it’s not a simple thing to do. They’re armed with everything from deadly ray guns to lethal balloon animals and acid pies. Now do you question their inclusion on this list? I thought not.

#3 – CHUCKY (The “Child’s Play” Series)

I still find it amazing that Chucky has made five movies and there’s still another one in the works. In case you don’t know, Chucky is a children’s doll possessed by a serial killer. Sounds like a completely rational idea for a horror villain, doesn’t it? Yet regardless of how preposterous it may sound, Chucky gained a strong cult following that resulted in several sequels. This foul-mouthed, murderous, red-haired doll kills indiscriminately and learns to enjoy his new “body”. He’s a tough cookie too. Chucky has been shot, burned, melted, blown up, decapitated, and cut into a million pieces. But despite all of the attempts he keeps coming back. And life has been good for Chucky. He’s met a female doll and married her. He’s even a proud father. Ok, I feel idiotic even typing that. It’s hard to believe that a corny concept like a killer “My Buddy” doll could have had such success. But if you doubt me, just keep your eyes open. It sounds like he’s coming back to theaters yet again.

#2 – KILLER TOMATOES (“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”)

It’s obvious that the creators of the 1978 horror film “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” intended to inject a lot of humor into their movie. I mean how could they avoid it with a title like this? If you think about it, how many ways can a tomato actually kill you? But don’t underestimate the proficiency of these vine-ripe terrors. The have many plump and juicy methods including devouring their prey and drowning their victims in tomato juice. Pretty scary stuff, huh? But like every ominous threat, these killers have a weakness. Their kryptonite isn’t a sharp knife or boiling water. No, it’s the song “Puberty Love”. Whenever they hear it they begin to shrink and are easily squashed. There have been three other “Killer Tomato” sequels but none have reached the B-movie cult status as the original. And let’s be honest, are there any other horror villains quite like them?

#1 – ZOMBIE ENTRAILS (“Dead Alive”)

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s earlier film “Dead Alive” you’re probably trying to grasp the idea of zombie entrails. But yet it’s exactly what you think. “Dead Alive” is a nutty, off-the-wall gorefest that soaks the audience in blood and laughs. It takes the zombie and splatter films to new heights and I promise you it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. It all starts when nerdy Stewart’s mother is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey that’s carrying a disease. It ends up turning her into a zombie and you know that there can never be just one. Soon things get way out of hand highlighted by zombified entrails that attack our hero Stewart. The entrails chase him, throw him, and strangle him and it takes his greatest innovation to survive. Sounds terrorizing doesn’t it? This film has been called by some the goriest movie of all time. It’s also very funny and how can you argue with the horror of zombie entrails?

There you have them – the goofiest of the horror villains. I can think of several others that could grace this list but I think these have earned their spots. So how about your choices? Who would you include on this goofy list?

“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN” – 3 1/2 STARS

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s “The Adventures of Tintin” has been in the works for close to 30 years. Spielberg first purchased the rights in 1983 but the main filming didn’t actually begin until 2009. Jackson produced and Spielberg directed this animated motion capture film based on the immensely popular comic book series from Belgian artist Herge. While the Tintin character is most popular in Europe, Spielberg and Jackson hope the broader exposure will result in a least two more films. There’s certainly nothing in “The Adventures of Tintin” that should discourage a sequel. But there’s also several things in the film that keep it from being as good as it could have been.

In many ways “The Adventures of Tintin” is an old-fashioned adventure with a shiny modern coat of paint. It’s a classic style, simple and straightforward adventure yarn that at times feels like an Indiana Jones treasure hunt picture. But it’s the cutting-edge motion capture and CGI animation that instantly catches your eye. The character’s gorgeous three-dimensional renderings are incredibly realistic but with just a touch of cartoony style. The animation also features an incredible level of detail. It’s seen in everything from the various around-the-world locations to the fantastic period recreation. “Tintin” is a visual treat and there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy the steady barrage of eye candy found throughout the film.

I mentioned that “Tintin” is simple and straightforward and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I did have a few issues with the story. The movie starts with Tintin purchasing a model ship from a vender at an outdoor market. There is practically no introduction whatsoever and it seems like the movie expects you to already be familiar with the character. As someone unfamiliar with Tintin, all I learned is that he’s a journalist and adventurer and his best friend is his white dog Snowy. After buying the ship Tintin is immediately approached by two individuals who try to take it off of his hands. This leads to the discovery that the model ship may hold a clue to the whereabouts of a lost treasure. Upon seeing this, Tintin and Snowy head off on a globe-trotting adventure to find the treasure before a shady character named Sakharine does.

From there the movie launches into a frantic and almost hyperactive action romp. The film seems to move from one elaborate cinematic set piece to another, each filled with that signature well-choreographed Spielbergian action. There’s also just enough story to keep everything interesting. But I did feel the movie start to lag in the middle especially during a long series of flashback scenes intended to tell the history behind the treasure and it’s connection to two of the characters. Speaking of characters, Tintin teams up with Captain Haddock, a drunk who loses control of his ship to Sakharine. While Haddock has a few funny moments he’s also borderline annoying at times especially when he goes off on one of his ramblings. There are also a couple of instances where his attempts at humor seem to clash with the tone of the movie. While the movie hits a few speed bumps in the middle, it quickly picks back up on its way to a wide open ending that clearly points to a sequel.

Overall “The Adventures of Tintin” is a fun time that the entire family can enjoy together. From the start, the movie jumps right into the adventure but don’t expect much of an introduction to Tintin or even any character development to speak of. And while the story is about as basic as you can get, it really only stumbles in a few places. But it’s the movie’s presentation that is the most impressive. The film looks amazing and features some of the most eye-popping CGI and visually stunning action sequences. The John Williams score doesn’t hurt either. When it comes down to it, “The Adventures of Tintin” is like several of Spielberg’s other pictures – light on story but heavy on appearance. It’s not a perfect movie but there is still plenty to latch onto and once you get onboard it’s easy to stay with it all the way.