REVIEW: “Pilgrimage” (2017)

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For those few folks needing more proof (assuming they still exist) that big budgets aren’t essential to good moviemaking, I present to you Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage”, a beautiful and propulsive medieval thriller anchored in 13th century European complexity and brutality. With a meager budget of just over $5 million, “Pilgrimage” looks and plays out better than many of its higher-priced counterparts.

The movie’s Crusade-era setting is an intriguing place in itself – a land filled with volatility and hostility. Just on the outskirts of the many conflicts we meet a small group of monks living on the western coast of Ireland. They are approached by Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), sent at the behest of the Pope to retrieve and escort back to Rome an ancient holy relic being guarded by the monks. This quest (subtly reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”) becomes the centerpiece for Muldowney’s movie.

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Four of the Irish monks are sent to escort Geraldus. Among those chosen is Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a young novice who has never known life outside the monastery, the wise elder Brother Ciaran (John Lynch), and a mute (Jon Bernthal) who has faithfully served the monastery since mysteriously washing ashore a few years prior.

The group’s cross-country venture takes them through lands filled with factions hungry for control. They encounter one such faction led by Sir Raymond (Richard Armitage) a soldier and a loyalist to his king. At the urging of his father, Raymond and his men agree to escort the brothers and the relic across the treacherous island. What follows is an arduous and sometimes brutal pilgrimage that stretches each of these men to their limits.

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“Pilgrimage” is more than a simple “quest movie”. Writer Jamie Hannigan’s story tests each character by fire – in many cases spiritually and in all cases physically. There is a steady examination of both the strength and weakness of faith, whether it be faith in God, faith in Rome, or faith in a king. And it’s fascinating to watch the film explore the contrasts between the natural and the supernatural, divine providence and unmitigated chance, men of the cloth and men of the sword. At times I wished it went deeper, but there was never a time when I wasn’t absorbed.

It isn’t just the historical setting that’s so potent. The way Muldowney and cinematographer Tom Comerford shoot the film is just as puissant. Ominous skies filled with boiling clouds and vast landscapes as beautiful as they are dangerous. And then you have the bursts of violence that gruesomely clash with the monks’ pursuit of piece and piety. They are brutal reflections of the real world outside of the monastery – a revelation of reality young Brother Diarmuid quickly becomes acquainted with.

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And what a stellar cast. This is Holland’s story and he continues to define himself as one of our best young actors. Weber, Armitage and Lynch are all very good. But it’s Jon Bernthal who steals the show. He is mysterious and subdued (he actually took a vow of silence to prepare for the role of a mute). But there is also a blistering ferocity to his performance that that adds yet another layer to his character and the movie.

Made with a small budget and shot in thirty days, “Pilgrimage” sleekly maneuvers through its limitations instead of succumbing to them. One one side it’s a driving medieval action thriller. On the other side is a story that delves into the various shades of faith found within the spiritual (“We are not alone. We are never alone. Have faith”) and the carnal (“Before one can plant new flowers one must cut away the weeds”). I was caught up in it from start to finish and was surprised at how much it gave me to chew on. A second viewing only confirmed my enthusiasm.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Into the Storm” (2014)

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Tornadoes and heavy CGI devastation. “Into the Storm” put all of its eggs (and money) into that basket and hoped it was enough to win an audience. With a budget of $50 million and a box office take of $160 million I would say the movie more than accomplished its goal. Less discerning fans will leave satisfied with the numerous twisters and their swirls of dirt and debris. But if you happen to be looking for anything more than that “Into the Storm” will leave you wanting.

The story follows a couple of groups in and around the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma. One is a group of storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh). He is a veteran chaser who is also working on a documentary, but the storms haven’t been good to him. He’s desperate to track down a tornado and he has brought in meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) to help. She’s on a short leash especially after missing a recent storm and costing Pete some good footage. Pete reluctantly follows Allison’s storm tracker hunch and they head to Silverton.

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In Silverton school vice-principal Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage) is a widower and father of two high school boys. Donnie (Max Deacon) is his more quiet and reserved son. Trey (Nathan Cress) is his more obnoxious younger brother. Neither have had the best or most open relationship with their father since their mother died. It won’t help matters that Donnie shirks his duties of filming a graduation ceremony to help the girl of his dreams with her video school project.

As you can guess a massive storm front comes through spawning a number of tornadoes in Silverton. The movie takes us back and forth between our two groups as they encounter one destructive twister after another. Eventually both groups come together and must survive the queen mother of all tornadoes. I know this is true because one character actually says something like “It’s the biggest tornado ever”. This movie does that a lot. We aren’t allowed to glean information for ourselves. Everything is spelled out for us. Also don’t expect to find interesting and compelling characters. Everyone feels unoriginal and scripted. But to be fair plot, dialogue, and character development aren’t priorities here.

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“Into the Storm” partially redeems itself with its visual presentation. It’s hard not to be impressed with the CGI twisters blowing down trees, tearing through buildings, and slinging 18 wheelers like footballs. The special effects are thrilling, well conceived, and very satisfying. Clearly a huge hunk of the budget went towards the visuals and that’s okay. Most people will see the movie for Mother Nature’s spectacle and it doesn’t disappoint. The only thing that hampers the looks of the film was the decision to go the found-footage route. It’s implementation is clunky, annoying, and quite frankly I’m tired of the gimmick.

At a brisk 89 minutes “Into the Storm” doesn’t exhaust its welcome. It aims for one rather uninspired target and for the most part it hits it. In that regard I had fun with it. But the overly familiar characters, the bland and sometimes silly dialogue, and the plot’s lack of any originality whatsoever makes this just another run-of-the-mill disaster movie. And this leads me to a question: Can we not have a smart and engaging weather based disaster flick? I don’t know, maybe rain, wind, and intelligent creative writing don’t mix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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