Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teen and wolves collide in Druid Peak

Wherever Jack London is he is smiling down on Druid Peak, a coming-of-age story about wolves and the rehab center they run called Yellowstone.

Marni Zelnick’s debut feature doesn’t begin with the wolves, but with bad boy high schooler Owen (Unbreakable’s Spencer Treat Clark), who’s such a rotten apple that he even intimidates his merry band of droogs, one of whom is his chemistry teacher’s grandson. When one of Owen’s bullying sessions goes a little too far, he finds himself covered in blood in a ditch, which is the universe sounding a very big alarm in his ear, to which Owen puts on earmuffs. 

His mother, though, is scared for his safety and future, so she ships him off to his father, who’s a park ranger in Yellowstone, where he monitors the wolf population. Owen’s first day in Wyoming doesn’t go so great: he steals a pistol, some ammo and treks off into the great blue yonder. You’ve heard of Rebel Without a Cause, well here’s rebel without a compass. His dad (Andrew Wilson) is mostly unfazed by all this, if only because he’s so much like Owen — he’s living off the reservation because he’s kind of sick of people too. 

It’s only through Owen’s involvement with the park’s wolves — maybe because he’s a lone wolf himself — that this reformed nihilist slowly starts believing in something, anything, that isn’t destruction. I’ve seen many movies like this before: the reformed bad boy finds a hobby and eventually makes good. This one is altogether competent, if not completely predictable. It’s also gorgeous, with filming taking place in aspen-filled forests, beautiful valleys with winding rivers and grassy meadows lined with wildlflowers. It’s like a Bierstadt painting come to life. 

Druid Peak spends a lot of time establishing the procedures and minutiae of observing wolves, which added an interesting level of detail to the science of the park. For instance, Owen begins tracking several key wolves with their radio collars. A lesser film would have given them all GPS locators and called it a day, but Owen has to lug around this big radio antenna and listen for beeps amid the static. And even when he hears something, all that’s telling him is that one of the wolves is within three miles. I appreciated that the film didn’t dumb it down for the audience. Later on the radio collars plays a bigger role as the wolves slowly encroach on nearby ranches and their scrumptious cattle. The science of the wolves and their existence fits within the world of the film’s story. And the wolves look incredible.

I have a low tolerance for teenaged bad boys, and Owen wore me thin at the beginning — I blame last year’s Hellion for that — but he matured fast enough with the plot that his misanthrope phase doesn’t last too long. Clark, a 26-year-old playing a 16-year-old, has these mysterious eyes that can be expressive and bright in the wolf scenes, and then hollow and emotionless in the opening bits. He’s an interesting choice, but a sound one that nudges the movie forward.

Andrew Wilson, sibling to actors Luke and Owen, might be my new favorite Wilson brother. He’s had bit parts in several Wes Anderson movies, but here he’s allowed to linger on the screen long enough to actually get a good glimpse of him. He’s on the screen to mostly play off Clark, but he has one scene that really stood out for me: he’s flipping through materials on his desk and he notices Owen has stolen some money from a box. The film avoids that verbal showdown you feel coming, and instead allows the father a beat or two of disappointment before moving on. It’s a subtle scene, and one of the Druid Peak’s major victories. 

Of course, there is all kinds of wolf drama near the end, and talk about a wolf-hunting season, which promises to show us all the scenes you’d imagine in a movie about a boy who owes everything to his furry new friends. I saw it coming, but that’s not to suggest it doesn’t play out well — it does.

Druid Peak adds some minor, but altogether interesting, twists to the coming-of-age story. I was pleasantly surprised. And I think you will be too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Actor Eddie Jemison talks directorial debut

To C-word or not to C-word. When given the choice, Eddie Jemison C-words. 

Which is why he spent some time shrugging his shoulders at little old ladies at festival screenings of King of Herrings, a film he wrote, co-directed and starred in that follows four on-again/off-again buddies who are not shy about dropping the taboo word that many American audiences still cringe at. 

“The Sex Pistols called each other cunts. That was just their way. It was their scene and their language,” Jemison says of the word. “But a lot of people are turned off by it. Old ladies, as it turns out, don’t like it. I don’t blame them. I just apologize. On the other side, though, people hear the word and laugh; they aren’t grossed out.”

Jemison admits the word is tempered not by his four male stars, who unleash all sorts of awful vulgarities on one other, but by the film’s female lead played by the lovely actress Laura Lamson, the actor-director’s real-life wife. Lamson plays Mary, much-better half to Jemison’s Ditch, the wildly offensive leader to his circle of misfits and miscreants. When Ditch pushes his caustic sense of humor a little too far within the group, The Professor (played by Joe Chrest) plans a retaliatory strike by befriending Mary, Ditch’s lonely seamstress wife.

“Whenever people start thinking the movie goes too far, it really centers all back around on Mary. It’s her movie,” Jemison says of King of Herrings, which played at last year’s Phoenix Film Festival and is available digitally today. 

Jemison, as the pig-headed misanthrope, plays against type; he is widely remembered as a dweebish character actor, frequently playing mild-mannered men in technical positions usually involving numbers or computer code. He’s had small parts in Waitress, HBO’s Hung and Bruce Almighty, but he’s most recognizable in fellow Louisiana State University alum Steven Soderbergh’s films, including as sweaty computer expert Livingston Dell in the Ocean’s 11 movies. 

“Of course, I’m usually typecast. I’ve always hated that, but what can you do? For this, though, I cast everyone against type. Me more obviously, but also Joe Chrest, who’s easily the most assertive of all of us,” he says. “It was a blast being a big jerk with a Napoleon complex.”

The film came to be during an acting workshop in which Jemison was asked to write a script. “I had this scene I wanted to write where a guy says ‘cunt’ a lot,” he says, adding that the class got involved and the film blossomed in front of him. “Everyone wanted to know the end of the story, so I knew I had something there that was working.”

The film works not only because of its delicate sleight of hand with the star of the film — as Jemison says it, the film may play like a boys club but it’s really about Mary — but also because its characters chew the screen. They live in a world that must smell like old cigarettes and cheap beer. Cracked vinyl seats, flickering fluorescent lighting, bowling alleys, dog tracks, laundromats. The world is lived in and worn, and the four characters are in no big rush to leave it. The film was shot in color, but given a high-contrast black-and-white treatment in post-production, a look that solidifies the film’s forgotten time and place. It looks very indie and cheap, but in this case that works quite splendidly.

This is Jemison’s directorial debut, which he shares with co-director Sean Richardson. Much of the cast, and some of the crew, go way back to their LSU days, back to around the time Soderbergh was filming sex, lies, and videotape, and casting many of King of Herrings’ actors in his early movies. Jemison hopes Herrings is enough of a success that he can take the LSU crew down to New Orleans and film a new project “with the exact same actors, like repertory cinema.” 

One actor who was easy to work with was Lamson, his wife in and out of the movie. “She’s so good in this movie. I would tell her stuff, but she would really just take over. And as I would be busy directing, she would direct me. She would remind me to give more and to not hold back,” he says, repeating again that Lamson’s Mary calms Herrings’ more sinister verses. “She provides the balance the film needs. When we were showing this movie early on, it was getting really dark responses. But the more people who saw it, the more who started seeing through the film’s more menacing tone. They were finding this sad character in it, and she was cutting through all the rawness.”

“It’s a weird, hard movie,” he admits. “But we’re very proud of it.”
 
King of Herrings is available on VOD Tuesday.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Movies of 2014

I’ll admit that 10 is a better number than 15, especially when the 15 has an asterisk, footnote and appendix. But choosing only 10 top movies of 2014 is just too difficult, and the end result is too neat and tidy. And if a year has more than 10 great movies, then why limit a list that is a reflection on that year?

So yeah, here’s my top 15 movies of the year, which is actually more like my top 16 since one entry has two movies. And then there are two honorable mentions, and a four-movie note about this year’s franchise movies. It’s not as neat as 10, but it’ll do.


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1. Whiplash

Damien Chazelle’s sensational musical drama Whiplash is about two characters — a hero and a villain — fighting to the same end. It’s only during the last 15 stupendously bonkers minutes do they finally realize they’re on the same trajectory, just shooting from opposing sides. Whiplash knows what it is, where it’s going and how it’s getting there from the very beginning, and it shows in Chezelle’s confident directing and in the determined performances of stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as master and apprentice at a prestigious music school. (This is the second time Teller has topped my year-end movie list; last year he did it in James Ponsoldt’s Spectacular Now.) I never would have thought so much tension, calamity, violence, hatred, obsession and drama could have come from jazz drumming — Whiplash has it all. 

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2. Snowpiercer
Science fiction is supposed to be a little ridiculous and Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer does not let you down in that department. It’s about a dystopian train containing all of humanity that circles the globe in order to preserve mankind from a nuclear winter. Yeah, that ridiculous. The action thriller, starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, came out in prime blockbuster season and immediately blew the doors off the summer’s usual fares. With glorious music, clever visual compositions, stupidly fun gun and hatchet fights and absurdly simple science fiction mythology, Snowpiercer is a marriage of great ideas.


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3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson continuously astounds me with his quirky diorama-like presentations. His visual style, developed over an entire career, hasn’t yet hit a dead end as he explores braver plots, more intricately layered stories and growing choruses of characters, sometimes enough to fill a small amphitheater. He really outdoes himself with The Grand Budapest Hotel, loosely starring Ralph Fiennes and about 30 other fine actors. I knew I was in for a ride when the film started with a book, an interview and two sets of flashbacks all nested together. This film’s lo-fi special effects and model miniatures are especially noteworthy for their simplicity and quaintness. Anderson has made eight great films and never repeated himself, and I can’t wait for what’s next.


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4. Life Itself
When Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, he wasn’t just the world’s most famous movie critic, he was also one of the most treasured. His reviews exposed hard truths about the films, about himself, and about all of us. They were reflections of who we as a people were, are and will be. They were also quite funny. So when Ebert lost the ability to speak amid a cancer diagnosis, his readers were afraid he would be silenced up on that balcony set where he gave thumbs up and thumbs down. His voice was silenced, but his keyboard clicked and clacked ever louder as he wrote from Facebook, Twitter and his personal blog. Steve James’ lovely documentary follows Ebert as he writes, heals and eventually passes away unexpectedly. It had a fly-on-the-wall vibe to it as the critic lived his life, but Life Itself also serves as an impromptu biography, with chapters on Gene Siskel, their shared TV show, his wife Chaz, his alcoholism, his upbringing and so much more. By the time Ebert had passed, he was no longer just a film critic; he was our collective voice broadcasting as loud as ever.

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5. Under the Skin
Nothing quite prepares you for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house sci-fi flick Under the Skin, featuring a steely-cold Scarlett Johansson as an alien viper luring unsuspecting men to their doom in an inky black goo that liquefies everything under their skin. It may sound like Aliens, but it’s miles away from an action movie as its ethereal mood and tone allow for hypnotically staged sequences of Johansson pretending to be an alien pretending to be a human. It’s all rather wacky and cerebral, but also oddly mesmerizing. 

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6. Ida
Pawell Pawlikowski’s gorgeously photographed character study takes place in 1960s Poland as a nun traces the footsteps of her parents, who were likely killed during the Nazi occupation or the years following World War II. The nun (played exceptionally by Agata Trzebuchowska), with warm eyes and skin the smoothness of elegant porcelain, is immediately out of place as she treks through small Polish villages as she ponders her mysterious past and her convent future. The film is shot in black and white, and it’s just perfect cinematography, with characters shot in poetically odd framings, natural light pouring through windows and mesmerizing compositions. No movie this year was photographed better.

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7. Birdman
Michael Keaton’s brave performance in Birdman as a washed-up actor on Broadway has made him a frontrunner in the Oscar race, a race he will likely win. But more than that, the performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s whirlwind of a movie has reminded us all how great Keaton is, and always has been. He’s a singular force in Birdman, in which he staggers and grumbles through a New York City theater where he’s staging a Raymond Carver play that has shades of his own life in it. The editing is all very slick, and the camera work is virtuosic, but mostly this is an actor’s movie, with Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and many others.

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8. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi tale is less movie and more sound-and-light show. Featuring the science of wormholes, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time travel, black holes and what can only be described as the control room of the universe, Interstellar’s reach for the stars is beyond ambitious, and Nolan mostly pulls it off aside for some sloppy editing and plot holes, which are forgiven considering the film’s scope across the galaxy. It really becomes something special when Hans Zimmer’s booming score rattles from the screen. Theater owners reported receiving complaints about the film’s volume, but loud and proud was the way it should have been shown.

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9. The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6
Besides both being wonderfully animated and perfectly paced family films, the reason these two animated gems are both on this list is the message they send to their younger audiences: The LEGO Movie encouraged youngsters to create and play outside of the rigid structures of life, and Big Hero 6 emphasized science and math as career paths. These ideas weren’t just preachy codas tacked onto each film’s endings; they are ingrained in their respective plots. Long ago kids movies were filled with farts, boogers and groin kicks, but these days they have more to say, even amid forgivable product placement and superhero formulas.

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10. Dom Hemingway
While all eyes are on Michael Keaton’s Birdman performance, I just can’t ignore Jude Law’s gonzo turn as the title character in Richard Shepard’s irreverent crime drama Dom Hemingway, about a man who gets out of prison and slowly unravels amid heists, dinner parties, hooker orgies and a car crash frozen in a tableau of flailing arms and legs. Dom is a vile rascal, but he’s kinda lovable, especially when paired with the great Richard E. Grant as his sidekick. The film has one of the best cold opens of the year, and it deserves to be on every Jude Law highlight reel from here to eternity.

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11. A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year is about a man taking every precaution to do the right thing, even as he edges closer to that which he fears — corruption, crime and violence. J.C. Chandor directs Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in this gloriously photographed crime drama about a heating oil company trying to expand in New York City. The film has a Godfather vibe, from Isaac’s stone-cold Michael Corleone performance to the warmly lit interiors that act as characters to the film’s carefully written criminal underbelly. The movie took me places I wasn’t expecting, and the ending is underplayed until you stand back and appreciate it for what it says about business, crime, and the intersection where the two often meet.

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12. Force Majeure
During an afternoon ski outing, a family is nearly overtaken by an avalanche. The mother instinctively reaches for her kids, but the husband runs off with nothing in his hands but his cell phone. During the rest of the ski trip this family is torn apart by the repercussions of the avalanche and what it revealed within the father’s personality. Ruben Östlund’s tightly wound relationship drama is mostly a series of conversation separated by interesting shots of a ski resort coming to life each morning and then resetting at night. It ends with a revelation that changes much of what we just saw, but Östlund is so delicate with the handling of it that the twist is barely noticeable. This Swedish film is a remarkable examination of the nature of married couples, and the way they spool their lives around each other in opposite directions.

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13. Gone Girl
David Fincher’s who-dun-it shows the veteran director at his very best. Rarely is a director in perfect synchronization with his editor, cinematographer, screenwriter and cast with such outstanding and fluid results. The film, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name (she also wrote the screenplay), features Ben Affleck as a husband accused of murdering his seemingly flawless wife, played with a frosty chill by Rosamund Pike. As the mystery unfolds, it’s clear that there are larger things at play, and it’s in these scenes that Fincher really digs in. What could have fallen apart only gets stronger as Flynn’s characters paint themselves into the same corner. Fincher handles it all with exquisite class, proving that he’s earned his spot as one of Hollywood’s elite directors. 

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14. Edge of Tomorrow
“Tom Cruise in a mech-suit doing Groundhog’s Day with alien time-shifters.” If that was the pitch that got this movie the green light, then bravo to the poor soul who had to look a studio executive in the eye and pitch it. Doug Liman’s mind-bending sci-fi shooter is silly and stupid at times, but then it also has an inventive streak that pushes this past mediocrity and into something special. The movie came out in June, but it is still getting thoughtful plot dissection from trip’d-out fans six months later, even after the film was re-branded for DVD and Blu-ray as Live. Die. Repeat. The film reaffirms an old myth: Tom Cruise is always better in science fiction.


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15. Cold in July

I had given up on Cold in July, and then it impressed the hell out of me. Jim Mickle’s crime thriller starts with a husband and father killing a burglar in his living room. Then the burglar’s nutty father starts terrorizing the family. Notes of Cape Fear start trickling onto the screen just before you start zoning out. But then — BAM! — Cold in July turns into something else entirely. The film is anchored by strong performances from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson as a tough-talkin’ private detective. This movie came out to little fanfare, but I hope viewers discover it.

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Honorable Mention: Chef

I left Chef feeling very hungry. It’s about a disgraced cook who takes his trade mobile with a food truck. Along for the ride is his line cook, his son and a growing army of loyal followers. The film is written, directed and stars Jon Favreau, and also features John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and many others. The jokes are great, the food looks delicious, the locations are warm and inviting … something tells me that everyone had a great deal of fun making this movie. And it shows, because it’s a lot of fun to watch.

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Honorable Mention: St. Vincent
Bill Murray, our national treasure, has done it again: he’s out-Murray’d himself. The comedian once again plays a loser schlub in Theodore Melfi’s charming St. Vincent, about a grumpy old man befriending a lonely kid with a working mom. It’s funny, kinda adorable in parts, devastatingly honest and just all-around earnest in its treatment of Murray’s Vincent. It also features Naomi Watts as a Russian prostitute, Chris O’Dowd as a Catholic school teacher, Terrence Howard as a bookie and Melissa McCarthy as the too-busy-for-her-kid mother. All of this might be too much if it weren’t for the central relationship of Vincent and the kid, played expertly by Jaeden Lieberher. They just click together in all the right places. 

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Some words on franchise movies: There are too many superhero movies and sequels. And each year there are more. This year there were certainly some major duds, including the new Hunger Games movie, the new Spider-Man and the second Captain America movie. If we never discuss them again that will be too soon. But I want to also commend some of these movies that excelled past the genre in which they live. They were inventive, well paced, marvelously acted (live, animated or by motion capture) and all-around fantastic. If all superhero movies and sequels were this good, I would be a happy camper. The movies that distinguished themselves are X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Let’s hope their sequels live up to the hype.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Phoenix Critics Circle picks Birdman as top film

At a reception tonight at the Phoenix Film Foundation, the recently formed Phoenix Critics Circle announced the 2014 film awards with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) taking the top honors, including best film, best actor, best supporting actress, best director and best screenplay.

The Alejandro González Iñárritu-written and -directed character study, about a washed-up actor slowly losing his mind while directing a play in New York City, was a critical darling early this awards season with buzzworthy openings at the Venice, New York and Telluride film festivals. The hype was especially noteworthy for award-winning star Michael Keaton, who turned in what many critics are calling the performance of a lifetime. The semi-autobiographical role is noteworthy because Keaton, a former Batman, plays an aging actor who is trying to step out of the shadow of a winged comic character he played many years before. Former Phoenician Emma Stone, who plays Keaton's daughter in the film, won best supporting actress.

Other winners include Reese Witherspoon for best actress in Wild, in which she plays a hiker on a trip of self-discovery on a 2,000-mile trail, and J.K. Simmons for best supporting actor in Whiplash, in which he plays a deranged music instructor and band leader. The Phoenix Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, also honored genre films with Snowpiercer as best horror/sci-fi, The Grand Budapest Hotel as best comedy, The Lego Movie as best animated film, and Gone Girl and Nightcrawler tied for best mystery/thriller. Force Majeure and Ida tied for best international film.

Here's the Phoenix Critics Circle site (here), and full list of winners:

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Best Picture
Birdman


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Best Comedy Film
The Grand Budapest Hotel


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Best Horror or Sci-Fi Film
Snowpiercer


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Best Mystery or Thriller
Gone Girl and Nightcrawler (tie)



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Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman


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Best Actress 
Reese Witherspoon, Wild


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Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash


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Best Supporting Actress
Emma Stone, Birdman


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Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman


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Best Screenplay
Birdman


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Best Animated Film
The Lego Movie


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Best International Film
Force Majeure and Ida (tie)


One movie too many for Peter Jackson's Hobbit

Finally, the conclusion to the Hobbit series, or as I like to call it The $500-Million Object Lesson on How to Overproduce a Simple Children’s Book. I’m retiring if this movie spawns that 12-part Green Eggs and Ham miniseries, or perhaps that Poky Little Puppy quadrilogy.

Listen, there is such a thing as “too much,” and it’s right here in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the endpoint to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation, a book that would have been perfectly suitable within one movie or, what the hell, even two. But three!?! The wheels have finally come off this unnecessarily long franchise that began on an ominous note with the hated high-framerate 3D in An Unexpected Journey, slowly began to course-correct in The Desolation of Smaug, but finally putters into heap here with battle scene after battle scene after battle scene. It’s enough war to give the orcs PTSD. 

The problem, in the beginning and still now, is the script, which deviated far and wide from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Hobbit text just to pluck prequel strings for Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise. New locations were plotted, new characters were written, villains were crafted out of the ether, and trivial episodes were stretched thin, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” Keep in mind, all this in a story that already has too many characters, including 13 dwarves, of which only a fraction are identifiable by name — the leader, the wise white-haired one, the twins and that fat one. The rest are just background filler.

Tasked with going to the Misty Mountains to reclaim their lands and wealth, the dwarves, captained by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) — and joined by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen ) and Hobbit burglar Bilbo (Martin Freeman) — have fought their way through trolls, orcs, wood elves, Mordor ghosts, man-bears, a mutant orc with a sword for an elbow and, in the previous film, a giant dragon named Smaug, who might be the most sympathetic character in a series tragically lacking sympathetic characters.

The Battle of Five Armies opens on Smaug as he begins to torch a human city floating on a lake near his mountain throne. The film does not make any effort to submerge you back into the Hobbit; it simply drops you in headfirst — Gandalf is in a cage somewhere, a noble human is in jail, a ruthless tax collector is swimming away with the town’s loot, and Thorin drools over his mountain’s abandoned wealth. There is also a love-smitten elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose romantic intentions lead to a catastrophic dead end. A refresher course on all this interrupted story would have been nice, but I guess that’s what happens when you break a single story up over multiple movies. The bigger problem here is that there is just too much of it; a leaner story and cast list would have gone a lot further.

The dragon’s defeat is mostly a foregone conclusion, which leaves lots of time for the dwarves to politically scorch Middle Earth with their greed, much of which is inspired by Thorin, who’s so overwritten he becomes a parody of Tolkien’s character. The dwarves camp out in the gold mountain, and their protest-like stand sends ripples through every race of creature, from bow-wielding tree elves to pig-riding dwarf armies to legions of orcs with armored artillery units mounted on the backs of trolls. They all descend on the mountain to wage war for the treasure, a gold haul that 13 dwarves refuse to give up because of their misplaced sense of entitlement.

Notice that I haven’t really talked about Bilbo much, and that’s intentional. Bilbo is mostly an afterthought. Remember, he was brought on the quest to burglarize the dragon’s den. With that job fulfilled, he’s left twiddling his thumbs as Thorin barricades Middle Earth’s Fort Knox, Gandalf tussles with Sauron’s ghost, and elves Legolas and Tauriel inject themselves into a story in which they don’t belong. Legolas has a line here about some rabid bats: “These bats are bred for one purpose … war.” It echoes a line by Thorin: “We have no choice then … but war.” I think every character has a line that ends with a pause and “war.” And war they are all given.

The centerpiece of the film is essentially an 80-minute battle with all of the characters, and many we didn’t even know about, including Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving all reprising their Rings roles in a non-canon scene meant as lip service to Tolkien fanboys. Peter Jackson, although weighed down by three films of character confusion and watered-down story, still knows how to arrange some impressive battle scenes. His scope for war and carnage seems to have no bounds. And, once again, the Weta Workshop does a stellar job at populating Tolkien’s world with believable props, costumes and digital effects. It’s unfortunate the story couldn’t have been boiled down a little more.

The key word there is “story” and The Battle of Five Armies’ is a wreck. It’s all loose ends and forced drama, and just too many reverse-engineered plot points that honor Jackson’s earlier films but not Tolkien’s book. So why did this work for Lord of the Rings, but not the Hobbit? It’s hard to say, but I think it comes down to the nature of the characters, the points at which they’re introduced in the story and the ultimate goal to which they strive. In Rings, the key figures of the film were introduced within the first hour of the first film, whereas The Hobbit is still introducing heroes (and villains) deep into the third film. How can we identify or appreciate characters that are ninth-inning additions?

Other key components are the character motivations. In Rings, everyone was united in defeating Sauron and destroying the ring. There was never any question about that endgame. Yet here, I’m stumped. I think this is about the reclaiming of a dwarf city that was stolen by a dragon, but Five Armies complicates that with all the politics of the gold, the reluctant gratitude of the dwarves, and the request of payment from everyone else. If only the movie could end with the death of the dragon, which is a conclusion that makes sense, and just feels like a natural stopping point. I know the book examines the post-Smaug landscape, but I don’t remember it feeling this anti-climactic and long-winded.

This franchise has let me down, and spoiled the simplicity of the book. And it casts a shadow on the awesomeness of the Lord of the Rings franchise, which was executed with supreme precision and fluid storytelling. Mostly I’m just sad that Jackson thought he could do it all again. He’s a talented director, and his work is always entertaining, but this film was doomed the moment it was split, and then split again.

That’s not how you build movies, although it is precisely how you break them.\