The Films of Peter Jackson
Bad Taste (July 28/02)
Made on a shoestring budget by Peter Jackson, Bad Taste certainly lives up to its moniker. Though it doesn't contain much in the way of plot development or compelling characters, the film still manages to entertain due to the emphasis on over-the-top gore.
The movie takes place in Jackson's native New Zealand, where aliens have landed. They're on our planet to kill us and sell our meat at an intergalactic fast food joint. Fortunately, there's an intrepid band of rebels (armed with whatever they can get their hands on) whose sole purpose is to kill as many of these aliens - disguised as humans - as they possibly can. That about does it plotwise; the majority of the flick is devoted to one disgusting makeup effect after another.
Bad Taste never attempts to cover up the fact that it's clearly a low-budget affair. The terrible acting and complete lack of sets ensure that the movie will never be mistaken for something produced by a studio. Still, the movie does manage to remain somewhat enjoyable because of Jackson's go-for-broke attitude. Disgusting moments that seem as though they're the peak of grossness are often topped within minutes. Take, for example, an early scene in which one of the aliens has the top half of his head sliced off. Blood squirts out of his head and an eyeball barely clings to the skull. That's pretty gross, but just a little bit later we witness a fellow alien actually eating out of that half head. It's bizarre set-pieces like that that make Bad Taste worth checking out.
Jackson's attempts at humor often fall flat, however, such as the rebel who's apparently mortally wounded after falling off a cliff. He finally comes to, but the back of his head has a big chunk of skin hanging off it - leaving his brain exposed. He manages to close the wound with his belt, but occasionally picks up random pieces of brain and stuffs them in there. Crazy stuff like that works if we're talking about the aliens, because who knows what their physiology is capable of. But with a human, it's not only implausible (obviously), but it's just plain dumb and unfunny.
Still, disregarding that minor complaint, Bad Taste is a lot of fun. It'll probably work best when watched with an enthusiastic group and a copious amount of alcohol on standby. And as gory as it is, it's still nothing compared to Jackson's next movie, Dead Alive.
Meet the Feebles
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (December 20/01)
The buzz surrounding the first installment in the already-filmed Lord of the Rings trilogy has gotten to a point where you almost forget that there's an actual movie in there somewhere. It's that incredible amount of hype that may lead to one of two reactions to the film: You'll think it's an amazing, surreal journey into Middle Earth or, it'll come off as a slightly better-than-average fantasy flick.
If you've already read the books, then you're certainly the target audience for the movie. Director Peter Jackson has unwisely chosen to make the film for the fans, leaving those of us unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy out in the cold. The film is still coherent enough to be enjoyable, but it's impossible to get totally wrapped up in the story since we're given mere scraps of background information on the various characters.
Running close to three hours, the primary problem with Lord of the Rings - which follows hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) as he embarks on a journey to destroy a mystical ring with world-ending powers - is sheer overlength. While it is compelling for roughly the first half, it's that second half that eventually becomes tedious and downright boring. A lot of that is the result of a plot-heavy first hour which eventually becomes one long chase scene. After Frodo and company embark on their journey, story-wise, nothing happens. The movie consists solely of the troupe evading enemies and determining which route to take. Some of the sequences during this long trip are stunning to look at - there's no doubt of that - but after the fourth or fifth scene of action, the whole thing just becomes tiresome.
But Jackson has created a world that's incredibly vivid and unique, there's no questioning that. From the peaceful county that Frodo hails to the rugged, snowy mountains along the way, everything in Lord of the Rings looks fantastic and surprisingly realistic. Shot entirely in New Zealand, the movie looks as though it takes place on some distant world. The actors are equally effective, with Wood making a fine hero. Among the supporting cast, it's Viggo Mortensen that steals all his scenes as the heroic Aragorn. But even bit players like Liv Tyler and particularly Christopher Lee as an evil wizard fill their scarcely developed characters effectively.
This movie will likely enthrall fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Tolkien newbies will probably have a tough time getting into this complicated world filled with underdeveloped characters.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (December 21/03)
After the execrable second installment of the Lord of the Rings series, last year's Two Towers, the chances of The Return of the King ending Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's saga on a high note were slim. Fortunately, Jackson has eschewed many of the elements that made The Two Towers such a thundering bore and turned this one (the longest of the series, at around three and a half hours) into just the sort of exciting and thoughtful adventure hardcore fans seemed to believe the second one was. That's not to say that the movie is quite the masterpiece a lot of folks have been saying it is; the film is still jam-packed with a lot of tedious moments, mostly having to do with characters that haven't been interesting since the first film. Like The Two Towers, The Return of the King doesn't bother with a refresher course for the uninitiated; if you've not seen the first two, don't even bother with this one. Frodo (Elijah Wood), Samwise (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) are continuing on their quest to Mordor, where the all-powerful One Ring is to be destroyed. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his band of warriors (including Hobbits Pippen and Merry) are preparing for an epic war against the evil Orcs. The Return of the King opens with a closer look at one of the most annoying characters to emerge from this series, Gollum. We learn what caused the transformation from Smeagol to Gollum, though the character remains useless (he contributes nothing to the story nor does he advance the plot). Fortunately, Gollum receives little screen time this go around, which is also true of other irritating figures from The Two Towers (Treebeard being the most obvious example of this). The first hour is, in fact, fairly reminiscent of the two movies that preceded this one - ie there are many sequences featuring just the sort of clunky dialogue that plagued Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers - and Jackson continues to show no interest in keeping those of us who haven't read the novels completely aware of what's going on. This is primarily true of all the stuff dealing with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and his quest to unite the various factions (including a leader with a hatred for his surviving son, and another that insists on joining the battle). That it's barely made clear who all these people are and what they're about has a lot to do (presumably) with Jackson's insistence on staying completely faithful to Tolkien's source material. But once you get past that first hour, The Return of the King essentially becomes a flat-out ride - filled to the brim with exciting action sequences and even a few touching moments. The highlight of the movie is easily an epic battle between thousands of Humans and Orcs, which takes up the bulk of the film's midsection. Unlike that similarly grandiose skirmish in The Two Towers, which was virtually impossible to enjoy because it was shrouded in darkness and rain, this fight manages to enthrall throughout primarily because it's always apparent exactly what's happening. And just when it as though it can't get any better, these enormous elephants come stomping onto the battle field - stepping on anyone that gets in their way, while brushing people aside with their gigantic tusks. In terms of sheer coolness, that short sequence rivals anything in the history of cinema (no, really). Likewise, a fight between Frodo and a monstrous spider is incredibly well done and exciting (kudos to Jackson's special effects company for creating an exceptionally realistic-looking giant spider). The performances, as in the first two films, are secondary to the spectacle; none of these characters really become all that compelling, though by the time the end rolls around, it's hard not to feel something for a select few of them (Frodo being the most obvious example of this). After all the fighting and excitement, there comes a moment at which the film could end perfectly (it's virtually impossible to miss) and yet Jackson keeps the story going for an additional 15 minutes. The movie's refusal to end will likely test the patience of even the most ardent Lord of the Rings fan, and it's a shame that the series ends on such a flat note. Still, there's no denying that The Return of the King is, viscerally, one of the most exciting movies to emerge out of Hollywood in a good long while. And despite the absolute mediocrity of The Two Towers, Jackson and his crew should be proud of what they've accomplished.
The Lovely Bones (March 17/10)
Adapted from Alice Sebold's best-seller, The Lovely Bones follows teenager Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) as she, from a heavenly locale known as the "In-Between," keeps a watchful eye on her family and friends after being raped and murdered by a neighbor (Stanley Tucci's George Harvey). There's little doubt that The Lovely Bones gets off to an awfully rocky start, as director Peter Jackson - working from a script cowritten with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh - offers up a relentlessly shifting perspective, as he cuts between Susie's exploits in the In-Between and her loved ones' efforts at both moving on and solving her murder, that results in a lack of momentum that initially (and effectively) prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting with the material. It's only as the movie progresses that Jackson begins to find an appropriate balance between the narrative's two extremes, with the increasingly engaging atmosphere perpetuated by the superb performances and seriously striking visuals. In terms of the latter, Jackson, in his ongoing efforts at depicting the In-Between, has infused the proceedings with an immersive, eye-popping visual sensibility that translates into an indelibly unique cinematic experience, although it's certainly worth noting that the filmmaker also does a superb job of ensuring that the story's emotional quotient escalates considerably as the film unfolds (thus ensuring that the conclusion is almost devastating in its impact). The final result is an admittedly uneven yet utterly engaging piece of work that outshines its literary predecessor in every way, and marks the first time that Jackson has seamlessly blended special effects with dramatic content.