“People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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There’s “Something There,” all right. Disney’s 2017 live action Beauty and the Beast is an absolute delight. Maybe I just needed a movie like this right here, right now, but this update spoke to my heart and soul and had me staying through every last bit of the credits, with tears streaming down my cheeks and a big smile on my face.

I’ve been agnostic about the artistic need (not the commercial one) for the unyielding march of Disney’s flesh-and-blood remakes/reinventions, since the runaway success of the garishly underwhelming Alice in Wonderland. True, each subsequent entry has improved upon the last, from the DOA Oz the Great and Powerful to the well-cast if underwritten feminism of Maleficent, from the poignant but ultimately forgettable Cinderella to the sparkling eco-parable The Jungle Book, culminating in last summer’s exemplary if underappreciated Pete’s Dragon.

Beauty and the Beast (not unlike its animated forebear) takes the lessons from all that came before and synthesizes them into a crackerjack entertainment. Yes, there is the requisite if servile devotion to iconic imagery and character beats (the blue dress, the yellow dress, an elegant waltz in a cerulean-hued ball room, Gaston’s Freudianly overcompensating pompadour). Yes, the film suffers from a borderline overuse of CGI. For a “live action” remake, there is likely as much if not more animation in this version than the last, and poor Emma Watson (“Belle”) does her level best to act in awe of the green-screen universe surrounding her. I can imagine the direction: “Emma, a plate is flying at your head now. The forks are doing a can-can. A feather duster just sailed past your ears!” And, of course, there is a Disney Store stockroom’s worth of infinitely merchandisable new characters – dolls, Tsum Tsums, magnets, action figures, porcelain statues, and home goods … oh, the home goods.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has embraced it all but never to the detriment of story or character, fleshing out the more problematic elements of the source material and casting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and most empathetic) to deliver the goods. Do we really want kids fantasizing about Stockholm Syndrome as a path to true love? Thankfully, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) brings a feminist agency to Belle that is refreshing and necessary. The character will never be Gloria Steinem, but even Steinem mined captivity in the Playboy Mansion as a launchpad to address the objectification and mistreatment of women. (Too pedantic or too glib of me? Probably both.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father Maurice, bringing some of the strongest character development to the piece, haunted by a desire to protect his only daughter from a world that claimed his beloved wife too soon. It seems to be a requirement that every Disney protagonist loses a parent (or two) as a spark for their hero’s quest, but Condon, alongside screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, gives us a haunting and loving portrayal of a father-daughter united by tragedy but undeterred in intellectual curiosity.

As before, Belle is an oddity in her “poor, provincial town” because, well, she likes to read … and to challenge the status quo and to question why anyone should simply accept with gratitude the lot in life they are handed. What once seemed like a quaint notion in a nearly 30-year-old cartoon, now seems frighteningly au courant in 2017 America. Early in the film, Maurice describes Belle’s mother to his child as a way of helping Belle cope with the small-minded community in which they are trapped, “People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Preach.

Through a series of minor calamities and overt misdirection, Belle finds herself at the castle of the Beast (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a foppish prince who was transformed into a monster because of his unrepentant vanity and cruelty. The Beast holds Belle hostage in exchange for her father’s life, after Maurice tries to steal a rose from his garden. Nice guy, eh?

Bletchley Circle‘s Hattie Morahan does a fine job with her limited screen-time as the sorceress who curses the prince. In fact, the entire opening sequence, narrated by Morahan, is a surreal homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on the material; it is a rather un-Disney-like preamble, with l’enfant terrible (Stevens, again), prior to his transformation, contemptuously awash in a baroque swirl of powdered wigs, fright makeup, and gilded … everything. (In other words, a typical Saturday afternoon at Mar A Lago.) It’s so repulsively camp that we as an audience have zero sympathy for what befalls the prince and his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitstaff. You do the crime, you do the time.

As for Stevens’ work as the Beast, I don’t envy any actor whose performance is buried under a mountain of computer-generated pixels, but, like Robbie Benson before him, the trick to this character is in the voice work, and Stevens’ evolution from feral to forlorn to fetching is spot on.

Regarding the enchanted crockery, cutlery, and assorted housewares who populate the Beast’s castle, Condon offers us an embarrassment of riches. Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson all have a ball with their respective roles, with McKellen, Thomspon, and McGregor as standouts. The original film was no slouch in that department either (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers), and this next generation similarly provides comic relief and even greater melancholy as the Beast’s “family,” loyal to a fault and ever-hopeful that he will find himself and, in the process, discover true love and break the curse. Condon’s casting is flawless here.

Rounding out the ensemble, Luke Evans (The Hobbit series) portrays a Gaston that is not “roughly the size of a barge” but whose smarmy ego, rampant insecurity, and loathing of women and animals are ginormous. Gaston has always been the true “beast” of the story, and this production doesn’t shy away from depicting him as the worst of all male impulses and an unfortunate corollary to the darker elements in present day society. A little bit Robert Goulet and a little bit Errol Flynn and a whole lot of unbridled id, Evans is on fire throughout. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as sidekick LeFou is more understated than the trailers (or the silly trumped-up controversy surrounding the flick) would have you believe. Gad’s sweaty, subservient fawning over Gaston is balanced with some lovely notes of self-doubt that provide a more thoughtful characterization than I was expecting.

And, yes, the songs. All of the ones you know and love – and that will be keeping you awake in a continuous loop in your noggin at two in the morning – are all there. The song stylings of this cast won’t put any Broadway babies out of a job, but they all acquit themselves nicely, using the relative intimacy of film over stage to inject these anthemic numbers with a healthy dose of nuance. There are four new songs contributed by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice (Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics for the original score). I, for one, thought the additional numbers blended seamlessly, with particular standouts being “Days in the Sun” (beautifully expressing the longing of the house staff to return to their human forms) and “Evermore” (the Beast’s big number wherein he finally knows what true love is only to see it walk out his castle door). These numbers sound like Sondheim cast-offs that just didn’t quite make the cut for Sweeney Todd. And that’s a compliment.

This new model Beauty and the Beast may disappoint some for not reinventing enough, and it may trouble others for contemporizing too much. I, for one, thought it was just right. The 2017 version remains a tale as old as time, true as it can be, and speaks to the underdogs, the marginalized people, those who are bullied by the cool kids or punished for being too indulgent. Indeed, it is bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong. Beauty and the Beast reminds us that life does get better.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I suppose it tells you something about how excited I was (or rather wasn’t) to see the final installment in the never-ending Hobbit trilogy that it took me nearly two months to catch it finally in the theatre. I’m pretty sure this weekend was the last possible chance for me to have seen The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies on the big screen, and, if I had missed it?

Well, that would’ve been a shame as I enjoyed this one thoroughly … but, shhhh, don’t tell anyone. (See my takes on the other two entries in the series here and here.)

Yes, this one suffers from the same bloated storytelling that plagues the other two installments, a narrative pushed pulled and prodded from Tolkien’s singular source material well past its breaking point.

Regardless, longtime Lord of the Rings-mastermind Peter Jackson steers the story of Bilbo Baggins to a thrillingly warmhearted dénouement. One might argue that Jackson’s chiefest contribution in his second Middle Earth trilogy rests in shining a spotlight on Martin Freeman before a worldwide audience. The sweetness of these films is carried almost exclusively on Freeman’s narrow Hobbit shoulders as the titular Baggins. Freeman brings just the right mix of anxiety, sadness, worry, pluck, and winking silliness to the enterprise.

For me, one of the best moments in this latest film highlights the wry, quiet texture Freeman offers, alongside his always-sparkling co-star Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. In the film’s final moments, the two weary souls sit side-by-side on a log, and, channeling the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, Martin (foreshortened to appear one/third McKellen’s height) looks quizzically exasperated as McKellen futzes endlessly with his silly hippie pipe.  The silent expressions they exchange are darling and human and comically relatable, reminding us why any of us ever cared about these movies to begin with.

One scene later, McKellen’s Gandalf intones – as cautionary praise – to Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, “Remember you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The delivery and the sentiment plus Freeman’s reaction are touching and ominous and make it all worth the price of admission. Lord knows, any one of us in the audience feels like that “little fellow” pretty much 24/7 in this lunatic “real” world which always seems ready to spin right off its axis.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies (cumbersome title notwithstanding) wraps everything up neatly, albeit having a good chunk of the movie dedicated to one seemingly endless fight scene among dwarfs, elves, orcs, humans, eagles, worms, dragons, bats, and Lord-knows-what-else. We get a last look at thunderously thrilling dragon Smaug (dulcet-voiced by Benedict Cumberatch); we learn the fate of the intrepid band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim their homeland; and we send Bilbo back to the Shire in a lovely dovetail with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The cast remains a starry array of accomplished actors (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace), all of whom bring gravitas and believability amidst the bewigged LARP-ing foolishness.  Richard Armitage nicely rounds out the character arc of dwarf king Thorin’s descent into madness and ultimate redemption. (He actually gave me the PTSD chills that I was missing from Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, dude.) And Luke Evans, looking like a much-scruffier version of Robert Goulet’s Lancelot, is a swashbuckling thrill as his character Bard finally fulfills his hero’s journey.

Six Middle Earth movies in and I still can’t remember any character names, nor do I understand what they are ever talking about, but I applaud the actors’ ability to make me care. Sometimes observing Jackson’s cinematic output has felt like watching a foreign film with no subtitles, but he has done such an incredible job immersing us and his talented cast in a richly detailed world that the journey is worth the periodic confusion (for us Tolkien lay-people).

No, I’ve never read the books (blasphemy, I know); nor, at this late date, am I every likely to do so. And I’m grateful to Peter Jackson for bringing Middle Earth so vibrantly to the big screen so that I never have to (read, that is). Yet, I hope Jackson takes a good long break from revisiting these storybook lands, as I don’t think I can spend another nine hours in a darkened movie theater with all those pointy eared mythic creatures for at least another ten years.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 19 days until release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

“It is unlikely I will ever sit through any of them again. I realize for devotees, those films’ slavish attention to all J.R.R. Tolkien’s elvish detail is heaven. To me, these epics are a bit of a slog. A beautiful, entertaining, transporting…slog.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Now THAT was fun! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Last year I just wasn’t that nuts about the first installment of Peter Jackson’s planned fim trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You can revisit my ire here.

And I stand by these words, “If I feel the original [Lord of the Rings] trilogy – where one film = one book – seems a bit padded, you can imagine my distaste for having The Hobbit broken into a wallet-gouging three films.”

HOWEVER, the second installment – The Desolation of Smaug (seriously? these are the best titles you can come up with, Jackson? I guess Attack of the Clones was taken) – is a rip-snortin’, jolly good time.

All the ponderous and self-satisfied back story and set up has been dispensed with in the first film, so the cast and crew is free to let the Errol Flynn-esque, Saturday morning serial freak flags fly. The film is a good thirty minutes too long and suffers yet again from a terribly unsatisfying non-ending ending.

Yet, all of the players are clearly having a ball and that carries over to the audience experience. Benedict Cumberbatch (is he everywhere this year?!?) steals the show – without ever showing his face – as the voice and motion-captured physicality of the titular villain, the dragon Smaug. The very theatre rumbles with his presence, and you can’t (and dare not) look away for a moment.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely amongst the manic proceedings which involve some nonsense about reclaiming a mountain and finding some shiny jewel thing. Martin Freeman comes into his own as our central protagonist Bilbo Baggins, capitalizing on comic sympathies garnered during the first outing.

Ian McKellen is fine but a bit underused in a confusing subplot that involves Orcs, a cheesy looking castle, and the film series’ Big Bad (Sauron). I greatly enjoy Richard Armitage as the brooding Thorin – just when I as an audience member feel totally exasperated by the shenanigans onscreen, he seems to be as well and grounds everything with a sneer and a sidelong glance. Heck, I even like Orlando Bloom this go-round, which is saying something as watching him is typically akin to watching paint dry for me.

New to the series, Lee Pace, Ryan Gage, and Stephen Fry are welcome additions, with Fry bringing an almost Dickensian whimsy to his role as a sleazy mayor of a floating fishing village that makes Popeye‘s Sweethaven look like Metropolis. Luke Evans also adds a fine level of swashbuckling gravitas to the key character of Bard who helps our intrepid band reach the final leg of their interminable journey.

I happened to see this one in Jackson’s much-vaunted “high frame rate 3D” which, once you get past the nauseatingly hyper-crisp visual clarity, completely immerses you in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s like watching a soap opera/video game hybrid … on the sound stage where it’s being filmed with the actors spitting and sweating in your face in real time. Lovely, eh? Not sure I completely recommend it, but it’s worth experiencing … once.

In sum, the film is fun escapist fare with a shot of adrenaline that reminds us why movies can be such a joy. I have no idea what I saw, and I won’t remember 80% of the plot tomorrow … and I don’t much care.

Not too precious? The Hobbit…An Unexpected Journey

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I respect director Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings film trilogy…but I don’t love Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

It is unlikely I will ever sit through any of them again.  I realize for devotees, those films’ slavish attention to all J.R.R. Tolkien’s elvish detail is heaven. To me, these epics are a bit of a slog. A beautiful, entertaining, transporting…slog.

However, I love fantasy films, and, as you may have guessed, I’m a sucker for the over-hyped, over-marketed, blockbuster holiday “event film.” Hence, I just got back from Jackson’s prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

If I feel the original trilogy – where one film = one book – seems a bit padded, you can imagine my distaste for having The Hobbit broken into a wallet-gouging three films.

I think this movie is too long by half, and I really wish the filmmakers had taken advantage of the inherent efficiency cinematic adaptation can bring. So much can be implied – it doesn’t all have to be seen, from every troll sneeze to goblin burp, from endless clanging broad-swords to stampeding orcs.

(I was going to jump out of my skin if there had been another lingering “Hobbit-shire-as-done-by-Restoration Hardware” set-up shot.)

However, something magical happens at the mid-point of the film, just when I had all but checked out: Andy Serkis’ marvelous motion capture creation Gollum appears in a compelling sequence that brings out the best in Martin Freeman’s performance as the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Before that point, all of Freeman’s twee mugging and campy double takes had me longing for Elijah Wood’s vapid blue-eyed gaze from the original trilogy.

In those scenes, where Freeman is exchanging obtuse riddles with the frog-like Gollum, our protagonist has charm, wit, and palpable cold-sweat-anxiety like a baby Hobbit version of Kevin Spacey. I enjoyed him immensely there (and, of course, Serkis as well), and those moments carried me through the rest of the picture happily.

By the way, I adored the animated Rankin/Bass television adaptation of The Hobbit from the 1970s. I tortured my parents for hours, listening and re-listening to the double LP soundtrack album. No VHS/DVD/NetFlix back then to relive – had to listen to the record in the intervening eleven months while waiting for the annual televised re-run.

Given those fond childhood memories as well as both my hope that Freeman continues to show the twinkly gravitas he displayed in this film’s latter half and my admiration of the ever-delightful Ian McKellen (who looks like he kinda wants to be anywhere else in the film’s opening scenes), I will stick with this series…I just wish it were one film shorter. Enough with trilogies, Hollywood…