Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

January 2015

American Sniper (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The opening scene is the trailer. Right into the action.

Three types of people. A stern lesson.
Chris Kyle’s dad dispenses this harsh wisdom in order to toughen up his sons. Interestingly, in the early goings of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (2014), a mentor tells Frankie Valli and his cronies that there’s only three ways out of the neighborhood. Maybe it’s just unfounded numerology, but the similarities between these scenes seemed worthy of highlighting.

She did it to get attention. Any excuse will do, I suppose.
If you’re caught red-handed, just confess. The “you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow” excuse is lame to the degree that it’s almost worse than the act of indiscretion.

Playing darts on a guy’s back. These SEALs are tough!
Lots of machismo in this scene. And a fateful night for Kyle, who meets his future wife at the bar.

“The space between heartbeats.” Who knew target practice could be so poetic?

He can’t hit a target, but he can tag a snake.
Reminds me of Paul Hogan’s Lightning Jack (1994), a self-styled Old West outlaw from Down Under who needed glasses to read but could hollow out a coin with a bullet from fifty feet away.

New Olympic sport...sniping.
The addition of the Syrian sniper is one of the film’s main criticisms. Apparently this nemesis is largely fictional, finding inspiration from a solitary chapter in Kyle’s book. However, the addition of a competent counterpart to Kyle ratchets up the tension and provides a de facto villain to the proceedings. The cat and mouse contest between the two top snipers reminds me of the taut action sequences between expert marksmen Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Nitpick: Despite what the smart Alec says, it is a comic book. Graphic novels are much thicker.
A graphic novel is an expanded story or a collection of loosely related, non-continuous stories. It should be obvious, to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book, that what the cocky character is holding in his hands is a single issue of a serialized comic book series, not a graphic novel.

“Horny preggers.” Ha!

Clear houses with the marines...takin’ it to the street.
I applaud Kyle’s assertiveness. Instead of just following orders and sitting around, Kyle was instrumental in saving the lives of many Marines while also extracting vital intel with his advanced negotiation/coercion skills.

Neighbor’s lawnmower turns on...the first signs of PTSD.
And speaking of PTSD…

The shell shocked brother scene is sad.

A direct action squad...bold new plan.

Squeaky floor, hidden cache.
So much for the hospitality. Hope the meal was good.

“You saved my life.” Goosebumps.
Cooper’s performance, as a man uncomfortable with accepting praise from others, is thoroughly convincing here.

“You can only circle the flame so long.” Sobering. And prescient?
It looks like that statement was prescient after all, although what ultimately does Kyle in completely took me by surprise.

Zales bites the bullet.
A tragic story line since it looked like he would pull through.

Tour Four: is this a vocation or addiction?
A condition we also saw in The Hurt Locker (2008) when soldiers were shown playing FPS video games on their downtime. Here, Kyle watches video recordings of some of the military operations he was a part of and, even more frighteningly, relives battles in his mind while starring at the black screen of a turned off TV.

“Don’t pick it up” scene is heart-stopping.
This is the ultimate crisis moment in the film. What an awful decision to be faced with. No wonder he had PTSD. Who wouldn’t?

Sandstorm. Visibility nil. How the heck do they know who they’re shooting at?
Talk about the fog of war! These are prime conditions for friendly fire.

“Who’s the legend now?” Ha!
Eastwood lays the “legend” status on pretty thick, especially since I’d never heard of Kyle before watching this film.

Final analysis: a haunting look at conflict in the Middle East and the toll it takes on our soldiers.
And at how little we invest in their lives after they return home.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A career turn by Cooper and Eastwood’s finest film in years.
What was Eastwood’s last great movie: Invictus (2009)? Gran Torino (2008)?

For all of the active/retired members of the military reading this, thank you for your service.

How fitting that an actor/director whose name has become synonymous with bullet-riddled actioners over the last half century should helm a movie based on the incredible true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. There can be no doubt that this is Clint Eastwood’s finest directorial effort in years and that, when his illustrious career finally comes to an end, this film may very well go down as his behind-the-camera magnum opus. Based on the book of the same name by Jason Hall and Kyle himself, American Sniper follows the exploits of this decorated soldier and his plights on the battlefield and on the home front. Bradley Cooper, in an unequivocally brilliant performance, fully inhabits the title role and imbues Kyle with genuine emotions and reactions to the most stressful, unenviable circumstances imaginable (reference the “Don’t pick it up” scene). Regardless of the location or situation, Cooper eases himself into scenes that require: decisiveness on the front lines, tenderness at home with his family, awkwardness when praised for his heroic accomplishments and startling deftness at picking off enemy combatants in the heat of battle. With appropriate kudos going to the two men who made this film an indelible, inescapable biopic, it’s time to shift focus to the elephant in the room—as you’re probably aware of by now, thanks to media saturation, this film has generated a generous amount of controversy. Other than the fact that there are just as many F bombs dropped as bullets fired in the film, it’s hard to see how anything in this movie can be construed as controversial. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes violence, but in reality it does the exact opposite by depicting the horrors of war and the devastating effects it has on our troops. With all due respect to those who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, and at the sake of fanning the flame of an already incendiary topic, those who assess this film as a pro-war endorsement are completely missing the point. War is hell and its effects on soldiers are often mentally debilitating, as evidenced by Kyle’s severe PTSD in the movie. Despite several protracted battle sequences, which detail some of the major skirmishes Kyle participated in, the film in no way glorifies war. By contrast, the film shows good people getting their faces blown off or innocents being tortured by a drill, examples that underscore the need for our continued participation in ending the reign of terror in the Middle East. Again, I vehemently oppose the notion that this is a pro-war propaganda piece…it’s a brutally honest portrait of one man’s combat experiences and the traumatic effects those four tours of duty had on his psyche and his entire family; as the movie subtly reveals, everyone suffers when the soldier returns home from active duty. It’s a shame that the well advertised controversy, which hangs over the film like an oppressive layer of cloud, has cast an unflattering light upon this superlative film. However, judging from the way this movie has engendered long lines and packed theaters (I was shut out on its opening weekend), the controversy surrounding the film has generated a buzz that’s done wonders for its bottom line. Bottom line, Eastwood and Cooper are worthy of Oscar attention and the story is a potent reminder that freedom is never free. This film will stand the test of time, and with good reason. Parting shot: the extended “moment of silence” during the end credits is sobering and haunting.

Selma (PG-13)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo
January 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The movie opens with an unexpected bang. What a senseless act of violence.
And it always seems like it’s the kids who pay the price…sad.

The right to vote unencumbered. No small ask.
Especially in the Deep South in the 60s.

“Dismantle the family.” A cruel strategy.
J. Edgar Hoover isn’t painted in a very favorable light in this film. He was also portrayed very unsympathetically in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011), which is probably one of the reasons why that film didn’t do too well critically or financially.

“Give us the vote” speech is sensational.
In fact, it makes you want to stand up and cheer. But save your applause for MLK’s final rousing speech from the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

“God was the first to cry for your boy.” Rough scene.
What a powerful sentiment and reassurance for a grieving father. Even when he wasn’t reciting a speech, MLK had a way with words.

MLK takes a long time to answer no. An uncomfortable and telling scene.
And an agonizingly ambiguous scene. But, with as much time as he spent away from home, it’s no wonder why MLK had relational problems with his wife.

The debacle on the bridge is a rough sequence.

March 2.0 with mixed races.
The tide begins to turn. The scene where MLK kneels to pray and the masses behind him follow suit reminds me of when Aragon kneels to pay homage to the hobbits and his entire kingdom kneels behind him in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Note to women: that level of respect is enough to make a grown man cry. Works on me every time.

LBJ strikes down voting restrictions. Victory at last.
Persistence pays off…but at what price?

Footage of the actual march is deeply affecting.
Such archival footage provides authenticity and a profound weight to its historicity.

Final analysis: a deeply moving biopic centered on the landmark march for human rights in Selma, Alabama.

3 out of 4. A difficult film to watch at times, but the uplifting ending makes it a journey worth taking.

This film is riddled with pro/con contradictions. On the plus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. On the minus side we have a story that focuses on an iconic figure from American history at the crux of his most monumental mission to affect a sea change in our country’s civil rights. In other words, because this story is so familiar to our collective consciousness (MLK’s name should be familiar to every citizen in our country, if only because of the national day named in his honor), the subject matter is easily comprehendible but also entirely too predictable. The movie’s main challenge was how to capitalize on the story’s immediacy and accessibility without making it perfunctory or hackneyed. The results here are a mixed bag. First to what works well in the film. The use of original locations where the actual events took place, accompanied by period appropriate cars, costumes, etc, is a huge boon to the movie; they add the kind of authenticity that’s a prerequisite for quality biopics. Also, the film boasts a dazzling array of top shelf talent, including: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Tom Wilkinson as former U.S. President LBJ, Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White, Common as James Bevel, Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray and Martin Sheen as judge Frank Minis Johnson (uncredited). Whereas the performers certainly did their part in effectively portraying key figures from the era of civil unrest depicted in the movie, the writing and directing are the more culpable culprits for the film’s underachievement. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is fairly invisible, which is fairly consistent with the framing methods employed during the mid 60s, but the resulting film has very little visual panache and is somewhat muted and bland—the very antithesis of the period in question. It seems as if DuVernay was so concerned with accuracy and veracity that she eschewed creative impulses at every turn, sacrificing any modicum of style or art in the process. At times, the plot feels like a cause and effect string of the significant events and speeches in MLK’s life. Since these public addresses are mere dramatizations of his original talks, wouldn’t showing clips of MLK’s actual speeches have been more emotional and impactful (and economical)? One of the biggest detractors to the narrative is that it’s so preoccupied with telling a historically accurate tale that it sacrifices character development in every case except for the title character. Other than the scene where MLK’s wife asks him if he loves her, the event-driven plot preempts any kind of heartfelt interactions and, indeed, stays just outside the circumference of genuine, human emotion. Granted, this film isn’t remotely as insipid as a Lifetime special, but it’s a far cry from being a bracing biopic like Argo (2012). Final thought: when I screened the film, I ended up sitting next to two teenage girls in a packed theater. Though they whispered back and forth a few times, the movie seemed to hold their attention the whole way through. This heartened me since there were plenty of other, more age appropriate entertainments in the Cineplex for them to choose from. That they selected this film meant that either their parents/teachers obligated them to go or that they had a genuine interest in learning more about MLK’s amazing life story. If the latter is true, we can find some comfort in knowing that today’s young people still want to learn about history—an encouraging sign since we all know what happens to those who fail to learn from the past.

The Imitation Game (PG-13)

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Imitation Game

The opening narration admonishes us to “pay attention.”
Thanks to Sherlock, I’ve been conditioned to automatically pay attention whenever Cumberbatch is onscreen.

Cumberbatch is recruited to study the “crooked hand of death.”
Otherwise known as Enigma. If you remember the movie U-571 (2000), their mission was to board a German sub and steal an Enigma device. Hey, maybe the encryption machine Cumberbatch’s team is trying to decipher is the same one from U-571?

“Should we leave the children alone with their new toy?” Ha!

Mission: check twenty million settings in twenty minutes. No problem.
If you’re Data (ST:TNG).

A machine to defeat a machine.
Sounds like a Terminator movie. This concept doesn’t sound like rocket science, but, inexplicably, it was back during WWII. The fact that Turing’s insistence on building/funding a machine was resisted by the military is simply incredible. How shortsighted and…illogical.

Crossword audition is clever.
But the chauvinistic tryout is disappointing. Apparently only men were good at crosswords back then.

Christopher is turned on for the first time.
This was the only child Alan Turing ever had, but what a brainchild. His creation (a rudimentary computer) not only single-handedly shortened the war; it’s changed the course of human evolution.

A rudimentary key word search is devised. Bloody brilliant!

“Turns out that’s the only German you need to know to break Enigma.”
The movie avers that love ended the war, but it was really Germany’s undying allegiance to Hitler that did them in—in more ways than one.

“We’ll have each other’s minds.” Uncommon bravery.
This is an astounding scene. Clarke’s (Knightley) willingness to marry Turing even after he reveals that he’s gay is mind-boggling. Turing knows that a life with him would be unfulfilling and rife with hardship so he pushes Clarke away with a vicious lie. In reality, he loves her too much to consign her to a life of unhappiness with him. It’s a bitter exchange with incisive dialog and superlative acting.

Final analysis: a staggering true story with a tremendous lead performance by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch continues to astound with each new part he plays…be it human or dragon.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A superb period piece that should garner a great deal of Oscar attention.

As Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) voiceover narration attests, intelligence wins wars…not planes, ships or boots on the ground. Though Imitation resembles neither a traditional, action-packed war film, nor a spy thriller, it’s much more than just a true story about how the Brits subverted the German intelligence apparatus: it’s a bracing character study, a tragic tale of unrequited love, a psychological war film (with only brief glimpses of actual combat) and a true account of how Turing’s machine helped to end the war while ushering in the computer age. A non-action war movie might not sound all that exciting, but thanks to its engaging story and fascinating character interplay, interest never wanes during the two hour drama…a tribute to Graham Moore’s screenplay (based on Andrew Hodges’ book) and Morten Tyldum’s taut direction. Of course, the name and face on the poster is what will attract viewers to this low-key, slow-boil period piece. Due in large part to his work on TVs Sherlock and big screen blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Cumberbatch has become a household name and is fast becoming one of the finest actors of his generation. If Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is noticeably ADHD, his turn as Turing more closely resembles someone on the spectrum. The lunch invite scene is uproariously funny and features a spot-on Asperger-ish delivery by Cumberbatch. As for the movie’s romance, Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are brilliant as mismatched lovers. It’s profoundly sad that the mental compatibility these characters possess doesn’t translate into physical compatibility. This failed romance begs an interesting relational question: is the meeting of minds more important than physical infatuation? Many would respond in the affirmative, and if true, Turing and Clarke had a deep, meaningful love affair in spite of its platonic status. The procedural component of the film drags at times but contains enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The team of code breakers includes some interesting characters, one of whom has extracurricular allegiances, a subplot that provides the movie with a spot of intrigue. The size, composition and specialties of the group are strikingly similar to the members of the implosion team on WGN America’s Manhattan, a WWII set TV series that chronicles the mad scramble by American scientists to discover a way to split the atom. Though on opposite sides of the pond, Manhattan and Imitation both center on groups of scientists and mathematicians working on top-secret projects to defeat the Nazis amid an oppressive military presence; and both objectives are challenged by unforeseen consequences. The burden of knowledge has rarely been as devastatingly depicted as in this film. Indeed, Enigma becomes a Pandora’s Box of sorts when the code is finally cracked but restraint must be exercised so as to not tip off the Germans that their complex cipher has been decoded. The implications of this ethical dilemma erupt in a scene where one of the young men on Turing’s team, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), realizes that warning his brother’s ship of an impending German attack would expose their discovery and effectively nullify the years of work that went into breaking the German code. It’s a bitter twist on Star Trek’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” maxim that Peter’s brother must die in order to preserve the secret that can win the war. How ironic that the team was so preoccupied with cracking the code that they failed to consider the implications and ramifications of what that knowledge would bring. Armed with substantial narrative and emotional complexity, this highly intelligent intelligence movie will go down as one of the finest non-war War movies in cinema history. There’s nothing Imitation about the film…it’s one of a kind.

Unbroken (PG-13)

Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Jack O’Connell
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

And co-written by the Coen brothers, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography. You’d be hard pressed to find a stranger amalgamation of creative talent on any movie project, much less a historical biopic.

Heavy much for the sneak attack.
Correction: flak. Flack is what I’ll get for misspelling the word.

“Love thine enemy.” An apropos homily for what’s to come.

Run, Louie, run!
With apologies to Forrest. But seriously, this scene reminded me a lot of the early running scenes in Forrest Gump (1994).

Brother’s parting words are profound.
In fact, Louie’s brother has some of the most inspirational lines in the film and is, arguably, the reason why Louie has the mental tenacity to survive his many ordeals.

Certified by Helen Keller. Ha!
Helen Keller jokes are usually made in poor taste, but I couldn’t keep from laughing at this one given the context.

A bump on the raft in the middle of the night. Doesn’t get much more terrifying than that.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep…in fact, I’m positive.

The barf scene is disgusting. Glad I didn’t see this in 3D.
Lest you grow frustrated searching Fandango for a 3D version of the film, know that I was using hyperbole here. My comment was solely intended as a jest. Still, Jolie didn’t have to film the puke coming straight at the camera…and audience by extension.

Take your pick: a strafing plane or man eating sharks.

Would you rather die on the open seas or be taken to a Japanese internment camp?
There’s a card game with similar hypothetical quandaries, but I’d be willing to bet that this scenario isn’t one of them.

Louis refuses to read a false statement...becomes a human punching bag.
The price of allegiance…and integrity.

The Tokyo Ritz turns out to be a coal barge.
Instead of a chocolate on their pillow they get a lump of coal as their pillow.

Louis lifts a heavy beam over his head...his own personal cross.
In addition to being beaten with a bamboo stick and repeatedly punched in the face, this is yet another parallel between Louis’ sufferings and Christ’s.

Final analysis: a heavy true story that captures the triumph of the human spirit amid tragedy and suffering.

3 out of 4 stars. Not an enjoyable film but an important and inspiring one.

I must admit, when I first learned that this film was directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers, I had serious doubts that it would adhere to Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book or, more importantly, honor the extraordinary life of its central personage, Louis Zamperini. I’ve never been happier to have been proven wrong. Jolie’s direction isn’t masterful but it’s very good…perhaps even surprisingly good. Of course, Jolie was supported by some exceptional talent behind the camera, beautiful location work and finely crafted, period appropriate props, sets, costumes and other production elements. The story hews fairly close to Hillenbrand’s novelized biography with a few notable embellishments and exclusions. While the book mentions the survivors catching birds and fish for food, grabbing a shark right out of the water by its tail seems a bit Hollywoodized. One significant omission from the film is that during the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin (1936), Zamperini actually met Hitler, who complimented the runner on his record-shattering final lap of the 5000-meter race. While on the subject of the Olympics, I wish Jolie would’ve spent more time on this aspect of Zamperini’s amazing life journey…it would’ve served as a lighter, happier counterbalance to the bleak and tragic events that dominate the back half of the film. To whit, for those who are disturbed by images of violence, the movie’s torture scenes may be difficult to endure. Though a far cry from torture porn, squeamish spectators are advised to avert their eyes or make a run to the concession counter during the beating scenes. All things considered, Jolie acquitted herself well in her second directorial effort and the story itself, though difficult to watch at times, is undeniably inspirational. It fills me with profound sadness that Zamperini never got to see his life story on the big screen—he passed away on July 2, 2014. This was a true account that deserved to be experienced by a mass audience, so I’m thrilled that it’ll now be immortalized on the big screen for future generations to experience. Your life and legacy are an inspiration to us all, Louie. RIP.

Big Eyes (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Eyes
No Johnny Depp? No Helena Bonham Carter? Boy, Burton really is turning over a new leaf.

“You’re better than spare change.” Quite a pick up line.
It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from “You look like a million bucks!”

“You are on the threshold of untold success.” Something tells me Adams’ fortune is about to come true.
Of course, I’ve seen the trailer, so I cheated.

The “Hobo Kids” paintings are all the rage thanks to the altercation reported on the front page.
A surefire way to create a sensation is to couch it in controversy.

Charging for posters of paintings...what a concept.
It was revolutionary for its time, but would be an obvious move by modern marketing (which, of course, would utilize the internet to drive sales).

The grocery store scene is the first traditional Burton flourish in the film.
This scene might weird some people out, but it’s really telling of Adams’ character’s psyche. On the other hand, maybe she’s completely sane and that particular store just happened to be invaded by aliens hailing from the same world as that big eyed nurse seen at the beginning of Star Trek (2009).

S. Cenic. The cat’s out of the bag.
“Scenic” is such an obvious tipoff that I’m surprised nobody in the art world caught it and ousted Walter Keane on the spot…unless this was artistic license taken by Burton in order to preserve the anonymity of the not-so-innocent artist/huckster until late in the film.

Adams works on a “defining statement” for the World’s Fair.
One set of big eyes per painting is manageable, but a throng of such bulging ocular orbs painted on a mural is overkill, right? And a bit creepy?

The “infinity of kitsch” is lambasted in the Times.
Terence Stamp is superb here and really gets in touch with his inner Anton Ego (Ratatouille).

“Eye did it!” The truth comes out.
A clever headline. Puns were more en vogue in the 60s, so it probably got better comedic mileage back then.

The courtroom “choreography” scene is humorous.
It’s the type of buffoonery you’d expect to see in a Looney Tunes short.

The verdict will be based on a paint off. Saw that coming.
The audience can predict the necessity of this scene twenty minutes earlier in the film, but the payoff is still extremely satisfying. The sequence has a very classical Hollywood feel to it.

Final analysis: a superbly crafted true account with tremendous performances and brilliant direction by Burton.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Burton has redefined himself as a “serious” director. Who knew?

This is Tim Burton’s most enjoyable film in ages. Perhaps not incidentally, it’s also the least fanciful film he’s helmed in the same span of time. Have Burton’s recent box office bombs forced him into becoming an honest filmmaker? If the quality work he’s turned in here is any indication of his potential to become a dramatic director, one can certainly hope. Without the assistance of his usual thespian crutches—Depp and Bonham Carter—Burton has tapped Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as his leads and not only was the casting pitch perfect, so are the performances themselves. Adams is extremely adept at generating pathos for her struggling artist single mom and Waltz is masterful at imbuing his deceptive opportunist with enough rakish charm to prevent his character from degenerating into a caricatural villain. Taking nothing away from the superb directing and writing, it’s really the acting that elevates this film above the scores of well crafted biopics. In fact, the performances are so mesmerizing that much of the time we’re completely oblivious to the finely appointed, period appropriate sets, props, costumes and other production elements that effectively transport the viewer back to the 50s and 60s. The attention to detail here is staggering and furnishes the film with a level of authenticity that’s absent from less meticulous, less immersive period pieces. And let’s not forget the film’s most valuable and vital props—the paintings. Some will find them appealing while others will find them creepy, but however you view them, the “big eye” paintings are the film’s focal point and silent co-star…and basis for the title. Burton has always had a yen for bizarre, disproportionate and askew characters, so doing a film about big eyes seems like a natural fit for the director, especially when recalling his walleyed Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010), who could easily be a grownup version of one of the dejected waifs in Margaret Keane’s (Adams) paintings. Not only does Burton like big eyes, it would appear that he also likes the word big itself—this is the third movie he’s directed with that word in its title (1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and 2003’s Big Fish—to cover all the bases Burton should call his next movie Pee-Wee’s Big Eyed Fish). This film is a watershed event in Burton’s career; against all probability, he’s reinvented himself as a director of independent dramas. Burton can always return to his fanciful fantasy film roots if he so desires, but at least he has something to fall back on now if those projects should flounder. That might not mean anything to you, but to the baron of the bizarre, I’m sure it’s a pretty big deal.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hobbit 3

One last arrow. Make it count.
Both Bard and Legolas run out of arrows in the film. Perhaps this is in response to the negative criticism that characters with longbow skills always seem to have an endless supply of arrows in Jackson’s Middle-earth movies…just like action stars always seem to have an unlimited number of bullets when taking out the bad guys.

A promise stone for the Elven princess.
I guess it’s a Middle-earth version of a promise ring.

The showdown at Dol Guldur is spectacular.
In truth, this is the only action scene in the movie that had any degree of heft or emotional resonance for me. This sequence features a clash of titans…all of the heavy hitters from LOTR are here and the melee, though brief, is a frenetic and catastrophic power struggle that effectively sets the events of LOTR into motion. This confrontation is like a chess match between grand masters, while the rest of the battles in the film resemble that electronic football game where players mindlessly collide with each other or aimlessly meander around the board in fractal patterns. And you’re sure to be shocked at who sends Sauron packing.

Ah, Mithril mail. I’m surprised Thorin was willing to part with it.
After all, Gimli avers that a Mithril shirt is a priceless treasure in LOTR. And, bestowing gifts doesn’t seem to be Thorin’s strong suit, especially when afflicted by the dragon’s madness.

Bilbo absconds with the Arkenstone, but is it in time to avert a war?
You can probably tell from the title that the answer to the question is…negatory.

Were-worms. Wait, don’t these things live on Arrakis not Middle Earth?
The inclusion of these gigantic worms, for the one minute that they’re actually onscreen, is highly gimmicky and utterly superfluous. Isn’t the movie already long enough? This scene should’ve been left on the cutting room floor…with the other, much smaller, worms. Corrections: Middle-earth and wereworms, according to David Day’s bestiary Characters from Tolkien.

Way to use your head, giant troll.
There’s little else going on inside its thick cranium, so might as well use it as a battering ram. Who needs Grond?

Alfred is worthless in a battle. Something tells me he’s going to die horribly.
This guy reminds me of that weasel Beni in The Mummy (1999). Correction: Alfrid.

Thorin sees himself drowning in a whirlpool of liquid gold.
Yes, this is a sign that he’s officially lost it.

Thorin asks his fellow dwarves if they will follow him #OneLastTime.
Props go to the film’s marketing team for establishing this line as a hashtag well in advance of the film’s release.

Legolas finally runs out of arrows. Uh-oh!
Not much of an anxious moment, though, since we know he’s a central character in the future trilogy.

Beautiful landscapes on the “back again” journey.
Although, the trek back is far too short for my liking, and Gandalf’s farewell is a tad reserved when considering all that Bilbo’s done to aid his quest. Thanks for nothing, pointy hat!

Final analysis: a rousing finale to the trilogy and an effective bridge to
Thanks to Jackson and his team of writers, watching all six movies, marathon style, will now be a seamless, albeit bleary-eyed, experience.

3 out of 4. Sub-LOTR but still a journey worth taking, if only to see how it ends.

Pre-release reviews have criticized this third Hobbit installment as one prolonged battle with a nearly wholesale absence of character moments. It’s hard to argue with that argument. As a trilogy capper, Five Armies doesn’t even come close to approaching the epic grandeur that Best Picture winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) so beautifully achieved by diligently excavating its rich source material. Still, to judge Five Armies against ROTK is pretty unfair. This is The Hobbit, after all; the more remedial epoch of the Middle-earth saga. Of course, that qualification just ends up sounding like a colossal capitulation and a pathetic excuse for this uninspired and heartless affair. One of the main contributors to the film’s mediocrity is that it’s the third movie based on one book, unlike LOTR’s 1:1 book-to-movie ratio. It’s evident after viewing this film (which also includes tidbits from Tolkien’s other works as well as Jackson’s own, original story embellishments) that the director stretched the events from the novel as far as he could…many maintain that he shouldn’t have stretched it quite so far. Again, it’s hard to argue with that notion. The preponderance of highly styled, frenetically paced action sequences coupled with an utter dearth of character moments has forged an extremely lopsided experience. By way of defending the film, some would attest that since extensive character development has been established in the first two films, only minor character work was needed here. On this point I strongly disagree since the movie’s action-palooza plot has created a tone deaf entertainment. The only scenes in the film that engaged my emotions were at the very end when Bilbo returns to the Shire. It’s like I’d been watching over two hours of a FPS video game up to that point and only got about ten minutes of actual movie…empty mental calories with only a morsel of actual story. Some will cite Thorin’s treasure trance as a strong plot point, but I contend that it was handled very unskillfully (Bilbo “tells” us, via his conversation with the dwarves, that Thorin is ill instead of “showing” us) and that this whole subplot is far too similar to Smeagol’s descent into corruption and madness—which is far more compelling than Thorin’s. While Tauriel and Legolas’ through lines finally pay off, their sidebar adventures frequently upstage those of the dwarves—the supposed main characters in the story. As far as the fracas with the firedrake is concerned, Smaug’s presence in the film is far too fleeting and feels like an afterthought. Disappointing! There can be no doubt that Five Armies is a first-rate spectacle, but it seems perfunctory at every turn, just filling in the last details from the book while connecting the dots between The Hobbit and LOTR trilogies. I had far higher hopes (somewhere up in the sky with the eagles, which have become the go-to, deus ex machina saviors of our heroes and have been employed far too often in these Middle-earth tales) for this film and especially for the titular battle, which doesn’t hold a candle to Helm’s Deep and isn’t even worth mentioning in the same sentence as the cataclysmic conflagration at Pelennor Field. Bottom line: Five Armies succeeds at passing the baton off to LOTR. Other than that utilitarian role, there’s little else to recommend the film, unless your threshold for enduring protracted action sequences is somewhere up in the stratosphere...which is, incidentally, where you should also suspend your disbelief while watching the film. Some could grouse, justifiably, that the final farewell to this fantasy franchise is less a tribute to the author than it is a Tolkien gesture. Though getting there wasn’t all that I’d hoped it would be, in the end, I’m just glad to be back again.