Out in Theaters: DIGGING FOR FIRE

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director. Read More


Sundance Review: DIGGING FOR FIRE


Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director.


Swanberg has never really made anything bad (though mediocre wouldn’t be a huge stretch with this one) but with all the talent gathered, Swanberg’s narrative wanderlust  oses focus, leaving Digging for Fire feeling the strain of Swanberg’s scriptless tendencies. According to the director, Digging for Fire had a more complete, “bigger” script than any of his other projects – mostly because he had so much talent involved and needed to schedule like a really Hollywood dog. In true Swanberg fashion, his final treatment was about ten pages. Famous for crafting just the barebones of a story before shooting, the mumblecore man demands his actors to make choices once the camera are rolling to get from an established Point A to an established Point B. All that middle ground is fair game for improvisation.

At times, his distinctive make of cinematic vagrancy allows for some great unscripted scenes – Jake Johnson‘s hindmost digging moment, Chris Messina‘s unscripted pool nudity, Sam Rockwell doing any and every thing, Swanberg’s adorable baby boy doing any and every thing – but also opens the door for some less compelling episodes – Rosemarie DeWitt‘s beachside interlude with Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson‘s casual disppearance from the action, unsatisfying relationship arcs.


Digging For Fire opens with a familiar Swanberg platitude; stressed out adults talk about stressed out adult problems; strong women trying to gain the reins on their less-than-model husband; secret undertones of dreaming about the highlife of the young freewheeler. Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) have just arrived at a client of Lee’s to housesit their upper-decker mansion and get a vacation from their less-than-model home. In between bouts of nagging about preschools and taxes, Tim discovers a rusty gun and a human bone buried in the backyard (a story idea culled straight from an odd incident in Johnson’s life.)

When the couple soon after separate for a weekend, each decide to pursue a side of themselves that has seemed to snuff out in the face of marriage. After dumping their kid with Grandma and PopPop (Sam Elliot), Lee meets up with an old friend (Melanie Lynskey) to air out their marital snafus. Obsessed with the mystery of the gun and the rusty bone, Tim calls together a posse of friends old and new to put shovels to dirt over beers and a few lines of cocaine.

Each half of the couple contents with the ghost of their old selves, opening doors that uncover new demons. Problem is, those doors sometimes seem as random as briefcases on Let’s Make a Deal. Many of Swanberg’s characters work in their own right but don’t add enough to the makeup of the final product to legitimize all their erratic appearances. Although Swanberg seems to be dipping his toes in more mature, less jejune waters, he’s able to maintain his very distinctive voice and worldview. If only he could have equally inserted the tangy sharpness and sweet comedy of his last films in this creation by man at crossroads.


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For all the huffing and puffing we’ve done over Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one big juicy payoff. For story look elsewhere, as Jackson’s latest is a smorgasbord of VFX battle scenes, one right after the other for practically the entire running time. Those not looking for elf-on-dwarf-on-man-on-orc action ought to look elsewhere as this is literally the foundation, the studs and the dry wall of this movie. Those thinking that sounds pretty, pretty good, rejoice, as this third Hobbit installment is Jackson’s most bombastic to date. Somehow it’s also his most restrained and the tightest of the series as well; it’s shorter and battle-ier than any LOTR-related installment and only has one ending. Color me satisfied.

Picking up in the midst of the Smaug v. Laketown populace face-off that Desolation of Smaug capped off on, The Battle of the Five Armies wastes little time dispensing with the namesake of the second film. From the get-go, this is a narrative charged with finality and doesn’t purport to drag its feet getting there. In past Hobbit installments, Jackson has made brevity his enemy and this opening pre-title card sequence makes fast work of ejecting old habits while setting the stage for that golden payday at the end of the tunnel. Call it a marketing strategy if you must but I believe Jackson’s claim that this third entry is his favorite of the prequel trilogy. You can finally taste his passion again.

In the smoldering ashes of a battle equally won and lost, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is now a certifiable hero while Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), atop an insurmountable pile of loot, battles a monkey on his back that’s poisoning him against his fellow Dwarf companions and the increasingly faithful Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Dragon’s gold is said to hold that kind of sway and within this internal battle Armitage is afforded the opportunity to flesh out the themes of paranoia and addiction that have been bubbling to the surface in these Lord of the Rings prequels. Studying the not-so-subtle nuance of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s source material and his very specific in-book relationship to the idea of addiction, it’s clear that there’s no short pathway to redemption in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. For all his struggles, Gollum is never redeemed. Boromir ends up a pincushion for his once ring-craving. And Frodo and Bilbo ultimately end up shipped off to Elf rehab because they can never escape the sway of the ring. Ownership always ends in bloodshed and torment.

Jonesing over a stupid amount of wealth, Oakenshield’s internal battles get a touch hokey (the golden whirlwind of bad choice) but it’s his character’s pig-headedness and his fellow race’s predilection towards greed that becomes the fulcrum point of this five armies affairs. Everyone’s got their own legitimate or illegitimate claim to the fallen Smaug’s treasury and even in light of advancing enemies forces, struggle to band together to defeat a far greater foe. It’s thematic even if it does hit the nail on the head.


But what am I on about? Jackson’s sixth never pretends to be anything more than smashing time at the Hulk convention. There’s enough f*cking battle to make Hitler jealous (guy was a big fan of CGI.) An intercut twofer of big baddie fights pretty much occupies the entire third act. Turns out Orlando Bloom engaged in more gravity-defying elf-crobatics matches up with Armitage playing CrossFit with Azog the Sword-Armed like peanut butter and chocolate. For once in this series, I wasn’t just waiting for it to end. I was engrossed.

In chaos, Jackson excels. He makes big spectacle set pieces look grand beyond belief. From Smaug’s beautifully-rendered firebreather to copious stretches of advancing Orcs, The Battle of Five Armies is earmarked by a preeminent sense of technical mastership. The large-scale cacophony of peoples is a marvel to behold. Though 48 FPS (rightfully) went the way of the Balrog, I can imagine that this action-hectic film would have been breathtaking under the cowl of those next-gen glasses.

Rather than bake everything in a long string of fanfare, Jackson manages to tie things up rather quickly once the armies and their battles subside. Thank goodness. I don’t think the franchise could withstand a Return of the King triple decker ending.

From the humble (boring) beginnings of An Unexpected Journey to the foot-dragging musings of Desolation of Smaug, Jackson and Co. have depended upon a sense of nostalgia for the far superior Lord of the Rings to propel events forward in this cousin trilogy. Old characters have lent their personages and many, many moments of foreshadowing have splayed themselves like a cheap whores (“They call him Strider but you’ll have to figure out his real name for yourself”) but while Five Armies hits on more of the same notes – more steely-eyed, bratty-boy Legolas, more “remember him?” Ian Holms, more Gandalf scraping his pipe and packing a bowl – it does so with a dreadful amount of fun.


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“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Aidan Turner, Stephen Hunter
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
161 Mins
Only those fond of cliffhanger endings and tease as tale will truly appreciate the second lackluster installment in Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit trilogy. Certainly there are things to love; Bilbo’s character progression and his untimely addiction to one precious ring is welcome (although not nearly as prominent as it ought to be), the set design and telescopic vistas are almost as epic as ever, seeing the majesty of gold-diggin’ dragon Smaug realized in impressive CG tantalizes the little boy in me (the one who listened to The Hobbit audiobook until it wore out), and one particularly fun scene involving dwarves in a barrel is a blatant film highlight; but other elements that ought to stand out fall flat on their face and never recover.

For instance, one would expect the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to kick in some much needed nostalgia for the series but he, worse so than Ian McKellen‘s performance of Gandalf, seemingly lacks interest in the role and his apathy shines a bright hole where there ought to be life. Lacking the breezy comic relief he brought to LOTR, this new (old?) Legolas is instead a cantankerous daddy’s boy to dwarfophobe elf-king father, Thranduil (Lee Pace). That relationship and his kittenish flirtation with elf Ms. Forest Elf herself, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), reveals a bratty blonde-haired, weird-eyed elf whose presence is entirely unnecessarily. But such is the nature of these prequels. He does come loaded with all the dynamic bowman bells and whistles that make for great action beats but he’s not the Legolas we know and love. As has become my general response to these films: why bring him up at all then?

But The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug‘s greatest crime lies in the continuation of the first installment’s trend of doing too little, too late. For a film that stretches over two and a half hours, there is probably only an hour worth of necessary story development. Everything else is superlative nonsense stuffed in purely to milk the material into three films. Worse yet, it plays like an episode of Lost where the most important cue you get from the film is: MAKE SURE YOU SEE THE NEXT ONE! And while it’s nowhere in the same league of disappointment as the Star Wars prequels, this Hobbit trilogy is so far a major bummer.

Let’s try and recount the events of Desolation of Smaug just to give you a better idea of what’s in store. First, Biblo (Martin Freeman, who seems to be the only one really trying), Gandalf, and the company of dwarves continue to flee the armless, severely face-raked white orc Azog (Manu Bennett) and his small legion of trackers. They seek refuge at the home of a surly skin-changer Boern (Mikael Persbrandt) who (unless he comes back into play in the third installment) adds absolutely nothing to the narrative. From there it’s through a inky, stinky dark forest whose dandelions have the power to make everyone trip out (a sequence which provides some satisfying laughs) and after battling a troop of lispy giant spiders, they, once again, find themselves the captives of a battalion of grumpy, wood elves.

On and on it goes, all the while you’re sitting there wondering if the whole Smaug thing (as in the name of the movie) is going to emerge. Unfortunately for those of us who’ve been anticipating Smaug to prominently feature in the film (you know because IT’S NAMED AFTER HIM), expect disappointment as his first appearance is somewhere around the two-hour mark.

The problem is, once we finally get around to all this Smaug business, we’re so worn out from all the boorishness that came before that it’s hard to muster up the excitement that ought to come from seeing this epic, gold-hoarding, talking dragon come to life. Admittedly scenes with Smaug are visually stunning and Benedict Cumberbatch is nearly perfect as the megalomaniacal, near-diva dragon but, as mentioned, it’s too little, too late.

As for all of this talk of returning to form, Jackson is still miles from the magic that made the Lord of the Rings such a rousing and resounding adventure. Missing is the enthusiasm, edge of your seat action beats, and general sense of wonder. Don’t get me wrong, action sequences here are amazingly choreographed and I can’t imagine how intricate the process of getting some of the stuff they did on screen – all the way from storyboarding to post-production – but it’s clear that Jackson’s put too much time into these action beats and not nearly enough into the hobbit, dwarves, wizards, and elves in them. What he falls to understand is that it was never the CGI that made the LOTR world magical, it was the characters and their relationships.

Here, I don’t feel like I know anyone other than Bilbo, Gandalf (the Gray, I might add), and to a lesser extent, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). As far as potential dwarf king Oakenshield is concerned, I can’t quite tell where our allegiance is supposed to lie with him. Biblo has finally won over his approval after the events of An Unexpected Journey but Thorin’s still a tyrant of a leader. He’s willing to leave behind wounded soldiers. He shakes down Bilbo for his treasure. And he’s just obviously much more concerned with securing his precious Arkenstone than he is with the safety of anyone around him. I mean the guy blatantly disregards advice from Gandalf. I think we all know, that’s never a wise move.

The rest of the dwarves all have their little bits but none are given quite enough to become a rounded character. I guess it doesn’t matter since all of them have silly names that rhyme with each other anyways and are sure to pass from one ear to the other for those who are not Tolkeinheads but it would be nice if we actually cared about some of them instead of just seeing them relegated to various stereotypical caricatures.

As this endless story rolls on, other characters pop up to pack the story as tightly as possible with characters we could care less about. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who looks exactly like an amalgamate of Bloom and Viggo Mortensen, gets significantly more play than he did in Tolkein’s story and his Da’ chirping kiddies are just more fodder for the nonsense character pile. In fact, all of the Laketown characters seem like derivations of characters we’ve seen before in Rohan. Stephen Fry‘s Master is little more than a greedier, more sentient version of pre-Gandalf-exorcism Théoden. He’s even equipped with his own Wormtongue in Alfrid (Ryan Gage). So many extraneous characters, so little to do. Loopy brown wizard Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) even returns to do absolutely nothing.

As far as where this film lies in the pantheon of films, it’s a shame that they’re forever be linked with the greatness of LOTR. And while many seem to think the Lord of the Rings films are nerdy, they are wrong. Well, maybe that’s a little far but let me run with this. This series, on the other hand, is definitively nerdy. There’s so many Tolkien tidbits unnecessarily stuffed in that only the most hardcore of Tolkien fanatics will remember more than fifty percent of this tale from the book. Jackson stretches paragraphs into pages, minor characters into twenty minute asides, and focuses the chief propulsion on a villain who we all know won’t be realized until after this prequel trilogy has concluded (you know of who I speak). ‘The Hobbit’ was 300 pages long and is being turned into nearly nine hours of film. The entirety of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was 1500 in small print and was the same length. So essentially Jackson turns each page of The Hobbit into two minutes. No wonder the story lags so much.

Most egregious, he goes so far as to include material in this film negate the logic of The Fellowship of the Ring and Gandalf’s general story arc. Unless he gets clunked in the head in the next installment and forgets everything he learned in this film, his ignorance to the importance of the ring and Sauron’s presence is entirely unforgivable. What a travesty!

Apparently, we all have to swallow the pill though and get in line for the next bit, the finale that promises to actually deliver on, you know, being good. Jackson is dangling the carrot and we have little choice but to wait and see if the third one manages to muster up a film that can stand on its own. As is, I’m waiting until all the films are done so someone can craft a three-hour supercut of the whole trilogy. When that hits the shelves (or the internet) then I might be interested in revisiting this ought-to-be epic. It’ll clearly be way more worthwhile than any extended editions. I guess at least this time, instead of walking, they’re mostly running.


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