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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Top to Bottom: The Films of Peter Jackson




Top to Bottom is a series that I run over at Letterboxd where I do a run down of a director's films from best to worst (or Top to Bottom)

Today we are going to be taking a look at the films of Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who broke into American cinemas with 1994's Heavenly Creatures and the hit the motherload by adapting the Lord of the Rings books into an incredibly successful trilogy of films.

So here is Peter Jackson's films ranked Top to Bottom:

1.) Braindead (or Dead Alive as it known in the States)


Considered one of the goriest films of all time, Braindead is madness put onto the screen. A zombie film that has yet to be topped in the gore department as well as set pieces, Braindead tells the story of a man who has to become a hero after his elderly mother dies from rat monkey bite (just go with it) and comes back from the dead. She infects one person and the chain goes on and on until the house is swarming with zombies.

Braindead is one of the craziest films that I have ever seen. The film is played as a slapstick comedy, but with copious amounts of gore. I don't think that I have ever seen a zombie film this brazen before or since. The film is so over the top that the ending makes no sense whatsoever, but we are ok with that.

This is Peter Jackson's masterpiece (most would say Return of the King is, but I say otherwise) and he deserves all that came after this. Sure, he has won many Oscars for his mainstream films, but he won many fans over with his lawnmower wielding masterpiece.

2.) King Kong


This was the film that Jackson made after winning all the Oscars for Return of the King and he had a lot to prove. Even though he had just made one of the biggest and best trilogies of all time, critics and fans were treating King Kong as if the film was Jackson's second film. There was a lot of talk of the dreaded "sophomore slump" and that this film could make or break Jackson.

The worries stopped when the film was released. While the film does have it detractors, there are many more fans out there to contend with. This is a wonderful film that reminds us of the adventure films of old. Sure, the film does run long, but Jackson makes up for that by placing exciting scenes at the moments where he thinks that the audience has lost interest. It is a masterful pieces of filmmaking and deserves all the praise that it gets.

3.) Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.


This trilogy was a massive undertaking that it is kind of a shock the films turned out as good as they did. The films were shot back-to-back-to-back, during an 18 month shooting schedule that spanned over 5 years. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but the work was rewarded with many Oscars and heaps of acclaim and huge box office returns.

While the films tell one complete story, they each have their pluses and negatives. Fellowship gets the story moving at a decent enough pace and there really isn't anything wrong with the film per say, except for the fact that Jackson and company decided that the films would be action based, instead of story and character based as the books were. Sure, the books had many action set pieces, but the characters and lore were always front and center. Had Jackson and company gone down this route, the films might not be as loved by the masses as they are today. They would have been loved by fans of the books, but that is a smaller crowd meaning less money. So I guess it is a fair trade off.

The Two Towers has a great beginning and a great ending, but the middle of the film is slow and sluggish. Any time that we have to sit through the Treebeard scenes, we just want to fall asleep or hit fast forward. The rest of the film is fine, but man is that middle section boring.

Return of the King is the best of the three, taking its time to wrap up everyone's story while exciting us with the fearsome battles that the series has been leading up to. Of course, one could say that the multiple endings hurt the film, but I don't think that is the case. Sure, there were plenty of people who complained, but in the end the film was better because of the closure.

After the trilogy cleaned up at the box office, there have been many films that have tried the "shoot all the films at once" thing, but Lord of the Rings is the only series that made it work.

4.) The Lovely Bones


This is where I start to lose readers. This selection for #4 is where readers "Peace out" and read on no more. I want to preface this with: I am sorry that you feel that way. That being said, I really do love The Lovely Bones. Jackson and company had a huge task ahead of them: They had to take a book that can be graphic at times and turn it into a PG-13 film (I don't know why, but they did) and I think that they did a wonderful job with it. While the rape and murder of young Susie Salmon was graphically depicted in the book, Jackson took the first part of the attack, the luring in of Susie into a "hideout" that the creepy neighbor built for the kids in the neighborhood to use, and showed Susie running away. She ends up at her killer's house, where he is taking a bath, cleaning himself of the blood and other fluids that he got all over himself while killing her. It is this moment that we realize that he soul ran away, but her body stayed.

To me this was a powerful way of depicting a murder without showing it. We know that her killer would be able to overpower her, but we don't need to see what he did to her. It is very heavily implied through the scene in the bathroom. The killer's clothes are dirty and there is enough blood to show that there is no way that Susie survived her attack. Then her killer smiles, cementing the fact that he enjoyed what he did to Susie.

I have never seen a PG-13 film take something so serious as the murder of a child and make it so that it is explicit without showing us anything. This is also one of the few films where I didn't hate Mark Wahlberg.

I love this film and have seen it many times. I think that the film is a powerful one and, while I can see why people don't like it, I think that it does so much with the material that it stays true to the book without compromising too much.

5.) The Frighteners


This was the first Peter Jackson film that I saw on the big screen. Heavenly Creatures would have been, but I was fourteen when it was released and my parents wouldn't take me downtown to the one theater it was playing at.

The Frighteners is a film that is a hell of a lot of fun and gave us some truly breathtaking moments with a lot of the effects in the film. These effects, which we had never seen before, were done by Weta Studios, Jackson effects house that is the second largest effects house in the world, only behind ILM. Weta gave us interesting effects we had seen in a while and made them look effortless. The ghosts are amazing to look at and the scene where we find out who the villain is (the scene where Michael J. Fox throws the villain's face at the grave) still gives me goosebumps, that is how good the effects are.

The film is funny too. You have Fox, Chi McBribe, John Aston, and a devilishly over the top Jeffery Combs as an F.B.I. agent who has spent so much time investigating cults and supernatural things that he has gone crazy make this film worth a watch. Combs himself overshadows the effects and that is hard to do.

The Frighteners would also be the last film that Jackson would make that received an R rating. The film was actually shot with a PG-13 rating in mind and when the film got an R rating anyway, Jackson went back and added some gore back into the film because he didn't want audiences to feel like they were being cheated.

The Frighteners is an excellent film that still holds up today.

6.) Forgotten Silver


This is Jackson's least known film, but that doesn't mean that it is bad. He co-directed the film with his friend Costa Botes and it is a mockumentary about a forgotten icon of cinema. This person, Colin McKenzie was a filmmaker ahead of his time. He invented sound for film, color film, filmed the first nude scene, invented the stedicam, and much more. This doc was shown on national tv in New Zealand and everyone thought that the film was real. It didn't help that Jackson had film critic Leonard Maltin, actor Sam Neill, and Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein in the film talking about how it wasn't Americans or Germans who invented various techniques used in film, but a New Zealander who no one remembers.

The tv station received a ton of calls from people who want to learn more about this fake person or want to share their memories of working with this fake person. Jackson and Botes would later fess up to their ruse, but had a lot of fun watching people as they tried to get their fifteen minutes by jumping on the bandwagon that was filled with lies.

The film itself is an hour long, but it is an amazing endeavor. Seemly CGI, matte paintings, green screen, and many other techniques were used to convince the audience that what they were watching was real. I remember showing this to a friend and not telling him that it was fake and he believed it. That is how good this film is.

7.) Heavenly Creatures


The film that first brought Jackson acclaim in the States was the further thing from a "Peter Jackson" film that fans could find. There were no aliens or zombies or Giant Hippos with machine guns. This was a film that was taken completely seriously. The film was even nominated for an Oscar for original screenplay and introduced the world to Kate Winslet and Melanie Linsky.

The film tells the story of two girls who are the best of friends, but one of the girls fathers doesn't like all the time that the girls are spending with each other. The parents try to separate the girls, but they are having none of it. The girls hatch a plan to kill one of the girls' mother.

That is the basic plot of the film, but there is so much more. The girls spend so much time together, in and out of their fantasy world, that they begin to have feelings for one another. This is what the parents fear because back in the 50's and 60's this was a real fear. The case was forgotten about except for some who were living in the town at the time. The story then turned into legend which turned back into truth.

Jackson does an incredible job in making both worlds, the real world and the fantasy world, very distinct from each other for the audience, but for the girls, both worlds are real, with the the actual real world close up for them. They would rather live in the world that made up and be together. Jackson does this with poking fun or mocking the girls or their families. We all have our own fantasy worlds, except most of us don't kill over them.

8.) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies.


After years and years of legal cases over rights and monies owed, the time came to turn The Hobbit into a motion picture. The original plan was to have Guillermo del Toro was the original director, but when the legal woes held up production, del Toro left. This meant that the film would still have to be made because it would have cost more to shelve the film instead of making it. Reluctantly, Jackson stepped into the role of director, which would be a great thing, but Jackson just didn't have it in him.

The first film, An Unexpected Journey, has the look and feel of a Peter Jackson film. It is nice to see the familiar faces from the past films and the film does a nice job of introducing us to the new characters who we are going to follow for the rest of the series. The film moves at a brisk pace, but there is one thing that will haunt the series forever: an overabundance of CGI. There are entire scenes in the film where no actors are used. If you look back at the Lord of the Rings films, CGI was used to enhance the film. Here is used to make the film. This is not the way that it should be. All throughout this series, I felt that I should be holding a video game controller, waiting for my turn to control the characters.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, is a mixed bag. There are some great scenes to be found here, but the film just feels like a lot of filler. This would be because after shooting on what was supposed to be the second and last film, Here and Back Again, Jackson and company realized that there was enough material to fill another film. They changed this film's name to it's current name, and titled the third film, The Battle of the Five Armies.

This third film in the trilogy is the weakest of the bunch. There are some great scenes in the film, but only in the Extended Edition. The theatrical version of the film plays out fine and is the shortest of all the films in this and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and moves very fast. I will say that it is nice to see some characters who we have only heard of, make an appearance in this trilogy.

In the end, The Hobbit films are harmless entertainment, but without Jackson at 100%, the films feel like they are stretched too far. They aren't bad films, just underwhelming.

9.) Bad Taste


After watching Heavenly Creatures on laserdisc, I had to find the other films that Jackson had directed. A video store down the street from my house had Bad Taste on VHS. I always knew the cover with the alien hold an AK-47 and flipping us the bird and always wondered what that film was about. When I found out that it was the first film that Jackson had directed, I knew that I had to see it.

The film is crude and very low budget, but that is ok. Many filmmakers have gotten their start in horror films. Sam Raimi, Bob Clark, and James Gunn all got their start making low budget horror films and Jackson was no different.

Bad Taste is a proper name for this film as the film is a gorefest from start to finish. The film, however, is well made and is clearly made by people who love the genre. The fact that Jackson got the New Zealand film board to give him funds to finish the film is a story that is better than a lot of films. Hell, the film even played at the Cannes Film Festival and jump started Jackson's career.

Bad Taste is a film that feels like a first film, but also feels like it is showing us the future because of the director.

10.) Meet the Feebles


After Bad Taste was a hit, Jackson was given a small budget and allowed to do what he wanted. What he created was can only be described as an "adult version of the Muppets". This is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, but this is not a film for everyone. In fact, the first time I saw the film, I sat in shock at what was happening on screen. Sure, we get the cute, animal puppets, but as we go down the rabbit hole, we start to see things that we wish that we could unsee:

-The star of the stage show that the Feebles is is a hippo named Heidi who is in love with the owner of the theater, Blech, a walrus, who is having an affair with his cat secretary.

-There is a rat who shoots porn in the basement of the theater who is trying to exploit a young new star.

-A fly who eats shit and reports on gossip within the theaters.

-A rabbit who sleeps around, who thinks that he has contracted aids.

There is more, but I don't dare reveal all of this film's secrets.

Jackson has created a living, breathing world here and it is something that you will never forget after your first viewing. Meet the Feebles is a film that needs to be seen twice: the first time to get over the shock value, and the second time to see that this is a funny film. Meet the Feebles is not for everyone, but give it a watch. You can always turn it off.

So there is Peter Jackson's directing career from Top to Bottom. Thank you for reading and I will see you next time.
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