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Film Review : The Hobbit : The Battle of the Five Armies

Finally the dwarfs and Bilbo Baggins have reached the lonely mountain and met Smaug, who promptly flies away to wreck short-lived revenge upon Laketown. With the dragon dispatched, Thorin Oakensheild should be a happy dwarf but now his thoughts turn to how to protect his golden hoard. And where did that Arkinstone get to?

Thorin Oakensheild on a pile of gold

This was always my favourite part of the book, the quest is over but the characters have to deal with the consequences of their decisions. The actual battle itself is secondary (and not even described in the novel), it is Bilbo’s actions that drive the plot, and only now does he really become the main character in the story.

Of course, being a Hollywood fantasy epic, The Battle of the Five Armies has a go to great length to show five armies battling. Peter Jackson is an old hand at this and the battle is actually reasonably compelling, although I don’t want to ever again see a character raises his eyes to a distant ridge just in time for a host of warriors to appear. It happens at least twice in this film alone – don’t these mighty leaders ever send scouts out? It’s all about basic situational awareness, people!

Everything is very pretty and well directed but The Battle of the Five Armies just doesn’t know when to stop, especially with the individual fights. The titular battle is eventually ignored as half the characters go dwarfo e orco in another location. The film establishes that the average orc dies immediately from the merest scratch (even a small stone thrown from a child-sized hobbit can completely flatten them), but orcs with names take forever to take down. It is always entertaining watching Ninja-Legolas dance around but Thorin’s final struggle comes to a perfect conclusion and then … keeps going. It just will…not…end.

On the other hand, the film itself doesn’t draw out its ending after the climax. Once the battle is over it quickly moves to the amusing denouement of the novel with a couple of minutes left over to finish off the tedious wrap-around story started over 8 hours of screen-time ago.

Of all the three films, I enjoyed this one the most. It has the possibly the least plot but by this stage the characters are well developed and you can’t say it is boring. Even Gandalfs pointless and padded side quest is despatched with quickly.

As a Hobbit film, TBotFA is still impossibly violent and lacks the charm of the book, but the it succeeds on its own terms and you can’t really argue with that title.

Recommended for completists or if you like this sort of thing

Film Review : Jodorowsky’s Dune

Alejandro Jodorowsky burst into world cinemas with the cultiest of 70’s cult films – El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I have seen The Holy Mountain (my review) and it was clear to me that Jodorowsky was a director with a great visual sense who had – how to put it? – a very different sense of reality than most of us. When I heard that somebody had made a documentary about Jodorowsky’s attempt to film Dune I knew I had to see it.
Title Card for Jodorowsky's Dune
Jodorowsky spent 2 years on the project, collecting his “spiritual warriors” to make what was to be a landmark project designed to expanded the consciousness of cinema-goers around the world. His casting was inspired – Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Dali as Leto, and “Baron Harkonnen is grotesque, fat and disgusting : Orson Wells!”. He also had an eye for artistic talent, gathering SFX genius Dan O’Bannon, and artists H.R. Giger and Chris Foss (who together went on to make Alien) along with others to produce the whole film in book form to show to American film studios.

Jodorowsky’s Dune mainly consists of Jodorowsky speaking about the project, with frequent cut aways to most of the other warriors, who all seem genuinely pleased to have been involved in such a huge but doomed undertaking. It is easy to see how Jodorowsky managed to woo people to his quest, he is a magnetic speaker and his enthusiasm is infectious even if much of what he says is crazy. It is lucky for the world that all he wanted to do was create films; as a politician or religious leader Jodorowsky would be dangerous.

Although not a single frame of film was shot, the complete storyboard was compiled and Jodorowshy’s Dune animates portions to show what the finished product would have looked like, backed by an an appropriately 70’s synth soundtrack. Jodorowsky is certain that he was on track to make a masterpiece, and I am not sure he is wrong. Maybe that film exists in another, better timeline.

Instead, in this timeline we got 80s Dune. David Lynch instead of Jodorowsky. Sting instead of Mick Jagger. Toto instead of Pink Floyd. These are not positive changes. Coke Zero instead of the original coca-infused Coke. Jodorowsky’s face lights up (more than usual) as he recounts seeing the film and realising it was a horrible failure.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating and often hilarious look into a project that was just to big for this world. Jodorowsky is the perfect subject, jabbering on in charmingly broken English about his film and his philosophy. By turns hilarious and draw-droppingly mad, Jodorowsky’s Dune is highly recommended.

Jodorowsky has a new film out soon – I’ll probably see it.

Film Review : The Wind Rises

Jiro Horikoshi is a young boy in provincial 1910s Japan when he realizes that his mission in life is to design airplanes. Becoming a top class engineer just in time to join Japan’s struggle to become a first-world nation, Jiro’s designs will be needed for certain national ambitions.

A frame from The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ) is the latest film from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, and it fits right in with the best of Miyazaki’s work. Although serious in tone and completely non-fantastical (except for a few dream sequences), it has the same gentle almost fairy-tale quality as earlier films such as Spirited Away. The the story moves gracefully along and artwork is top-notch, every frame could hang in a gallery. I particularly liked the way that the motion of air was portrayed, almost every scene has waves of grass in motion or smoke lazily drifting, very befitting for a film concerning an aviation engineer.

Viewers expecting a hard hitting film about the build up to WWII will be disappointed, the film doesn’t exactly skirt around the issue as it is just not interested with telling that story. The coming war is alluded to, and the changing nature of Japan’s ties with Germany comes into play at certain points, but the focus is firmly on the struggle to create in the face of great obstacles. That fact that the creation is a war machine is only lightly touched on.

This is not really a criticism, The Wind Rises is about mostly about creating rather than the thing created and it succeeds in its goal. However there does seem to be a large WWII shaped-hole leaving a slightly disjointed tale. But that disjointedness does play into the dreamlike feel that the film seems to be going for.

Moving and beautiful, The Wind Rises is worth watching. Highly recommended.

Film Review : The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug

The barrel escape fromThe HobbitAfter negotiating the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins and the party of dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain and their date with a dragon, pursued constantly by a band of murderous orcs hellbent on killing Thorin Oakensheild and adding some urgency to what would otherwise be a gentle stroll of a plot.

Another year, another Hobbit film. I was pretty lukewarm about the first film (my review), it was OK but seemed like a really good 90 minute film crammed into 3 hours. The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug (HobDoS) is also almost 3 hours long but I am glad to say that it hangs together a lot better and some clever choices have been made in what to add to bulk up the plot.

The Hobbit was never a story that would support 9 hours of film, it is a thin book, episodic and repetitive in nature as befits a story designed to be read to sleepy children. The producers of the films have had to scratch around to additional material to pad out time and to make the films fit in stylistically with the Lord of the Rings movies. In the first Hobbit film, this meant stretching out the fight scenes with the goblins to a ridiculous degree and adding some tediously canonical foreshadowing that made no sense unless you already knew the story. Somewhere during production of HobDos the decision was made to just start inventing new stuff and the film is much better for it. The journey through the elvish kingdom is enlivened by an unlikely love triangle and Laketown becomes an impoverished city of political intrigue.

The additions are all a little Shakespearean and make for entertaining viewing. What the new stuff isn’t is very Tolkenesque, and the seams show when scenes that are taken verbatim from the book (Bilbo talking with the dragon) are juxtaposed with 21st century comedy action fare (the dwarfs battle plan) and the horror styling of Gandalf’s pointless side quest. The over-the-top action scenes are still very long and sometime nonsensical but they do not outstay their welcome so much this time around.

Once again, I got sucked into paying extra for the high frame-rate 3D version. The 3D is very subtle this time around and I didn’t notice any problems with the high frame rate although I don’t know whether that is due to changes in the process, the crew learning how to light scenes for the new cameras, or just me getting used to the way it looks.

HobDos is an improvement on the first film and I enjoyed it.

Film Review : Gravity

Sometime in the near future past (when we still had space shuttles), a routine mission to service the Hubble goes horribly wrong resulting in an astronaut being cast off into the void. She must use her training and limited experience to survive.

Gravity is an amazingly visual film, more or less an extended showreel for director Alfonso Cuarón (best known for Children of Men) to indulge his passion for really long, complex shots. His style work really well for this type of story, the camera drifts with the characters in space, subtly framing the action or lingering on the planet below.

Post for the film GavityEverything is choreographed perfectly, I wish more directors and editors would follow Cuarón’s lead. We live in the age of great CGI but people still cut films like they are trying to hide the seams that don’t need to exist anymore.

The long shots also serve to make use of 3D tolerable, indeed even enjoyable. The crisp lighting of space and the fact that background is hundreds of miles away makes the foreground really pop, while the leisurely camera motion lets your eyes just soak it in. I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D and it is the only film to date that I can recommend paying the extra money for.

Is there anything bad about Gravity? I didn’t really care for the dialog which verges on corny in places. To be brutally honest Gravity might work better as a silent movie with a soundtrack containing only ambient sounds and music. Sandra Bullock does an OK job and Clooney amps up his Clooneyness to 11 but neither of them really steal the show. But that is actually fine, since the visuals, nail-biting story, and clever sound design take up the slack.

Not perfect but very well worth seeing, especially on the big screen. Highly recommend.