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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

Book Review – Hellstar

Hellstar by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

Cover picture from HellstarEarth’s first colony ship to the stars is going fine, several decades into its trip to a distant habitable planet. The 8000 inhabitants are healthy and happy in their metal torus. But slowly things start going wrong – mechanical failures and strange physical phenomena manifest themselves with increasing frequency, and soon the population starts showing the strain. A serial killer and a dangerous recreational drug don’t help things either.

Hellstar, despite the terrible title, is actually not a bad hard scifi (with a few mystical overtones) thriller. By no stretch of the imagination is it a good book, but it is well-paced and its only real major crime was being written in 1986. It’s time to bring out The Eighties Scifi Paperback Checklist:
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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.

Book Review: The Swerve : How the World Became Modern

The Swerve : How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
ISBN: 9780393064476

Cover picture from The SwerveThe dark ages took a pretty brutal toll on Europe and it is no surprise that scholars of that era looked back to the writings of the Roman Empire with a reverence that they probably didn’t deserve. But the rediscovery of one particular document, On The Nature of Things by the free thinking Lucretuis, inspired several generations of scholars and kickstarted the scientific revolution.

Or so Greenblatt’s impressively researched book argues. Actually, most of the page count is concerned with a monk named Poggio Bracciolini who led a fascinating life against a backdrop of distant monasteries and vicious vatican politics, before becoming something of a professional manuscript hunter with On The Nature of Things his greatest find.

On The Nature of Things certainly sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It asserts that the Gods (if they exist) take no interest in humanity and that natural laws (not to mention random chance) hold complete sway over events. It even claims that all matter is made of tiny particles, which is a remarkable guess. I imagine it was pretty heady stuff for stuffy 15th century society.

The Swerve is at its best when it is describing Bracciolini’s life and the state of 15th century Italy. But it makes an unconvincing argument that On The Nature of Things‘ rediscovery deflected caused the course of human thinking to swerve (to use the book’s tortured analogy) away from dogma towards science. There were lots of things going on, and the new found popularity of an ancient poem was only part of the story.

Despite that quibble, The Swerve is well written and informative if perhaps a little dense for summertime reading.