Nobody intended to make a bad Hobbit trilogy, but….

Thats a whole lot of Hobbit...
Thats a whole lot of Hobbit…

I’m not a film editor, or a cinematographer. I wouldn’t know how to stage a scene or design a set suitable for filming. I wouldn’t know how to produce a film or organise all the various departments that make a film, or even organise the on-set catering for a days shoot. And moan as I do about CGI, I wouldn’t know where to start regards designing or executing an effects sequence. So I can only imagine how annoying it must be to an artist or craftsman or director or producer when someone like me on the internet moans about their work or states that a film they worked on is terrible. Any idiot can voice an opinion about a film these days; a domain once dominated by professional critics has been swamped by all sorts of blogs and videos of teenagers stating their unreasoned opinions. And I do sometimes wonder if that’s to the detriment of films as a whole, that we are now getting the films we deserve because the voice of Joe Public is affecting the film-makers and the studios and their decision making.

Good films have suffered by the advance word of mouth of the loudest idiots who might have their own undisclosed and biased viewpoint. Bad films have triumphed simply by aiming at the lowest possible common denominator and then championed for it by that same denominator. I have sometimes thought that film-critics are just talentless hacks making a living off the work of others (the film-makers), under the misguided belief their opinion carried any particular importance- but multiply that by the genuinely untalented people sharing their sometimes mindless and unreasoned views on the internet and it becomes rather something scary.

I’m a part of that with this blog. I’m just a very small voice in a cacophony of opinion, praise and vitriol. I don’t expect my voice to be heard by anyone particularly important, although I did get a very nice comment from one of the editors/producers of Fantastic Films magazine when I praised the mag in my previous blog some years ago. I just love film, both as a serious art-form and a piece of entertainment.  It can be mindless fun or incredibly thought-provoking or emotionally devastating, utterly disposable or something to be treasured. But how much weight my opinions carry, or even should carry, is hardly worth thinking about. I couldn’t make a film (although I like to think I could script one, which is why bad scripts and plot holes particularly occupy me in my reviews) but I know what I like, or at least, I like to think I know a bad film when I see one. I also think I try to see the best in a film; that no matter how cynical a film-maker can be, that no-one really sets out to make a bad film, and that most bad films at least have something going for them.

I was recently talking to my brother and he set upon trashing San Andreas as a truly terrible, worthless film. I started feeling rather defensive about the film, although my own review here on this blog awhile ago was pretty negative, and rightly so- its not a very good film. My point regards San Andreas was that while the script was daft nonsense and most of the actors seemed to be just in it for the pay cheque (and that must happen more often than we like to think), Alexandra Daddario, at least, seemed to be making some effort, perhaps because she thought the film could be good or if only because she reasoned that the film was her big break in movies. Some of the effects work was spectacular, particularly the physical stuff which is largely forgotten in these days of CGI. It wasn’t a very good film, it didn’t offer anything new or challenging- it was mostly just popcorn entertainment and, yes, cynically so with a bad by-the-numbers script. But was it a terrible film?

Is it realistic of us to expect all war films to be a Schindler’s List or The Thin Red LIne? Should standards be that high? Is that at all realistic in what is, essentially, an entertainment business? Or are we complicit in Hollywood making bad films simply by watching them, or in my case, seeing something good in a bad film and forgiving that film being bad if only because, well, a pretty actress seemed pretty good or was making some effort in it with her performance?

No-one works in a vacuum and there must be so many forces in play that conspire to make a ‘good’ film ‘bad’. There’s likely a lot of people working their absolute hardest to make a film the best that they think it can be, only for it to wind up in the DVD bargain bin in twelve months time. And yes, there’s a lot of people just going through the motions just doing it to pay the mortgage or buy a new sports car/yacht.

Which all seems to be a long-winded way of getting to the subject of this post- The Hobbit trilogy, the story of which seems to have finally come to an end with the Blu-ray release of the extended edition of the third entry, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

hobb3
….er, where’s Bilbo? Wasn’t it supposed to be HIS movie..?

Well, let’s be clear on one thing- The Hobbit films are not terrible films by any means. A lot of gifted artists and craftsmen worked on these films and they are a feast for the eyes and ears, like the LOTR films before them. The actors all do pretty good jobs- some of the work is excellent. Yet there’s a ‘but’ hanging in the air whenever people talk about The Hobbit films. Some people love them. Some people adore the Hobbit films and see little wrong with them. What could be wrong with another excursion into Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth? As for it being a trilogy, the more the better.

For the rest of us, well…

Was it too much of a good thing?

The LOTR films… they just… amazed me, basically. I’d read the Tolkien books many years ago and loved the Radio 4 dramatisation that transformed so many Sunday lunchtimes years before with what I was sure would be the definitive LOTR. But films? It was surely one of those unfilmable projects. And yet Peter Jackson, somehow he pulled it off. They were just magnificent. Yes, Tolkien purists had much to frown upon, but surely even they had to admit, that as films they were pretty damned amazing and could have been much, much worse. And even more astonishing, as good as the theatrical versions were, Jackson every year served up extended editions that just made them even better (although to be fair there are some that much prefer the theatrical versions). Okay, maybe there were a few issues and wrong turns but on the whole the films were sincere. We’d all heard the tales of earlier, aborted LOTR film-projects, of Sam being recast as a female hobbit and other characters altered to ensure an optimum audience demographic, of changes that made it less Tolkien and more, well, Hollywood. We’d all seen earlier fantasy films like Krull and Hawk the Slayer and Willow and Conan and how blatantly silly it could all look when things went wrong. I mean, Dwarves and Elves and Wizards and Orcs… on paper its wonderful but onscreen? Jackson’s LOTR took the Star Wars route. It took itself very seriously and while it diverted in places on the whole it at least felt fairly faithful to Tolkien’s work, certainly more faithful than we might have realistically hoped. As a body of work, as a trilogy, it was as magnificent as anything we could have hoped for.

hob1Bear in  mind where I’m coming from with this- I grew up in the age of stop-motion dinosaurs and blue screens and matte lines and grainy matte shots and static matte paintings.For the new generation, well, anything goes, the sky is the limit with effects technology now. For my generation, some of the things we have now, whether it be LOTR or Gravity or The Matrix, its just astonishing stuff. Unfortunately I’d suggest the sophistication of scripts and storytelling have been left behind by that tech- perhaps even taken a step backwards. But certainly it brings to mind Batty’s speech in Blade Runner, “…the things I’ve seen… you.. people wouldn’t believe”. We have digital characters now. Digital characters who at times seem to ‘act’ better than the ‘real’ characters they share scenes with. What used to be static process shots extended by paintings on glass have been replaced by sweeping camera moves through virtual worlds, of virtual sets featuring virtual people.

So after the success of LOTR,  The Hobbit seemed inevitable, mired as it was in rights issues. Eventually it would happen, if only so the people with the rights could turn those rights into money. After all, thats all the rights were for anyway, and greed conquers all, at least in the film industry.

But The Hobbit isn’t The Lord of the Rings. As seriously as fans might treat it, it’s just a children’s story, a fairly simple fantasy of a quest involving a Hobbit and Dwarves and a magic ring and a dragon. Its fun. It never had the gravitas of Tolkien’s later opus. It was an exciting, three-hour film at most. When it was announced as two films, I figured it was envisaged as a pair of two-hour films, so the whole thing would be four hours- maybe a little excessive but I thought it might ease any pacing issues a single film might be saddled with. I expected a bright, breezy treat, a pleasant diversion to complement the LOTR epic.

hob2I was wrong of course. What was actually intended was a ‘proper’ prequel to LOTR; something ultimately as reverential and serious as that trilogy. It became less Tolkien’s The Hobbit and more something else. Finally even two films would not be enough and it was turned into three. I won’t debate the obvious arguments on whether this was an artistic decision or a cynical financial one. To me the ultimate sin was a betrayal of basic storytelling;  in my eyes, what should have been the finale of the second film (Smaug attacking Laketown and the conclusion of that whole Smaug section of the tale) being moved to the start of the third film, crippling the second film by taking away its thematic endpoint and handicapping the third with a major sequence divorced of all build-up and context.

The sad part about it is that, to  be honest, The Hobbit films are pretty good films. I quite like them. I just think there’s too much of them. There is some great work both in front and behind the screen.But the films being made into a trilogy, and saddled with characters and character arcs and sequences not at all contained in the original book, have generally left a bad feeling about them, certainly a shadow of negativity. A feeling that they might have been great, had they just been The Hobbit, just been two films at most, just told the original story without the excessive ties being planted to bring it into line with the trilogy that follows them. There’s an unfortunate ‘what might have been’ over the whole project that LOTR wasn’t hampered with. I say unfortunate as it’s inevitable that the whole debate distracts from the films and what they do well. Some of the acting is great and what isn’t is often due to characters and situations being altered to better manage the whole ‘trilogy/prequel to LOTR’ thing, or simply because some characters shouldn’t even be in it at all. Even the LOTR extended editions cut scenes/events/characters from the story that bettered it overall. The Hobbit seemed to go the other way entirely, saddling it with stuff that should never have been scripted, let alone shot, to the detriment of the film/s as a whole.

The cynic in me thinks its just about the money. The Hobbit, for me, needed to be smaller, more intimate, a separate entity from LOTR. I just suspect that the money took over the project, that it suddenly became too big, too epic. I mean, really, pretty much a whole film dedicated to just the big battle? Tell me its not about putting more bums on seats, three sets of cinema tickets compared to two or even one, three sets of DVDs and Blu-rays as opposed to two or one (die-hard fans buying both theatrical and extended editions have bought six releases on either format in order to ‘own’ The Hobbit?). The cynic in me thinks the money wins because artistically The Hobbit wasn’t better for being three films as opposed to two or one. There’s probably a fan edit doing the rounds even now that tightens things up to a three-hour version, maybe it could be tightened even more, it’d be interesting to see. I think its a shame. Nobody set out to make a bad Hobbit trilogy, but it just kind of turned out that way. Maybe the project just got out of control, became too ambitious, lost its roots (a very simple book). It isn’t terrible, there’s plenty of good in them. Two good films anyway. But three was just pushing it too far.

Well, at least that’s what I think, for what it’s worth…

 

 

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Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

terror1Well in the scary-stakes it’s not a very good horror movie, and while it’s tempting to suggest it just hasn’t aged too well, I doubt it was all that effective at scares back when it was first released in 1965. But there’s much affection for this film. Its the first of the Amicus portmanteaus, a series of horror anthologies that are rather a sharp contrast to Hammer’s gothic bloodletters, and has just been released in a fine extras-laden Blu-ray here in the UK. Indeed, if you approach the film as a piece of indulgent fun rather than horror, you can get quite a lot from the great casting and geek-ish in-jokes. However if you’re looking for short tales with twists and scares you’ll find more reward from a few episodes of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, which generally feature better writing and have aged considerably better.

But then again, I guess no-one watches Hammer films these days for a good scare do they? Horror films have moved on, and the rewards of watching these older horrors are different now. It has to be remembered that as tame as they may seem today, many of these horror films had trouble getting past the censors of the time. So if nothing else they are perhaps a reminder of more innocent times and gentler horrors and if it’s fun you are after then this film can be a rewarding two hours, particularly if you’re a fan of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and enjoy seeing familiar faces from your childhood pop up, such as Roy Castle and Alan Freeman.

The five stories are framed by a narrative set onboard a train, in which five strangers sharing a carriage are joined by the strange Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing with an accent as odd as his characters name) who uses his Tarot cards to predict each of their futures. Each tale spins off the chosen cards- the first segment is a Werewolf story, the second a tale of an intelligent killer plant, the third a story of voodoo, the fourth a tale of an art critic stalked by an artists disembodied hand, and the fifth a tale of man who has unwittingly married a vampire.

terror2It has to be said, summarising them the stories seem quite promising and there is plenty of variation in them in regards pacing and mood even if they are rather dodgy in execution. I’ve seen zombies with more life in them than Alan Freeman’s performance in his segment, but that same segment is enlivened by the casting of M himself, Bernard Lee, and seeing him clearly inebriated and worse for wear throughout all his scenes (which had to be edited together using material of him sitting down or sober enough to stand). Watching Roy Castle is a treat for those of us who grew up with him presenting BBC’s Record Breakers, Donald Sutherland looks ridiculously young and Christopher Lee quite adept at comic timing (unless thats just an accidental by-product of his script)  On the whole its rather a fun film but firmly in the shadow of Hammer’s spicier efforts.

The film itself, considering it was always just a b-movie and hardly intended to be treasured for posterity has been scrubbed up pretty well with a decent remaster. The widescreen presentation displays the fine framing and the picture has reasonable grain and little sign of any heavy DNR; the colours are vivid and the mono soundtrack is clear. Extras include a one-hour making-of doc, a commentary track and an old doc on Christopher Lee that many will have seen before but is a welcome tribute considering the actors sad passing not long ago. It’s even graced by being packaged in a brilliant steelbook with great artwork. It’s easy to see the love and affection and high regard this film is held in by horror fans. Even though I may sound rather disparaging here (my own tastes leaning more toward the Hammer films) it is still a fine addition to any Horror fans collection. Just expect more (unintended) titters than scares.

The Martian (2015)

marty1As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.

It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

marty2Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.

God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.

A Most Violent Year (2014)

vy1A Most Violent Year is a period thriller set in 1981, but the film is really a throwback to films of the decade before. Its a riveting character piece, a study of someone trying to stay clean in an increasingly dirty city, slowly losing control of his surroundings and repeatedly finding his moral code and convictions being tested. Beautifully photographed, with a sharp, slow-burning script, a moody score and amazing cast, its an excellent film that just works brilliantly.

A Most Violent Year is the story of the Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain) as they struggle to maintain their home oil business during the winter of 1981 in New York City. Their rise over the previous decade has earned them the attention of both shady competitors and a justice dept keen to clean up the industry. Hijackings begin to start happening, injuring his staff, and when Abel turns to the NYPD for help he finds them more interested in investigating his business than protecting it. Abel has set a time-sensitive business contract in motion which threatens to cost him everything he has and leave him with nothing if it doesn’t go through, and the increasingly violent hijacking attacks and investigations by the NYPD gives the bank he relies on cold feet. Abel takes pride in his personal ethos of staying clean and not resorting to violence, but threatened as he is on all sides and with time  running out, what else can he do?

vy2The title A Most Violent Year can be rather misleading. as this isn’t a particularly violent film. It is graphic at times, and quite brutal, but really it isn’t a gangster movie. It’s more a character piece, an examination of a man whose morals and way of life is tested to the limit as he tries to protect his family and save his business from ruin. Isaac is simply brilliant here, obviously a major talent to watch; externally calm and charming but as the pressure on him rises you can sense that internally he is threatening to explode. Chastain however simply burns the screen, stealing every scene she is in. Whenever I see her in a film she just blows me away, and in a dark character piece like this, working off the impressive Isaac in so many scenes, its just phenomenal work. She’s just an incredible actress and it will be fascinating to see her career progress if given decent material.

vy3Credit is no doubt due to director JC Chandor, whose previous film, All is Lost, which I saw earlier this year also impressed me. Both films have the irresistible pull of powerful central performances and a slow burn that raises the tension as the films progress. Both films hark back to that Golden Era of American Cinema, the 1970s. These aren’t fast-paced films that use action and pyrotechnics to disguise lazy writing and plot-holes. This is a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. There won’t be a sequel or a prequel. We’ll never see these characters again. But they won’t be forgotten. Its powerful stuff and definitely worth at least a rental if you are a fan of 1970s-style movies. It certainly deserves a wider audience than it likely has found so far- like All Is Lost, I suspect A Most Violent Year will gain an increasingly appreciative audience in years to come. The best films always do.

Nightcrawler (2014)

nite2This film infected my dreams last night. They were not very pleasant dreams- Nightcrawler is not a pleasant film. In some ways it was a perfect film for Halloween.

Well, let’s start with the synopsis: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sociopath, a disturbed young man driven to succeed in a world completely ignorant of him. He is the dark, seedier embodiment of the American Dream. He will gain fame and wealth and success at any cost- indeed, as a sociopath, he has no empathy for anyone else, no sense of others worth other than as stepping stones to his own success. Stumbling upon a freelance film crew recording a car crash to sell the footage to a news network, Lou finds himself ideally suited to the work as he feels no discomfort witnessing brutal bloody crime scenes or the carnage of accidents. Neither does he feel any guilt or shame profiteering from the pain and misery of crime and accident victims. Indeed, to the contrary he thrives as he  muscles into the dangerous realm of nightcrawling, surfing the police radio frequencies for situations where someone’s misery can be turned into his own profit. Selling his footage to an ailing news network led by career-threatened Nina (Rene Russo), Lou’s search for ever-more sensational footage leads him to cross the line into interfering with crime scenes and actively becoming a participant in what he films, finally engineering a crime scene that threatens the lives of public and police for the ultimate windfall.

nite1Nightcrawler is a remarkable film. Part thriller, part social commentary, and I guess part dark satire, it is set almost entirely in night-time LA, a beautifully filmed nightmarish urban landscape. Indeed, has LA at night ever looked so beautiful? The central performance of Gyllenhaal is riveting, a madman who is unlikeable but utterly fascinating. His descent into darkness and resultant success is terrible to behold. We feel invested in his success at the start, as if his social awkwardness and underdog status makes him the nominal hero, but as he leaves a trail of misery and broken lives behind him we begin to realise we are rooting for some kind of maniac. Lou feels nothing for anyone, manipulating everyone to his own ends, as free using his footage to gain sexual favours as he is asking for thousands of dollars, as if it’s all the same to him. He is living what to him is the American Dream, while for us its clearly an American nightmare.

Gyllenhaal is charming and terrifying in equal measure, Lou quite completely unaware that he is a monster- it’s a performance that seems so effortless and natural that it is rather extraordinary. Even if the film itself were tosh, his performance is worth the price of admission alone, but thankfully the film itself is equal to his performance. Direction, editing, photography, all are up to the task. It isn’t pleasant; even when its funny its making you squirm at what you are smiling at, and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth at the end. Are we all voyeurs? Are we complicit in Lou’s success? It’s a very dark and disturbing film. In that regard, it’s also possibly the nearest I’ve seen a modern film come to the seminal Taxi Driver. Nightcrawler is one of the best films I have seen this year.