Rings of Power Episodes 1 & 2

rings1Its clear from watching the first two episodes of Rings of Power that this Amazon series will be unfortunately divisive – on one level it works fairly well, surprisingly so, while on another it disappoints (albeit for predictable reasons).

So first things first- as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it appears to work very well. It looks absolutely gorgeous, richly evocative of the aesthetic of Jackson’s films – the art direction is superb,  the sets, the costumes, the make-up… it definitely looks the part, convincingly belonging to the world Jackson created, which is no mean feat itself, never mind the finances Amazon threw at it. It also sounds wonderful, too- Bear McCreary’s music already some of the best scoring I’ve heard in a film or television project this year, definitely facing up to the considerable challenge of Howard Shore’s remarkable work on the films. I’m not suggesting that McCreary is attaining the richness and complexity of Shore’s opus but he’s certainly reaching for it: there were several moments watching these two episodes where I was captivated by the music in ways that seldom happens now. Imagine that- music that actually draws attention to itself. There will be, I’m certain, endless comparisons between this series and the HBO Game of Thrones prequel that is airing at the same time (most of which will be unfair which is something I’ll come to later), but certainly while I haven’t seen anything of House of the Dragon I’m pretty confident that show’s music, if its anything like that of its predecessor, functions far differently. But I love big music that draws attention to itself, like McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music several years ago, so I’m all for it here- its possibly the series saving grace for me which will ensure I’ll keep on coming back.

The acting, is, well, adequate I guess- to be fair, its not like the script is doing the actors many favours.  I guess it would be a thankless task for experienced veterans with the dialogue they are given, but this cast of largely unknowns are certainly struggling. I think the large ensemble, the vast canvas that leaves little room for any proper focus, is a creative decision (likely an attempt to make the narrative feel as epic as the imagery) that handicaps the series from giving characters time to properly breathe and provide depth. Why not, for instance, allow Episode One to focus entirely on Galadriel and her quest and properly demonstrate the amount of time (centuries, millenniums) that we are told is passing?  The one thing that Tolkien’s mythology has in spades is scale, its huge breadth of time, which could have been better used to its advantage. I don’t really know the details regards Amazon’s rights re: Tolkien’s work but imagine a one-hour mini movie telling us the story of the First Age, only then leading to an Episode Two set in the Second Age and the series narrative proper.

The Tolkien purists might have been enthralled by it, but what about the casual viewer, or the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things audience which Amazon seems to be aiming for?

I think that’s the real issue here for Rings of Power; it can’t be everything to everyone.

Is it Tolkien though? Well, there’s the rub. What I’m getting at, is that Amazon, like New World Cinema and MGM before it, is always in a surely uncomfortable tension with Tolkien’s work, transforming what is widely considered classic literature into mainstream entertainments, while George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, HBOs adaptations of which are so readily held up in comparison, is mainstream entertainment before any adaptation starts, the books are pop culture already, something which Tolkien was never aiming at with his work. I’m sure Tolkien purists are as dismissive of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as they will be of Amazon’s Rings of Power. I suppose Amazon’s problem is more how much of the Jackson fanbase, those fans who love the Lord of the Rings films, is dismissive of the series, because to be sure, it isn’t making Rings of Power for the Tolkien fanbase, its making it for a general, mainstream audience that largely took Jackson’s epic trilogy to their hearts.

Returning to the Return of the King

rotkA few thoughts upon re-watching the third LOTR film, now completing my watch of the three films on 4K UHD:

On the ending/s

I know there’s lots of people who joke about the never-ending ending of The Return of the King, but for me its possibly my favourite part. It feels earned. After all, after watching… what is the length of all three extended editions, somewhere around 9 – 10 hours… surely after a story that is so long, it needs a proper ending that wraps up the various character arcs and validates everything before it with a fitting conclusion. Its funny; whenever I see the post-Mount Doom scene, after the Eagles have saved Frodo and Sam and we then see Frodo wake up and he is reunited with his old freinds, and we finally see Sam in the doorway, and he and Frodo exchange that look and Sam smiles and it fades out… I always think, ‘THATS the ending some people might prefer, certainly the ones who think its all too long’. It even FEELS like an ending, when it fades to black part of me expects the credits to roll (I wonder if it was actually a temptation?) but if the film had closed with that, I would have felt so cheated. I need the rest of the film, all the farewells and the ceremonies and the return to the Shire, to remember what’s been saved. And of course, we need the sadness, too, of Frodo’s departure, which was the genius of Tolkien- he understand that ultimately there has to be a price for everything, a cost to the victory, a lesson from Tolkien’s studies in mythology no doubt, and one modern film-makers and writers should heed. Speaking of which-

Its all about the story, stupid

You can’t beat having a traditional, sensical storyline with a beginning, a middle and end (albeit even one, or ESPECIALLY one, spread over a trilogy), a storyline with internal logic and sensical characters and motivations. That’s the advantage of having a literary source where all that has been worked out for you (in the case of LOTR, Tolkien had all sorts of appendices etc for additional weight and thought over and above those huge three books that  themselves supplied a trilogy structure). Things that were done or said in Fellowship of the Ring have bearing upon events in Return of the King, it feels like a whole. Its all totally the very opposite of, ahem, the Disney Star Wars trilogy that seemed to inexplicably wing everything as they went along: what in the world were they thinking? I’m no film exec but I would have expected some kind of plan regards creating a new trilogy of films would have been one of the very basic requirements prior to greenlighting anything (or signing actors, really), especially considering the investment required for films of that scale. Simply winging it seems very reckless or very brave (or indication of wild, perhaps even reckless, hubris).

Still awfully pretty

Some of the visual effects have inevitably dated, but much of it holds up incredibly well and maintains the ‘wow’ factor. The sequence of the Rohirrim on horseback fighting the Oliphaunts, racing in the madness of battle under the giant beasts remains as amazing now as it did back then. Its really quite astonishing and holds up brilliantly well. It reminds me that one of the things that so impressed me about all three LOTR films when they originally came out was the sheer audacity of what they were trying to do, how fearless they were in trying to bring some of that stuff to the screen. Indeed, in hindsight its even more impressive when one considers how cutting-edge it was at the time and how so little has been done like that since. Sure, some of the compositing looks a little ‘off’ (probably due to the sheer number of shots being attempted and the pressure of time) but some of the stuff looks more than amazing, some of it quite perfect. Speaking of ‘perfect’, ahem-

Maybe the fate of The Hobbit was obvious

As the LOTR trilogy progresses, some of its missteps become more frequent and jarring- that dreaded word ‘overconfidence’ rearing its ugly head again, as if Peter Jackson was so chuffed by his new film-making toy set and what it could do that he wanted to play with it until it broke, and he lost any self-restraint. The whole Army of the Dead sequence is brutally inept, losing all of the books tension and horror – and when the avalanche of skulls threatens to engulf our heroes (this is AFTER the undead army has agreed to terms with Aragorn) its like something from some other movie- pertinently, its like something from The Hobbit movies. There’s a few moments in the films when any bafflement regards how those Hobbit films could have turned out so bad seems like no surprise at all: indeed it even seems inevitable. The irony that the book of The Hobbit is such a gentle adventure and it was blown into this huge trilogy of spectacle is almost too painful to bear.  ‘More’ isn’t always the same as ‘better’ and restraint is often the smartest course of action- just because you can throw armies of thousands of digital characters onto the screen doesn’t mean you have to, nor that a battle of thousands has anymore dramatic power than a simple one-on-one fight: yet its a lesson that film-makers and their digital trickery do not heed. In fairness to Jackson, maybe it was the studio and the external producers demanding something as big as LOTR when he should have been better making something rather more low-key and fanciful, and minus that silly romance between an Elf and a Dwarf (as if Gimli and Legolas wasn’t plenty enough).

LOTR prefigures me too, ‘woke-ism’ etc:

Witch King: “You fool. No man can kill me. Die now!” Eowyn: “I am no man!” (kills Witch King). I mean, that’s how you do it. You don’t draw attention to it or turn into a banner for some political movement. Strong women have been in films for decades, just ask Ripley and Sarah Connor.

The music is extraordinary

What Howard Shore achieved with his scores for these films is beyond exceptional, and like John William’s work for the original Star Wars trilogy, his music lifts the whole LOTR trilogy to some other level beyond anything Peter Jackson could have hoped for. Its a great reminder of the power of film music, its just a pity no-one heeded it, considering the state of film-scoring now.

Origins of Mordor: Tolkien

Tolk2Films are not the place to look for facts or cold hard Truth. Films prefer to smooth things out, preferably with a happy ending, or certainly something life affirming. Always take a biography on film with a pinch of salt. But there is always something enticing about the ideal pictures that films paint, something seductive.

On paper, a biography of JRR Tolkien seems the unlikeliest of subjects for a film. Tolkien was, as far as I know, a very traditional Englishman a world apart from those we consider ourselves to be today, a wholly different generation that possibly ended with the Great War. Fascinated by language, mythology and history, an Oxford scholar quite averse to celebrity or wealth – and likely quite ignorant of the Hollywood machine that turned his most popular works into something else entirely, making billions of dollars and earning Oscars and fabulous wealth for those involved. One has to wonder what he would have thought of the hugely successful LOTR trilogy; he may have been ruefully chagrined by the whole spectacle, and as someone who read the books in the 1970’s, I can sympathise with those that feel the films woefully inappropriate. A LOTR trilogy close to Tolkien’s original vision might be the biggest and most elaborate arthouse movies ever made, far removed from the popular-culture films Peter Jackson produced. Something more Boorman (Excalibur) than Jackson, I think.

Tolk1The narrative of Tolkien is rather mundane, if understandably so- its a dramatisation of Tolkien’s early life, from his orphaned childhood to later years at college, and the narrative is how his experiences and friendships over those years, and his experiences on the battlefield of the Somme during WWI, informed his later creations of Middle Earth and the saga of the Ring, images of which are scattered throughout the film.

I suspect some liberties may have been taken. The film has the feel of… well, I’ve raised this before regards films based on true events or life stories: in making a dramatic work, you can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Tolkien’s biography does have elements of the remarkable to it, and there is no doubt that his harrowing experiences of the Great War and the loss of his friends had a huge effect on what he later wrote in his stories. It is perhaps inevitable that the wholesome, Sunday-afternoon matinee movie feel of the film is perpetuates through the war sequences which are suggestive rather than as graphic as they might have been, the whole film perpetuating a very mild matinee sheen. I’m thinking, Downton Abbey. Maybe that’s inevitable, it seems that’s how the outside world thinks we lived in the past, our own equivalent of the Hollywood Wild West.

The film is heartfelt and well-intentioned, but lacks the darkness that I think really infected Tolkien’s actual work. In the tradition of Downton Abbey, everyone seems handsome or gorgeous or noble or good or combinations thereof, almost as if we are seeing an inspirational ideal rather than the possible reality that Tolkien lived, something that unfortunately reduces Edith to an underwritten love-interest. Its all harmless and entertaining but lacks any genuine surprises and any drama feels idealised, or distant. Its a harmless film, really.

Ready Player One (2018)

The problem with Ready Player One is that it is, essentially, four different stories, and the film-makers concentrated on the wrong one.

rp1aStory one: Its 2045, and its a dystopian world of economic collapse and (presumably) environmental disaster. People seem to be mostly poor and living in over-crowded shanty-towns, and unemployed. Everyone -and I mean, seemingly everyone– seems to spend their waking hours in a virtual world called The Oasis. Reality is so desperately depressing that escape is everything, even if its only virtual. But that, pretty much, is all we know about 2045. We don’t know any details of the social-political climate, who’s in charge, who’s paying the bills. The company behind The Oasis is the richest on the planet, worth trillions, but its not clear how it makes any money, because The Oasis seems to be free. The film doesn’t not examine why everyone feels the need to escape into a virtual world or how that might mirror our own current preoccupation with our ‘escapes’ be it films or television or video games. We see nothing of any counter-culture that might perceive The Oasis as a threat or blight on society and the world, or if humanity escaping to this virtual haven means it has given up on reality and we are all doomed. The Oasis is there, and everybody’s playing it- that is the world of 2045.

rp1bStory two-  genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in the mid 2020’s creates a virtual world, The Oasis, that in a bleak and downward-spiraling world becomes a bright haven for a desperate humanity. Halliday was a solitary child who grew up a secluded life in the 1980s and whose only comfort was predominantly the 80’s pop-culture of that decade, and so The Oasis is dominated by that culture. Somehow this obsession seduces everyone who experiences The Oasis. It becomes a 1980s Heaven.

READY PLAYER ONEBut Halliday, although the richest man on Earth at this point, is deeply unhappy, sinking into morose regret for what he considers is his biggest mistake- not having the courage to have a relationship with the one love of his life- KIra, who ended up marrying his one-time business colleague, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). His obsession in creating a virtual world seems to have stopped him from living properly in the real world, and he only realizes in his old age that reality is better than virtuality. Perhaps it finally dawns on him that his invention overtaking the world is detrimental, humanity obsessed by his virtual world and not dealing with reality’s problems. But instead of shutting down The Oasis or sharing his wisdom, he instead creates a magic virtual quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within The Oasis, involving three magic keys and clues and riddles that er, might do something like making someone fabulously rich. The he dies.

rp1d.pngStory three- Nolan Sorrento during the mid-2020s works as a lab/office assistant to Halliday and Morrow at Gregarious Games, the company that makes The Oasis. A lowly assistant who fetches the coffee, somehow this downtrodden rat becomes the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second biggest company in the world and rival to Gregarious Games, as if his whole life has been one hellbent on revenge over his old bosses who didn’t care for his coffee. Seriously, his rise through the ranks to lead a rival company sounds a better story than anything else in Ready Player One. I want to see how he did it, because he’s patently a jerk and an idiot, but at least it’d be interesting to see the snake on his corporate climb and see the trail of misery in his wake.

rp1eStory four- uber-geek dead-end orphan Wade Watts spends all his time in The Oasis, his virtual alter-ego Parzifal trying to decipher the clues/riddles that will lead to the keys to Halliday’s fabled Easter Egg. He befriends Art3mis, a beautiful girl-avatar who fortunately is also a  girl in the real-world (and hey, incredibly pretty too although she doesn’t think so and she secretly seeks self-validation and the love of a good guy so you can guess where that goes) but she is also cool at videogames etc and together with his own group of teenage virtual super-heroes they go on a great adventure in The Oasis and try to thwart the attempts of IOI to secure the Egg and control of The Oasis for its own nefarious corporate ends. BIt like Harry Potter for videogame geeks.

So they went with story four and shoved the rest into dull exposition/skimpy background details. Maybe they went with the right choice. It looks pretty.

The thing is, all the attention seems to be on The Oasis and its spectacular CGI effects and all the nods to pop-culture references (there’s Robocop! look there’s Valley Forge from Silent Running! Look there’s a pod from 2001 hiding in the background! He’s driving a goddam Delorean! etc etc) and its really very boring surprisingly quickly. And as you might expect, its so full of crazy shit being thrown on-screen its hard most of the time to tell whats going on. I was surprised because I thought Spielberg would have demonstrated more control and keyed things back, but he seems too enamored of his CGI toys that he gets quite carried away. Bit like how Pete Jackson lost his shit on The Hobbit films.

Meanwhile in the real world there’s possibly a more interesting story or stories to tell but this isn’t that movie. This is Tron x100 (even though, ironically,I can’t recall an actual Tron reference, funnily enough) full of cartoony extravaganzas that made me yearn, funnily enough, for the Matrix films.

So its not a bad film. Its just pretty dumb. But I guess its just that kind of dumb spectacular blockbuster entertainment with one-dimensional characters and simple plot-lines and a comfortably-predictable story. But this is Spielberg. He made Minority Report, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark– as far as pop-culture/ sci-fi/fantasy movies he’s much better than this. Maybe I should cut this film some slack instead of it bugging me for what it isn’t.

But deep down, I wish Joe Dante had made this movie. My God it would have been bloody incredible, I’m sure. Crazy, irreverent, clever. Everything that this film really isn’t, unfortunately.

(But it looks nice).

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…

 

 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

...and, er, where's Bilbo, exactly...?
…and, er, where’s Bilbo, exactly…?

The problem with these Hobbit films, it seems to me, is that they just aren’t The Hobbit. Purists had problems with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but those films were gospel compared to the liberties taken with The Hobbit in making it a trilogy. The book The Hobbit was about Bilbo Baggins and his adventure with a company of dwarves. That adventure seems almost incidental to the big wide story told in The Hobbit film trilogy.  There are whole new characters and plots and arcs that are just there to pad out the story and add ties to the LOTR trilogy; its all about making a six-film saga. Whether that’s about ticket sales or DVD/Blu-ray boxset sales, I don’t know, but I sincerely suspect its all about the financial gains rather than any artistic merit. The case of Smaug is a prime example- any dramatic weight and build-up to the dragons climactic attack on Laketown and how he is finally beaten is completely dissipated by shoving it over to the beginning of the third film rather than having it at the end of the second film. It leaves the second film with an awkward and infuriating cliffhanger, dumps the action into the awkward start of the third chapter and loses any dramatic power. No doubt it will seem okay when its all part of a boxset over consecutive nights but as far as separate movies are concerned, trilogy or not, its crazy decision-making and robs the sequence of the climactic power it should have. Smaug is such a highlight of the book, but he becomes, like Bilbo, almost incidental to the Bigger Picture that Jackson is so fascinated by.

Its such a pity, because having now seen these three Hobbit films, I have to say, there’s perhaps two great films here. Had it been a Hobbit Part One and a Hobbit Part Two, I think we may indeed have had something great- as it is the parts (and whole) are lessened considerably by going with a trilogy.

Sadly it just seems to be symptomatic of where films are going these days, drifting into a HBO-style miniseries format of episodic tales (albeit with huge budgets). That’s another problem I have with these particular Hobbit films; they didn’t need to be so huge, so spectacular. The films are at their best when they are at their most intimate. Its something that was true of the LOTR films too but Peter Jackson and company seem to have lost sight of that lesson. Instead we just go bigger, louder, as if that is inherently better, which is simply not true. The Hobbit is at its best when we have the marvellous Martin Freeman onscreen, whether he be in peril and working his way through his adventure, the films are at their worst when Martin Freeman is swamped by CGI or indeed offscreen and replaced by countless hundreds of cgi characters and creatures telling someone else’s story. Besides, I always thought of The Hobbit as a charming, simple, somewhat intimate adventure. It was never supposed to be as big or important as LOTR, surely?

These films are an opportunity lost, then. Maybe somebody will do a fan-edit one day, stripping them down somehow. There’s two good films in there, somewhere.

 

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

inter1
So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...

 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

hp4Making these Harry Potter films must have been a huge undertaking. I haven’t had time (or inclination, to be honest, as I’m trying to stay spoiler-free) to look into any behind the scenes extras on the discs or read any info about how the films were made, but I assume that as one film would go into post-production the next would start pre-production in order to get them out every 12-18 months. It takes some doing; the logistics must have been immense and the producers have my sympathy/admiration. The Harry Potter films are big films, with ambitious effects and sophisticated sets and a fairly large cast, with the added weight of matching expectations of die-hard fans of the books as rabid as any Dr Who fan or Trekkie. I would imagine debates still rage about characters changed or scenes missing, as I gather the films were not entirely faithful- well, how could they be? Even at an average two and a half hours per film, some of those Harry Potter books are big and the films can’t keep everything. At least Peter Jackson wasn’t at the helm, he’d have been releasing three-hour movies and four-hour extended cuts, no doubt (maybe the fans would prefer that, who knows? Tolkien fans may raise a note of caution there!).

So now we come to film number four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and inevitably its rather a let-down following the superb Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that preceded it. Goblet of Fire is more of a functional piece following the artistic triumph of Azkaban. Its certainly an ambitious film, with some major set-pieces that easily dwarf anything in the previous three films- its just hamstrung by more pedestrian direction, although that may have been necessitated by  constraints of budget and schedule, and a rather ham-fisted script.

Harry is back for a fourth year at Hogwarts but this time the year is dominated by a prestigious tournament for which students from two other Magical Academies are invited in order to determine the most gifted young wizard. Sort of a World Cup of Wizardry; its a dangerous series of challenges involving a deadly dragon, mermaids and a man-eating maze.  Due to the dangers involved it is supposed to be restricted to the older students only, but Harry finds himself  mysteriously entered into the tournament by Persons or Entities Unknown. It all feels rather predictable to be honest, and Harry suddenly becoming Mr Unpopular amongst his friends and classmates is rather unlikely and forced, obviously keying into adolescent angst and narcissism. I can see what the book and film is doing here but it doesn’t convince.

The film plods along in episodic fashion (something of a problem for all the Potter films) but gets interesting just at the end, when at long last  Harry’s nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort returns to human form to ensure suitable menace for the remaining films. A thoroughly impressive villain who thankfully lives up to all the hype/warnings in films one to three, and rather scary for the younger viewers, Ralph Fiennes chewing up the scenery in fine form. Suddenly an extra darkness is injected and a character dies, and then the film ends. At least I don’t have long to see what happens next; cinemagoers were not so fortunate. Got to love these box-sets.

So an average film but saved/made more interesting by its last half-hour. The series certainly looks to be moving into movie-serial format now with the main arc taking over at last. Four films in, its about time really…

 

 

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

hobbit1When I first heard that Peter Jackson was turning The Hobbit into two movies, knowing how ‘complete’ the extended LOTR films were, I figured maybe it made some sense somehow. But the news that it had since been decided to mutate it into a trilogy of films made me fear the worst. Having now seen The Hobbit, I have to say my fears have been realised. Because this film is not The Hobbit. You could tell The Hobbit in a three-hour movie easily enough, and God knows this long movie is already just shy of three hours, but Jackson isn’t telling us The Hobbit‘s story here.  It’s The Hobbit with lots of LOTR prequel stuff thrown in that is simply unnecessary; so many times during this movie I kept on thinking, ‘hang on, what’s this doing here?’. I know many Tolkien die-hards despise the LOTR films, and can only imagine how much those guys must hate what has been done with The Hobbit. Over the course of three films when watched on disc in four years time as a box set, this may make some sense but Jackson is fooling no-one here if he’s trying to convince us this is an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Liberties are being taken here. Whether its about giving us more Tolkien or fleecing us for more ticket sales/blu-ray disc releases we’ll just have to wait and see.

There is much to admire in the film. I loved the colour palette, deep reds and golds that reminded me of those wonderful Tolkien calenders the brothers Hildebrandt created in the 1970s. In that respect the film has a ‘look’ perhaps more faithful to the original Tolkien than the LOTR films did with their own muted palette. Martin Freeman is a very fine Bilbo, lending a surprising gravatas to the part. Gollum is always a marvel. You get the feeling McKellen could do Gandalf in his sleep, he’s so perfect as the wizard.

But its a long, long film, and much of the film is simply a collection of the very worst excesses of the LOTR films. The worst CGI tomfoolery of Fellowship‘s Moria is exaggerated during the escape from the goblin kings lair into a videogame platform-game sequence, more Nintendo Super Mario than Tolkien.  When said Goblin King turns up on the bridge to block the escape in a weird reversal of Fellowship‘s  Balrog moment, well, a feeling that I was watching a LOTR compendium surfaced and not for the first time.

Related to the wildly OTT CGI, impossible virtual-camera moves racing down vast canyons and spinning around characters and set-pieces in long single shots just irritate me and take me out of the film. Even in a fantasy move there has to be some grounding of reality? Characters plunge down abyssal falls and rise without hardly a bruise or scratch. Its all very reminiscent of the worse excesses of Jacksons King Kong remake where you could sense he didn’t know when to hold back. Which raises the question- flawed as they may have been, were the LOTR films a lucky accident, in the sense that, like the original Star Wars trilogy, fx limitations actually made them better movies?

(And forgive me for being mildly pedantic, but internal logic begins to stretch credibility- excuse a mild spoiler here by skipping to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film yet, but….  at the close of the film our heroes have been rescued, in yet another verbatim reprise of a LOTR moment, by giant eagles who promptly drop our heroes off on a high hill overlooking the remaining long and dangerous trek ahead of them. The question is therefore raised but not answered- why not simply ask the eagles to fly them the rest of the way and get us to the third film already? I mean, there’s still two more films to go. )

I realise I sound very critical of the film. I did quite enjoy it; I certainly enjoyed retuning to Middle Earth, seeing familiar faces, hearing Shore’s familiar score. But it does seem very… well, self-indulgent, as if editing has become a lost art, replaced by wild excess. You can imagine the execs, still flush with the success of the LOTR films, being unable to say no to Jackson’s every whim.

Walking out of the cinema I remarked to my wife; “well, at nearly three hours already, at least there shouldn’t be any extended version this time.”  Wrong, of course. Warners have since announced an intent to release the theatrical cut on disc in May with an extended cut next Autumn prior to the second film.  Well I guess that’s my question answered at the start of all this regards getting fleeced or not.