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…

 

 

San Andreas (2015)

san1In many ways San Andreas is everything I abhor in so many modern blockbusters; lazy writing rasing all the old tropes and cliches with predictable plotting and cynical insults to audience intelligence. On the other hand, it does everything it says on the tin, as it were. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything different. I knew going in that it was hardly going to be high art and if you’re in the mood for a high-octane disaster movie you’ll be in for a treat.

san3Positives? Well, the effects guys pulled out all the stops on this one. There are jarring exceptions that sneak in no doubt due to the sheer amount of effects shots in the film (alarmingly for the film the first effects shots are the worst which creates an initial sense of cheesiness), but on the whole the scenes of destruction are well staged and convincing. You certainly get plenty bang for your buck, whether it be a rental or a purchase or (originally) cinema ticket. The casting is fine (Kylie Minogue though is so out of left-field its just utterly bizarre) and the acting is fairly good, though you suspect that all the actors know the effects are the real draw so they don’t bother breaking much of a sweat trying to make much of the dialogue they are given. Alexandra Daddario as Dwayne Johnson’s daughter is probably the exception here and the best of the bunch- yes she is extraordinary eye candy but she seems the only one who thinks she’s in a better movie and makes an effort. She really does shine in this and it ideally should lead to some leading roles in better films (if she somehow never turns up in some Marvel film in a headlining role it’d be something of a crime). Daddario’s clear efforts here are opposed to the apparently-ageless Carla Gugino and the great Paul Giamatti who both know full well they are slumming in a popcorn pot-boiler with dialogue clearly beneath them.

san2Negatives? Well I could go on awhile but here’s my chief gripe. What annoys me is just this; why is a huge man-mountain like Dwayne Johnson -who does very well in the part given him, to be fair- always the leading man/hero of this kind of film? I think the film would be much more interesting and exciting if it was the balding/middle-aged/overweight Paul Giamatti playing the hero trying to survive the disaster and rescue his daughter. You know, put an ordinary guy in peril and see him making his way through it. It’d be so much more interesting. Irwin Allen’s 1970s disaster movies are often remarked upon these days as being formulaic and cheesy but at least their leading men are fairly ordinary-looking leading men. Dwayne Johnson here is some kind of Masculine Ideal, a helicopter rescue pilot who can hotwire cars and parachute out of planes and race a boat up a tidal wave while dodging falling freight containers… its just preposterous stuff. Its fantasy casting/writing and very irritating  Of course, I well appreciate the fact that no-one is going to spend $110 million on an action blockbuster starring Paul Giamatti as the leading hero. Its been like that for years, its why the original Total Recall starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and not Richard Dreyfuss or James Woods. But wouldn’t they all be much more interesting films? As it is we are stuck with highly unlikely plots with highly unlikely people in them.

The key family dynamic is the best thing in the film but even that is pure formulaic stuff. Following the death of one of their daughters, Johnson and Cugino have split up and Cugino now has another fella who just happens to be some kind of billionaire who travels in private jets/limos and builds skyscrapers for a living. Loving dad Johnson dotes on his remaining daughter Daddario while still clearly having feelings for his wife who has moved on to her billionaire and is starting divorce proceedings. Of course the disaster strikes and Johnson has to save the day. But just look at those leads- Johnson looks like some kind of man mountain, Cugino is a statuesque icon of age-defying motherhood and their daughter Daddario is just breathtakingly hot. Johnson drives a truck all shiny-chrome and gleaming paintwork fresh off an assembly line, Cugino’s new bloke lives in a millionaire palace with swimming pool and servants. The whole thing is utterly divorced from the real world, or at least the world I’m living in.  Its just dumb and lazy and generic nonsense.

I realise we shouldn’t really expect anything more from these kinds of films and San Andreas is just what it was intended to be, but then again, maybe we should be expecting more from these films. This shouldn’t be what these films aspire to be, just dumb trash with beautiful people in extraordinarily stupid situations (the airport is out of action, so lets jump out of this plane and parachute down into that baseball stadium). As these films get ever more expensive to produce and studios become ever more conservative about avoiding risk etc, then these films are just going to get louder and dumber. Where will we end up in ten years or twenty years? I shudder to think.