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…

 

 

It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry Potter.book being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.

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.

 

Of Hungry Games and Un-Tolkien Hobbits

catchingfireWatched Catching Fire the other day, the second of the Hunger Games series of films (of which there will be four, I believe). Good film, mind, but I have to say I’m getting increasingly irritated by all these movie series. Its as if a series box-set mania has settled over Hollywood of late. I guess it was inevitable, considering the ‘safety-net’ of sequels and how they almost sell themselves.

We decided to watch the first film, The Hunger Games, the night before, to refresh our memory having not seen it for, what, a year or two? Just as well, because it improved being able to follow events/characters in the second film no end. I have no idea of what the original books are like, or what happens in them. The films seem to be quite good and I assume fairly faithful to the books. Seems the third book is being split into two films though, which is rather irritating- we get the third film November 2014 and the third November 2015? So those of us who avoid the cinema like the plague will have to wait for disc releases each following Spring. Does the third book warrant this two-part treatment, or is it a financial decision to maximise box-office and disc sales? Ignorant of the texts, I really don’t know. Harry Potter did it. The Hobbit is notorious for it, going for three.

Serials/mini-series on television have a key advantage over movies in that they can spread a story/book over several hours, and have more in-depth characterisation and narrative/plot than can be condensed into an ordinary two-hour movie. Of course, you also usually only have to wait a week for succeeding chapters/parts, whereas transferring the positives of the serial format into the movie-arena proves somewhat problematic with annual or bi-annual breaks between parts. Re-watching Catching Fire the other night with the in-laws was a telling experience, with my mother-in-law sighing “oh, no…!” when she realised that yes, the film after two-plus hours was indeed ending on this almighty cliffhanger with a year-long wait to see what happens next. Its frustrating (the cliffhanger highly reminiscent of that of Matrix Reloaded, but at least being shot back-to-back the Matrix 2 & 3 only had a six-month break between them).

I’m sure The Hunger Games Quartet box-set (or whatever its called when its released in 2016) will be a great watch for those new to the Hunger Games series- it would be nice to watch each film over successive nights/weeks and get the whole story to its conclusion in good time. Indeed I’ve recommended a friend at work to perhaps simply wait for the boxset and watch them then. But for those of us watching them right now its very irritating. I remember when you sat down to watch a film knowing it would have a definitive end, it seems a long time ago. All the super-hero films being inter-connected have the feeling of being teasers for further instalments.

smaug1Of course some films feel like they might never end, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly based on  a rather short and simple book, transferred to film seems to be a bloated middle section of an epic without end. Complaints that the first film took a long time to get started seem to have been heeded by the film-makers, but this turns out, oddly enough, to be at the detriment of the second film, as it now just seems to race from one set-piece to another. The character-building of the first film seems to have been ditched entirely (perhaps rectified when the extended edition arrives in the Autumn?), instead new characters are thrown in proving more an irritating distraction from the guys we should be rooting for. And the troop of dwarves here are very inferior to the fellowship of the Rings films- whether this is the casting or the script I don’t know, but I think the blame chiefly lies with the skimpy source. The depth frankly isn’t there compared to the characters of the Rings trilogy- indeed  The Hobbit series seems to be proving woefully weak compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, clearly without the substance of source to carry a huge trilogy of films.  The Hobbit book itself was never an epic; it was an intimate, charming children’s fantasy book and re-fashioning it into this huge sprawling complex narrative is doing it a disservice. And the ending of this film is even worse than that of Catching Fire. My brother saw this at the cinema and told me there was a collective groan of disbelief/frustration/weariness amongst the cinema goers at the films denouement. It doesn’t get any better when watching it at home.

Of course no doubt many are lapping this Hobbit stuff  up- I have seen several reviews declaring DOS  better than the first film. Well, the first film was flawed but anyone stating this film is superior is patently wrong; its simply an OTT effects showcase (and oddly those are somewhat dodgy effects in places), lurching from set-piece to set-piece with interminably long action sequences that are rather clumsily staged. The really sad bit comes when these action sequences are compared to those of the original LOTR films. Compare the barrel escape and subsequent chase/fight down the river in DOS to the fight sequence with Boromir and co. at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring- its like they are staged and shot by different film-makers. There’s simply far too much don’t-I-look-cool posing and over-thought doesn’t-it-look-cool fight choreography. Rather than just keep it simple and fairly realistic we are (just as with the chase in the Goblin King’s Halls in the first film) thrown into something reminiscent of a video-game. There is a substance lacking here, its just cgi bells and whistles to impress. Yet, many do indeed lap this stuff up. Me, I’m waiting for it to stop, but when it does, I’m then being bored/irritated by some ill-thought romance between a frustrated Wood-Elf and a Dwarf- hardly the stuff of Tolkien is it? Just how much of the actual Hobbit book is in this film anyway?

One of the things I loved about the Rings films was the incidental detail- fallen idols, ancient ruins, hints of a rich and largely unmentioned past that lent the setting a verisimilitude that gave the whole thing a gravity and drama. The Hobbit films don’t seem to have that. Yes, it looks gorgeous but it seems to lack any of the the depth of the Rings films. Perhaps it is something the extended versions will comparatively excel at.

I’m rather of the opinion that The Hunger Games films are superior films/book adaptations to The Hobbit films. I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, after enjoying the LOTR films so much. Its a pity, and I really think that the root cause is not being faithful to the material. The Hobbit could have been one movie, maybe two films at most. This trilogy nonsense seems more about making money than anything else- perhaps the third film will come good and prove me wrong, justifying this trilogy approach after all. Time will tell.

 

One last thing- a nod to my work colleague Steve who, having realised he’d somehow ordered two copies of this film on Blu-ray in error, simply gave his extra copy to me. I’d intended to wait for the extended version this Autumn but his generosity enabled me to see the film much earlier than intended. Cheers Steve! 

HBO Binge Madness and the Art of the Spoiler-Free

GOT3If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean- there’s a point near the end of the ninth episode (its always the ninth episode with this show) of this third season when my jaw near dropped to the floor. “What?!” I cried out loud, stunned  at what I was seeing; “What!?” And then the end-credits followed in sudden silence, as if sharing the numbness of every viewer who hadn’t seen the events coming.

Just how good is HBO’s  Game Of Thrones?

I won’t discuss what it was that happened for fear of spoiling it; no-one , save someone who has read the books, should ever see this series having been spoiled of its secret delights, its twists and turns. Its something special. Readers of the books may say otherwise, but to me, this show is darn near perfect.

I love stuff like this. When something happens that takes you by surprise, when something turns a corner you didn’t see coming. When a story suddenly carries you somewhere you didn’t think you were going and hands you an emotional sucker-punch that leaves you reeling. It doesn’t often happen with movies lately, if ever at all.  The only time I ever mutter a numbed “what?!!” at the silver screen these days is when I see yet another plot hole open up in-front of me.

Just as some of the very best actors are shifting away from movies and into tv drama, so are the very best writers and producers working in television now rather than motion pictures. I’ve written of this before, that television is no longer the cheap, sub-par alternate to the silver screen that it used to be back during my childhood. Sure, there’s still a lot of crap on television, so many game shows, so much reality tv, inane chat shows, moronic soaps etc but there’s so much quality drama superior to anything you’ll see at the cinema. Stuff like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Hannibal, and that’s just the American stuff, there’s plenty of quality material from our own shore or across the channel in Europe. 

got3bAnd of course, yes, there’s  Game Of Thrones. I finished the third season boxset last night having started the thing with a re-watch of Season 2’s final episode on Tuesday. That’s eleven episodes all told over five days (two per evening with a three-episode hit on Saturday night). I’ve not read the books (although I have them on my tablet’s Kindle app ready to go) so when watching the series it’s all new to me, but goodness me you have to devour it don’t you? Having a complete season in a box, its simply impossible to ration it out to even one episode a night, nevermind one a week as it originally aired on tv.

However, stuck with having to wait for the boxsets,  I have to watch the show as an annual treat when they are released. Which means somehow avoiding all spoilers for nearly a year. One day, in several years time, I guess first-time viewers will be able to watch the entire thing in one go with a huge Complete Game of Thrones series boxset, in a similar way to how I watched The Wire and The Shield. Well, wouldn’t that be something.

Staying spoiler-free for almost a whole year regards one of the very biggest shows on television takes some doing. Particularly in this Information Age we are living in. Biggest thing is Will Power obviously (anybody remember that 1970s pop act Will Powers? Anyway I digress…), and averting my eyes from every newspaper and website headline involving Game Of Thrones or any of the actors, any Youtube with Game Of Thrones  in the subject-line. Its easy to forget how much we are assaulted by media all the time, at least until you have to consciously work to actually avoid all that media and marketing.  Its hard but staying spoiler-free can be done. I’m doing it with Mad Men too ( I have the season 6 box sitting on my shelf right now, with season 7 soon to air this Spring) and the Harry Potter movies (boxset on the shelf, waiting for a suitable amount of time to finally see why there was such a fuss about that young wizard with the specs).

I wonder if someone is doing this with The Hobbit movies, waiting for the third film to be released on disc in the inevitable trilogy box and only watching them then? I suppose there must be someone doing that; I suspect the films might be better for it. My brother has seen the sec0nd of the films at the cinema (Wild Wargs couldn’t drag me to the cinema for that) and told me the ‘ending’ of the film is particularly poor as a stand-alone experience.

So for Game of Thrones, that’s it again for another year. Except maybe it isn’t; my in-laws have taken Sky (for the sport, funnily enough) and that means they now have Sky Atlantic. So this year I may well be able to watch season 4 when it airs, and thus be able to avoid that long hard work of staying spoiler-free. But I do wonder if my enjoyment/viewing experience will be lessened, compared to if I wait for next year’s season 4 Blu-ray box and have another HBO binge. Hmm.

A Fireside Chat: Ghost’s A-Z Part Four

Ghost-In-The-Shell-2.0-BoxG is for… GHOST IN THE SHELL 2.0. The natural question that springs to mind is, did we really need the 2.0? I’m referring to the fact that when released on Blu-ray a few years back, it was trumpeted as a remix version- remastered with added 3D-CGI, colour-balancing re-done, new cast recording in 6.1…  the list of enhancements (and I choose that word carefully, considering the subject of the film itself)  is long. Its another example of film-makers returning to their work, drawn in by the seductive allure of new technologies available to polish the original.

Its something all too common these days, probably due to it being easier to do as things go increasingly digital. George Lucas was one of the pioneers of this with his Special Editions of the original STAR WARS trilogy and THX:1138. Well, I won’t go on about any of that, except to say that Lucas evidently could see what was coming. I remember a time when films were finished and done, and never tinkered with afterwards. No-one would have ever dreamed of re-shooting the fx of the original KING KONG or FORBIDDEN PLANET, or converting 2D films into 3D. Technology has now made it too easy.

Regarding that 2D to 3D thing, James Cameron, perhaps the biggest exponent of 3D, has often decried sub-standard 3D films and championed films designed to be filmed and projected in 3D, and yet he converted his own 2D movie TITANIC into 3D. I don’t get it, surely TITANIC was never designed or shot with 3D in mind? And if it’s 2D photography, staging and set design works so well in 3D, what does that say of 3D movies having to be specifically designed and shot for 3D to be a success? Or maybe, gosh, its about the money. Yeah, well, that’s what I think 3D was all about. Art my ass.

Remastered/remixed/enhanced/3D conversions. Its a bit of a minefield out there. As if all the remakes and reboots were not bad enough, even the original films themselves are messed about with. My own old fave, BLADE RUNNER is not immune, although, considering how broken/unfinished the 1982 version was (really, the messed-up condition of PROMETHEUS is nothing compared to all the f–k ups and plot-holes in the original BR) then I guess the Final Cut was really a blessing. Maybe it can be argued that BR needed it. But not all films do. GITS was a perfectly fine Japanese anime, prescient and increasingly relevant. The new version means it looks shinier, but it isn’t necessarily a better film. And who’s to say this version is really definitive, and that there’s not a version 3.0 or 4.0 somewhere in the future? That’s the real crux of the argument; when does it end? Lucasfilm commenced converting the STAR WARS films to 3D ( a project quite possibly canned since), but who is to say that later versions of the films won’t have further changes to fx shots, dialogue etc?

THE-HOBBIT-AN-UNEXPECTED-JOURNEY-PosterH is for… THE HOBBIT. Well, while I’m on the subject of tinkering, since THE HOBBIT trilogy (Trilogy! Did PJ ever consider just shooting the book as it was, minus all that Appendices stuff?) is being shot in 3D, and there is an inevitable six-film box-set on the cards for Blu-ray or download in the future, is it likely the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy will be converted from 2D to 3D like TITANIC was, in order to match the HOBBIT movies? What’s that going to be for the hardcore fans, what with 2D/Theatrical/Extended/3D versions…  double/triple/quadruple-dip? And what’s the odds of a full, six-film 3D set coming after the original 2D LOTR is issued with the three HOBBIT films first, you know, just to milk it that extra bit? Crikey. Someone could plan their entire career path marketing these films over and over again over the course of the years and the changing formats.  I guess its true, films never die, they just keep on coming back in different editions on different formats.

Damn it. You knew where you stood with the original KING KONG and FORBIDDEN PLANET.

 

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.