Category Archives: Movie Review

Film Review: The Desolation of Smaug

Warning: Spoilers, including spoilers for parts of The Hobbit that will be covered in the third film.

I’ve been away so long you’d probably thought I’d done a Bilbo, and gone off to foreign parts in search of adventure. But no, I’m back, and I’m here with a review for the second Hobbit film: The … [drumroll] … Desolation of Smaug. Just the other day I saw this second instalment in the film trilogy that has held geeks and non-geeks alike in eager anticipation, and I’m keen to express my conflicting thoughts on it with you.

To begin with, I want to say what I said last time: the Set. Was. Awesome. Well, maybe not quite as incredible as the set for An Unexpected Journey — Mirkwood, for one, could have been a little better — but most things were really, really good. There was Erebor, again, of course (though now after decades of dragon habitation), and Laketown was terrific. Best of all was probably King Thranduil’s halls, and it was perhaps a pity we didn’t see more of it. And of course there was the entire landscape, which was surely enough to make anyone want to move to Middle-Earth… or New Zealand.

Going on to the storyline, and pacing, I can’t say I was quite as impressed. It seemed like they tilted the whole film forwards, rushing through the early parts and spending too much time (and inventing too much) in the later stages.

For a start, there was Beorn. I would have liked to see more of him than one brief scene. I suppose, in the novel, the time with Beorn was a bit of a lull in the tension which Jackson probably wanted to avoid, but perhaps we could have had a just little more? Also, though Beorn was terrific as a bear, as a man he was not really how I imagined him. The hair was good, but character-wise I thought he would be more impetuous, more volatile, more hearty. In the one scene where we see him, we see only his grave and gloomy side.

I could easily pass over Beorn not meeting my expectations, but I confess I was disappointed with the whole section in Mirkwood. “Flies and Spiders”, and the whole of the events in Mirkwood is one of my favourite parts of The Hobbit. It is one of the most crucial parts of the novel in terms of Bilbo’s character development, and the prolonged dark, depressive atmosphere is really one of the low-points of the novel for the company, especially with the unexpected absence of Gandalf.

In the film, I felt the whole thing was rushed through so that we could get to more “exciting” action sequences with the roped-in Legolas and Tauriel. It seemed like we were in the forest for barely any time at all (and we skipped the moths with bulbous eyes and the whole affair with the black river and the enchanted Bombur) before Bilbo went up the tree for a look around, and then came down for a short, shallow tussle with the spiders before the elves popped along and whisked the dwarves away. Peter Jackson evidently decides film noir is not what he wants for The Desolation of Smaug, and Bilbo’s character development is set aside for another time and place.

Admittedly, in the film series much of Bilbo’s character development has already happened by this stage, what with him saving Thorin’s life at the end of The Unexpected Journey. And I suppose the scene with the spiders might not have been as impressive in a film as in the book, given that everything would be dark and hard-to-see — and Bilbo would be invisible anyway. I’m still disappointed, but I’ll keep these things in mind so that I don’t end up with an unfairly negative view of the film.

Once we get through Mirkwood, the movie-makers seem suddenly to remember they still have about five hours of film to fill and less than 150 pages of the novel to fill it with, so they start pulling in characters, fight-scenes and turkey-stuffing faster than you can say “Bilbo”. They probably thought they could sell a few more movie-tickets by satiating Orlando Bloom fans, as well as appeasing critics of Tolkien’s all-male cast, so they bring in Legolas and a red-headed girlfriend. They even seem to try and get in something of a love-triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and the “hot dwarf”, Kili.

I’m not sure what to think of these character additions. On the one hand, it is entirely plausible that Legolas should have encountered the dwarves, and Tolkien certainly did lay it a bit thin with the female half of the population in his novel. The fight scene with Legolas playing stepping-stones on the dwarves’ heads was just incredible, and I could mostly forgive the over-the-top nature of it because, after all, he’s an elf. On the other hand, the whole thing with Kili getting injured and staying behind, and then having Tauriel turn up to cure him, was going a bit far. There’s a fine line between balancing a gender-imbalanced cast and completely changing the story to invent love-interest.

What about Laketown? For starters, I thought the introduction of Bard was good. I was pleased with how we get a feel for the man before the big events of the next film, and especially good was the short debate between Bard and the Master. We see Bard for a man of integrity, who will help the dwarves where his conscience allows, but who feels the need to warn the people against their greed — while the Master, who really dislikes the dwarves, helps them for the sake of his popularity.

While there was some good stuff in Laketown, though, I would have liked to see a bit more of the mass joy and frenzy over the dwarves return and the expected fulfilment of the prophecy, and a bit less of Orcs creeping over roof-tops. There was some pretty funny stuff in the book with all the people hero-worshipping the dwarves and the Master grudgingly going along with it while thinking of all the costs to business and wanting to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I suppose that wouldn’t really have fit the film, though, because there was a lot of emphasis on hurrying to the mountain to get there by Durin’s Day. The film’s increased temporal pressure meant the loss of a funny scene or two, but I’ll own the resulting increase in tension was certainly a good thing.

Then there was the dragon. That scene started off well. Smaug was one magnificent piece of CGI, and the dialogue between him and Bilbo was done well. (Bilbo was visible, which irked me at first, but the most annoying thing about invisible people is you can’t see them, which doesn’t work quite so well in a film). After the initial bit, though, things went a bit downhill. All the dwarves piled down, and there was a rather pointless scene where I think they were trying to fight the dragon, with a lot of creative ingenuity, but with pretty pathetic results. It was all a bit preposterous, though, and it did seem to devalue the danger of dragon fire. I mean, isn’t this supposed to be fire hot enough to melt the One Ring itself? But here the dwarves and Bilbo are practically playing in fire and hardly so much as singeing their eyebrows, so far as I could tell.

Rewinding a bit, I think a really good part of the film was the removal of Deus ex Machina’s from the book. Tolkien is a brilliant writer, but he did have a tendency, particularly in The Hobbit, to drop miraculous escape-opportunities sometimes literally out of the sky. For example, earlier in the story, he has thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard up in five fir trees, looking set to become fifteen kebabs for a pack of hungry Wargs and goblins, when, out of the blue, swoop a bunch of giant eagles to save the day. The film-makers partially atone for this blatant copout by having Gandalf whisper to a little moth beforehand, which sort of gives us the idea he had called for the eagles.

The removal of Deus ex Machina, and the general foreshadowing of plot-twists, continues strongly in The Desolation of Smaug. The most critical point is the foreshadowing of the dragon’s bane. In the book, the passing of Smaug is a bit of an anti-climax. It’s not foreshadowed, it doesn’t happen by hand of Bilbo, or Thorin, or even Gandalf — it’s killed by Bard, an almost complete nobody in terms of the story at that point, who is only even said to be a descendent of the Lord of Dale (as far as I remember) immediately before he kills the dragon.

In the film, the thing is done a whole lot better. Early on we see something of Bard’s character. We learn about his ancestry. We hear about Girion’s attempt to slay the dragon, which only just failed. And then we learn that there is one more black arrow remaining. Just one more.

And it’s not just in the slaying of the dragon where Jackson and the screenwriters set things up better than Tolkien did. For one thing, there’s the whole affair with Thorin being pursued by Azog’s horde of Orcs. Personally, I think this subplot got a little too intense, especially in the first film, but a really big plus of the whole thing (besides its virtue in maintaining some tension through nearly 9 hours of film), is that it foreshadows the Battle of Five Armies. In The Hobbit, the Battle of Five Armies was a shock to everyone. It was a shock to Bilbo. It was a shock to Gandalf. It was a shock to the reader. In the film, I imagine it will still a shock to everyone (except those who have read the book), but we won’t complain that they cheated by bringing it totally out of the blue.

One last episode where I think they made really good use of detail in the film, was Durin’s Day. Durin’s Day is “when the last moon of autumn and the first moon of winter are in the sky together”. A rare occasion, not something to miss.

In the book they nearly missed it. They were sitting there on the doorstep, looking desperately for the keyhole, and then the sun went behind the cloud. They thought they were done for, but then it emerged from the cloud, just long enough to fit the key and enter the mountain.

In the film, they went one better. The sun set, the stars came out, the moon came down to set as well. All was lost, for certain. But hang on a minute, the … moon? The thrush knocks and the moonbeam falls on the keyhole. Bilbo calls for the dwarves, Thorin grabs the key as the hobbit nearly kicks into the valley, he fits to the keyhole.

Okay, maybe we don’t need the blow-by-blow recap, but you get the point. They made the film that much more powerful by fully utilising details that we’d been provided with earlier. They kept the subtle, implicit promise they made in the previous film: the promise that the detail of the moon was important.

I’ve said some good things about this film so far, but I’ve also made a lot of criticisms. I’ve criticised the scene with Beorn, and the whole episode in Mirkwood, and the lack of development in Laketown. I’ve criticised the scene with the dwarves “fighting” the dragon and the excessive intensity of the orc-fight scenes. What is it that I really want? Am I just being pedantic, criticising everything because it gives me a perverse pleasure?

Answering the second question first — yes, I think I mainly am just being pedantic. The Desolation of Smaug is a brilliant film, just as An Unexpected Journey was. But I do have a reason for my criticisms, I do have something that I want — or that I think I want — out of the Hobbit film series. The problem is that Jackson’s focus in his film series is different to what mine would have been.

If I had directed The Hobbit films (which, believe me, you wouldn’t want), then my emphasis would have been on humour and character development. I’m not saying I would know how to write the humour, I’m not saying I would know how to write the character development, I’m not saying I would know anything at all about directing a movie, but those are my two primary ideals — humour and character development.

Humour means more stuff like where Bilbo wants everyone to turn back for him to get his handkerchief, and where Gandalf goes off to seek the company of “the only one around here who has any sense”. True, there might not be as much scope for that in the relatively grim setting of The Desolation of Smaug as in the first film, but they probably could have got a bit more in than they did.

Character development in this film means, primarily, more stuff in Mirkwood. Less of the intense action, more bits where the little guy finds he has to act all alone.

I’m not saying Jackson didn’t manage any humour or character development — he managed both, in some places quite well. What I’m saying is that that’s where the emphasis should have been. Rather than trying to beat the Lord of the Rings at its own game, trying to be the biggest, most epic high fantasy film on the block, The Hobbit should have been gentler, funnier and every bit as touching (in a very not-soppy sort of way).

That’s not to say they shouldn’t have tried to set up for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson had an advantage here that Tolkien didn’t have: he knew exactly what the sequel was. I have little doubt Tolkien would have written The Hobbit quite differently if he wrote it in the 1950s, rather than in the 1930s, due to a progression in his ideas about Middle Earth history. Making use of a wealth of material Tolkien didn’t have when he wrote The Hobbit, Jackson has been able to create a film that ties into the sequel much better than the book does. But he should not forget that though the events of this tale, as Middle Earth fate would have it, have big implications, the events themselves are not nearly so large-scale.

In the end, it was a great film. The set was brilliant, they did a great job of removing Deus ex Machina’s and of making use of every detail. The emphasis wasn’t so much on humour and character development as I would have like it to be, but having chosen to make The Hobbit trilogy BIG, like it’s sequel predecessor, they certainly aren’t failing (and their managing to fit some humour and character development in as well). In addition, they’ve managed to avoid having any really painfully over-the-top scenes in this film, such as the stone-giants in the last film. Really, I can’t blame Jackson too much at all — but I’m still annoyed about Mirkwood. Rating 4/5.

Note: My ratings are probably a little more stingy than they used to be. This was at least as good as An Unexpected Journey.

 

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A Trip to the Cinema

I rarely hear about a movie until after it comes out, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney was different. I first heard that they were going to make a movie of that book in the NaNoWriMo forums, over a year before it came out. The other day I finally saw it — on the big screen.

Before I launch into my review, I should mention where I watched this most anticipated film: a cinema in Phnom Penh! Perhaps, like me, you can believe that there would be a cinema in Phnom Penh, but you picture tiled floors, hard chairs, rubbish on the floor. If so, you’re wrong. The cinema might almost have been Hoyts or Dendy. The floor was carpeted, the halls were dimly lit, the seats were clean and soft-cushioned, the room sloped downwards. Even the cafeteria sold popcorn and soft drinks and chips (not that I would have cared if it didn’t). The only difference I noticed were the Khmer subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

But we were there to watch An Unexpected Journey — not to gawk at the cinema. So on with the review.

I loved the prologue: Smaug’s destruction of Erebor. When I imagine Erebor, I usually think of the dark, crumbling, smoke-smelling caverns of Smaug’s occupation. I don’t remember it in its former glory as the dwarves do. In the movie, we see see Erebor in all its magnificence before Smaug’s arrival. We see vast caverns, not dark, but filled with light. We see rivers of gold flowing through the mountain. We see hordes of dwarves mining the gold and lovingly crafting it. Knowing what the dwarves were seeking to reclaim — seeing it with my own eyes — gave the quest that much more purpose.

Then Smaug came with fire and fury and drove out the dwarves. I thought the destruction scene was quite good, but I found it interesting that while we saw the dragon’s tail, his feet, and torrents of his fire, we never saw his body. I suspect the film-producers want to save the full sight of this monstrous reptile until the final movie, and it seems like a good plan to me.

Having only watched The Lord of the Rings once, and that not so recently, I don’t really remember how it depicted dwarves. But whether or not they looked the same, the dwarves in this movie were awesome. Short, stocky, with fantastic hairstyles and beard-styles, very rowdy and with voracious appetites, they were exactly the right kind of people to turn up unexpected on Bilbo’s doorstop. Maybe a little bit over-the top that first night, but almost perfect. I really liked their singing too. Nevillegirl said that she wasn’t looking forward to the dwarves’ singing, but while I don’t like songs much in books (I can never think of tunes for them), I really liked it in the movie.

In fact, the music in general was great in this movie. As was it in The Lord of the Rings, as far as I can remember.

Even though the dwarves settled down after that first dinner, over-the-top was quite a consistent trend in this movie. The worst case was with the giants on the Misty Mountains: was it really necessary to make such an unrealistic scene? And while the orc-kingdom inside the Misty Mountains was pretty cool, I thought the battle scene in there was over-the-top. Hundreds of orcs falling off the pathways, probably to their deaths; dwarves falling huge distances, only to pick themselves up and keep running… enough said. Such scenes kept the movie from any possible danger of becoming boring, but they lost it a lot of plausibility.

The film makes a lot of changes from the book, and I like some of them — such as the destruction of Erebor — but I’m not sure about others. A lot of it is not just a question of adding some scenes and cutting out others: the entire plot is going in a different direction to the plot of the book.

For one thing we have Azog, the pale orc who is hunting down Thorin and is bent on vengeance. Maybe it was hard for the producers to make The Hobbit into three movies and not meet the villain until the final movie — especially if the villain, unlike Sauron in The Lord of the Rings — is just sitting complacently on a pile of gold. But even if it is necessary, I’m not sure whether I like this villain addition. Though I’ll grant that he looks awesome.

Then there is the Necromancer. The Necromancer is only mentioned in passing in the book, and I would appreciate the movie fleshing him out — but the fleshing out hasn’t happened quite the way I expected. In the book, Gandalf knew about the Necromancer the whole time: he managed to sneak into the Necromancer’s stronghold and retrieve the key from Thrain. In the movie, Gandalf didn’t know about the Necromancer until Radagast told him (I don’t know where Thrain was in the movie). I am not sure why this abandonment of the original story was necessary.

While The Lord of the Rings had the fluff taken out, The Hobbit has been fluffed up (though not with anything the least bit slow or boring). This has potential to be a good thing — and it has been a good thing in some parts of this movie — but in some parts I would hesitate to call it a good thing. I hope it helps more in the following movies..

On the whole, while it differed a lot from the book, I very much enjoyed the movie. But I think they might be trying to do too much with it. From my small experience, when film-producers do a sequel (or prequel) they try to make it grander and more intense than the original. In the same way, the producers of The Hobbit are trying to make it grander and more intense than The Lord of the Rings — but I don’t think it should be that way. The Lord of the Rings was an impossibly difficult quest to save the whole of the Middle Earth from domination by Sauron — The Hobbit is about Bilbo’s holiday. Undoubtedly, it was a long, dangerous holiday, one from which he was not guaranteed return — but it was not dangerous on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, and the tone ought to be lighter.

Nevertheless, for all my nit-picking, I very much enjoyed the film. I am looking forward to meeting the dragon Smaug, with whose eye An Unexpected Journey so forebodingly closed.

Rating: 4.25/5

Movie Review: Ice Age 4

I find it a slightly ominous sign when movies sport a “4” at the end of their title. It usually comes about when a company makes a half-successful movie: then, because they know that sequels will sell, they keep churning them out. Finally people realise that the entire series is running on the momentum of the first film. Occasionally — as in the case of Toy Story — the company manages to make each instalment very special. Usually they don’t.

As a result, I never expected to see Ice Age 4 on the big screen. Especially since I have only seen half a dozen films at the cinema in my life. It worked out that I did, however: we were staying with our grandparents for a week, and they wanted to take us to the cinema. They didn’t like the look of Brave (the latest Pixar film) — and in particular they thought it wouldn’t be appropriate for my youngest sisters. The only G-rated film that was showing was the Aristocats, but it wasn’t showing at a convenient time of day (my oldest younger sister and I breathed a guilty sigh of relief). So Ice Age 4 was really the only option. Since I don’t often see movies in the cinema, I thought I’d review it.

The movie starts with Scrat — the foolish sabre-toothed squirrel who spends eternity chasing his beloved acorn. Scrat has generated a lot of laughs over the years: my favourite was the time he died and went to heaven. He was making his way towards the paradisiacal chestnut, when suddenly, as he was about to reach it, a strong wind caught him up and he is blown back, back — out of the gates of heaven and down to earth. Sid had revived him through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Scrat wanted to kill Sid for that!

But by movie 4 — I must say I’m not thrilled to see Scrat chasing after his acorn again. So how do the producers respond? They play the trick of making the consequences BIGGER! It’s an old trick: you make a little thing the turning point for something massive. Countless movies — particularly animated ones — and probably even a few books have tried to outdo each other with more fantastic outcomes. Scale-wise, Ice Age 4 is hard to beat. Scrat’s Acorn gets lodged in the ground; as he tries to get it out, the ground splits. The crack grows at lightning speed, and soon Pangaea has crumbled into seven separate islands: all floating away from each other at break-neck speed. The stupid sabre-toothed squirrel has instigated the continental drift!

After this prologue, the story skips to our three protagonists: Manny, the mammoth; Diego, the sabre-toothed tiger; and Sid, the sloth. Diego and Sid are still baches, but Manny has a wife and daughter. Unfortunately he and his daughter do not get along very well. Among humans, teenagers were invented during the 1950s; among mammoths, apparently, they existed back in the days of Pangaea. Manny’s daughter, Peaches, likes a handsome, (or so she thinks) sporty mammoth — and wants him to like her too. But Manny won’t let her go far from home, or do anything cool. Does this sound slightly deja vu? Then, as Manny and Peaches are in the middle of a spirited altercation, the earth splits between them and the family is separated in the middle of a fight.

But, as usual, there is a goal: as the earth is torn asunder beneath their feet, Manny shouts to his family to make their way to the land bridge. So the two parties: Manny, Diego, Sid, and Sid’s insufferable grandmother on one side; Ellie (Manny’s wife), Peaches, and all the other animals on the other. The trio (well, not a trio any longer) end up on an iceberg in the ocean; the others march toward the land bridge, trying to outrun a cliff which is sliding towards them — it’s only a matter of time before they are pushed into the ocean.

Both parties press on enduring separation, pirates — and the weather. The usual sorts of things happen: grouches gradually become loveable — while remaining grouchy; enemies fall in love; lessons are learnt…. My favourite lesson was “if someone tries to turn you into somebody who you’re not, they probably aren’t worth it”. I’ll forgive Blue Sky Studios some cliche elements, however, because in the end it’s a whale that saves the day. Everybody loves a whale!

So Ice Age 4 was enjoyable, but not ground-breaking. It had similar themes to other films; the same kind of character development; the same Scrat. To cover up many unoriginal elements they scaled things up (I’m not sure if this is a plus or a minus). I would probably rate it 3/5: it was an afternoon’s good entertainment, but I’ve seen better.

Spoilers

We all hate spoilers. They are my pet peeve. Once I was at a dinner and an eight year old kid was trying to tell me about major events in Harry Potters 6 and 7 (I was reading 6 at the time). I try not to be rude, but I ended up muttering songs with my fingers in my ears until my sister could get him to be quiet (I feel sorry for her though — she’s only read the first 3, and now she probably knows the whole series).

Well the point is, I will be writing reviews on this blog, and reviews often contain minor spoilers. If you’re not sure if you want to read a post for fear of spoilers — don’t. Or you could comment on the post without actually reading it, to ask whether or not you should. Generally I will keep major spoilers out, but my reviews contain more spoilers than I would want to read myself. I’m the kind of guy who often doesn’t read the back of a book in case it gives away something (I know, it’s a bad habit… and I’m slowly changing), but I don’t expect that everyone else is like this. (otherwise why would they have stuff on the back of the book?) Which is why I write reviews.

And I realise I have been a bit quiet for the past week or so. I’ve been busy. A review should appear tomorrow.