Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) (2D)

December 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

battle of five armies

I more or less knew what to expect when I decided to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at the cinema over the weekend. Not much plot and loads and loads of battle action. Both predictions turned out to be accurate, though I must admit there was a little bit more plot than I anticipated and, amazingly, probably even more battle action than I was prepared for.

The whole film is essentially a massive, extended climax. At a relatively short 144 minutes, and with much of the running time dedicated to battle, it feels much swifter than An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. As such, it might be better to regard the film as pure popcorn entertainment and fantasy nerd eye candy as opposed to the resounding final piece of the Middle Earth puzzle. As a standalone movie, Five Armies comes across as fairly soulless in comparison to the other entries. But as a 144-minute climax to a 447-minute film — or if you include LOTR, a middle-climax to a 1005-minute film (a couple of hours longer than that if you add director’s cut versions) — it actually kinda makes sense. I suppose it all depends on your perspective.

By now you should be well aware that Five Armies deviates substantially from its source material. Of course it had to, considering there weren’t many pages left in The Hobbit by the time The Desolation of Smaug finished. This might irk Tolkien loyalists, but for me it didn’t matter. It helps that I don’t remember much of the book, which I was never that fond of since I first read it as a pre-teen, and then again at university.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t remember much from the first two films either, because Five Armies is all about the spectacle. Say what you want about the rest of the movie, but there’s no denying that Five Armies is one of the most impressive visual feasts you will ever see. While it is dominated by special effects, I never got the sense that the film was overwhelmed by CGI. The war sequences were also spectacular and rarely felt repetitive, with long group battles involving all types of creatures and lengthy one-on-one duels. That said, the “wow” factor is no longer there. It’s undeniably good, but my mind was not blown like it was when I first watched the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The drama offered by the film obviously pales in comparison to the action, but you can still tell that Peter Jackson really tried. The humans (led by Bard the Bowman — Luke Evans) head to the Mountain for refuge after their Laketown village is ravaged by Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while the dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) are holed up in Mountain with their gold, refusing to share. The elves (led by Thranduil — Lee Pace) want their share of the treasure in the Mountain, and the Orcs (CGI) are looking to kill everyone and claim the Mountain for themselves (I think that’s about five armies, no?). Throw in the love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) for some romance, a bit of comedic relief in the form of a cowardly, greedy politician’s aide (Alfrid — Ryan Gage), old regulars like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and don’t forget the the stoic protagonist, Biblo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and you can see how there’s more than enough characters and subplots to go around. The emotional resonance may be lacking if you compare it to LOTR, but at least Jackson gave it a shot.

Martin Freeman, whom I will never see in the same light again after watching him in the Fargo TV series, feels more like a supporting character here. He does what he can in his allocated slot of screen time, though I never got the feeling that the story was truly about him. But then again, the hobbits have always felt more like observers of the action than participants. Also, Richard Armitage might be no Viggo Mortensen and Thorin Oakenshield might be no Aragon, but Armitage still makes Thorin an awesome, memorable character who offers something different to what Aragon did for LOTR.

There will be a lot of people who hate this movie, or at least deeply disappointed by it. Lovers of the book might not like the liberties Jackson took with Tolkien’s story, or how he expanded just a few pages of text into a 2.5 hour movie. But if you accept all that and watch the movie for what it set out to be — and that’s an exciting fantasy epic filled with extensive and well-executed battle sequences — then it might turn out to be pretty thrilling.  There’s dragons (well, dragon), elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, hobbits and giant eagles and bats, and they’re all killing each other. If fantasy adventure is what you want, then what more can you ask for?

I remember a time when each new installment of LOTR felt like Christmas (though that might have been because it was always released at Christmas). Hands down, it would always be my most anticipated movie of the year. With The Hobbit, on the other hand, watching each new entry felt more like an obligation. You’ve seen all of them, so you might as well keep going.

That said, it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally over. After 14 years — nearly half a lifetime for me — JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth franchise has drawn to a close. If you consider the film part as of a six-entry series, then fair enough, it’s probably a disappointment. On the other hand, if you think of LOTR and The Hobbit as two separate trilogies, then you might find it as enjoyable as I did, for Five Armies is clearly the best of the three films (though not on the same level as any of the LOTR flicks). Either way, it’s both sad and a relief to see this magnificent world come to an end. Unlike Star Wars, there’s no more cash to milk from this cow, and that’s a good thing.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (2D)

January 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was one of a few people who thought the first film in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, was pretty good. For all the boredom of the first half, the riveting second half was as exciting as the best parts of The Lord of the Rings.

And so it was with slightly heightened expectations that I saw the second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, which by all accounts is better than the first one. For the most part I agree, though it is still far too long at 161 minutes (8 minutes shorter than Unexpected Journey), rendering the final instalment, There and Back Again (due end of the year) in very real danger of “hobbiting” everyone out.

I mean, as much as I love the world JRR Tolkien created and Peter Jackson interpreted, there has to come a point when it all becomes too much for people – apart from the die hard fanboys – to take. I felt that at times in Desolation of Smaug; there was a feeling that I had seen it all before, and the sense of wonder and magic that made LOTR so remarkable had begun to wane.

Still, there are a lot of things to like about Desolation of Smaug. For starters, no more boring tea parties. The film gets into the action a lot quicker and is better at sustaining it. There are still some slow bits but on the whole the excitement was much better distributed, with a few creative and amusing action sequences that bring freshness to the franchise. Secondly, Martin Freeman seems much more at ease this time as the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. There were at times in Unexpected Journey when he appeared out of place, but this time there were no such concerns. Thirdly, even though he’s not in the books at all, Orlando Bloom returns as everyone’s favourite elf, Legolas, and he actually has a pretty meaty role as well. Joining him is Lost star Evangeline Lilly, who plays a female elf and one of the only women in the whole movie. A lot of Tolkien fans derided the decision to create her character (she’s not in the book), but I think it adds to the film and was the right decision in the end.

And last, but not least, the titular dragon himself, Smaug, voiced by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the best voice in Hollywood. I was sceptical at first because I thought a talking dragon with humanistic emotions would come across as silly on screen, but I could not have been more wrong. Smaug, in all his CGI glory, received a lot more screen time than I had expected, and he was not only an awesome sight but also a great character. I saw the film in ordinary 2D but I hear that in IMAX, and especially in 3D and at the 48 frame rate, the visual experience is unbelievable.

As a piece of visually stunning entertainment, Desolation of Smaug definitely delivers, but problems with it as a trilogy film remain. While LOTR was three lengthy films made from three very long books, The Hobbit is three equally lengthy films made from one short book. While Jackson adds a lot of other material from Tolkien’s works into it, the film still feels like it was trying too hard to “build” itself into an alternate LOTR. But The Hobbit and LOTR are so different (the plethora of dwarves, for starters), and should be different when adapted to the screen. This is why I still think The Hobbit would have been much better off had Guillermo del Toro stayed on as director and the series shortened to just one or even two films.

Instead, Peter Jackson, as great as he is, has arguably stretched the material too thin. It’s obvious he loves his work too much to cut it down, and he wants his audience to be as immersed in Middle Earth as he is. The result is that The Hobbit films, at least the first two, come across as director’s cuts of a diluted version of LOTR, which is potentially a dream come true for some but also overkill for others.

So while I will admit I enjoyed Desolation of Smaug more than Unexpected Journey and thought it was an excellent, well-crafted and fun film with shades of the best stuff LOTR had to offer, I will also confess a bit of “hobbit fatigue” creeping in. Yes there was explosive action, incredible visual effects and lovable characters, but all of that was enveloped in an increasingly numbing familiarity that prevented me from feeling the same level of exhilaration and wonder I experienced in LOTR.

All I can say is that I hope it doesn’t affect my experience of the concluding chapter, There and Back Again, in December.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (2D)

December 17, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.

With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.

As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.

Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.

Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.

In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.

The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.

That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.

Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.

The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.

I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?

On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.

3.75 stars out of 5

(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!

Farewell 2011…but 2012 is going to epic!

January 1, 2012 in Best Of, Blogging, On Writing

I miss Sydney already (Source: cbsnews)

And…we’re back to our regular programming.

2011 was a massive year for me.  I made WordPress.com’s “Freshly Pressed” list (with this post).  I migrated my website from WordPress.com to WordPress.org (and this is how I did it).  I graduated from my masters degree in writing (and this is what I thought of it).  I moved from one country to another (again).  I secured my first major piece of freelance work.  I scored a full-time job in writing and editing.  And most of all, I became a dad (and this is how it happened)!

As for this blog, since making the move in September 2011, traffic has slowed down significantly without flow from WordPress.com channels.  Instead of an average of 1,000-1,500 hits a day, my stats dropped down to around 400-600 a day.  Was it worth it though?  Err…yes!  Less hits but more freedom, and it’s prettier!

For the year, I racked up 346,525 hits, with 289,807 coming from before the move and just 56,718 from after.  Unless the new address takes off, and given that I’m about to have a lot less time on my hands to post, chances are this will be the most hits I see for a very very long time.

So that’s my 2011 in a nutshell. It was great, but I have a feeling 2012 is going to be EPIC!  New apartment, new country, new job and new baby!  Oh, and the NBA is back, baby!  Will Pacquiao and Mayweather finally get it on (after Mayweather gets out of prison)?

And my goodness, the movies that are scheduled to come out: The Hobbit (Part I), The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers (holy crap I think I just sprayed my shorts), just to name a few.  And yeah, the final Twilight movie (more reason to celebrate?).  I wonder what awesome books are coming out next, sorry, I mean THIS year too.

Of course, this is all contingent on the world not ending in 2012.  I dunno, but I tend to believe in crap like this.  While I don’t expect the world to end (per se), I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some seismic event that changes the world (as we know it) forever.  Maybe it will make me work harder to finish writing my books.

Thanks Goodness: No 3D for Harry Potter 7

October 12, 2010 in Movie Reviews, Technology

Finally, a bit of sense and decency.

Warner Brothers has announced that the first part of Harry Potter 7 will no longer be released in 3D because they could not prepare the effects in time for release in November.  Let’s commend them for pulling the plug rather than tricking naive audiences to fork out exorbitant charges to watch a crappy 3D version of the film.

I have been pretty vocal in my disapproval of this current 3D craze at our cinemas at the moment.  So far, only two films of the many I have seen in 3D have actually added a net positive to the movie experience — Avatar and Final Destination 3D (the film was still crap but the entire film was centred around this gimmick).  Everything else, from Clash of the Titans to Alice in Wonderland to Piranha 3D, has been awful and nothing more than a waste of viewers’ hard earned money.

Jeff Katzenberg from Dreamworks said it best about the 3D phenomenon when it came to Clash of the Titans:

You cannot do anything that is of a lower grade and a lower quality than what has just been done on Clash of the Titans. It literally is ‘OK, congratulations! You just snookered the movie audience.  The act of doing it was disingenuous. We may get away with it a few times but in the long run, (filmgoers) will wake up. And the day they wake up is the day they walk away from us and we blew it.

And yet, we keep falling for the scam because we continue to believe that 3D somehow makes a movie better.  When I first heard about HP7 in 3D I wasn’t totally against it because I thought it might be cool to see magic, flying and Quidditch in 3D (do they even have Quidditch in the final book?).  But now, I’ve finally come to my senses.  No more 3D unless everyone starts to claim that it is a must.

The frightening thing is that there appears to be no end to 3D mania.  We’ve got Saw CLXIV (or whatever it is) coming out shortly.  George Lucas continues to milk what’s left of the Star Wars udder by bringing out 3D versions of the old films next year.  Not to be outdone in the ‘can’t let go’ department, James Cameron is apparently re-releasing Titanic in 3D too in the dickiest move since announcing that he is ‘The King of the World’ at the Oscars.  And when The Hobbit is finally made, you can be pretty certain that there will be a 3D version of that too.

Dammit!  Argh!

 
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