Category Archives: fantasy

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a disappointment

Peter Jackson has finally finished The Hobbit series, a series that pretty much everyone knew beforehand should have been at most two films. As the third entry ends, everyone’s worst fears are vindicated. This was too long, too monotonous with too much shoved in to create three films from what should have been a very simple story.

The film begins exactly where the last left off, the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) intent on destroying Laketown. After his demise, the kingdom of Erebor, long sought by Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company, is up for grabs, with orcs and men and elves and dwarfs all converging in one climactic battle. This battle consumes most of the film, but with no real characters of consequence other than Bard (Luke Evans) involved, there’s not a lot to be emotionally involved with, and the overabundance of CGI effects (in stark contrast to the first trilogy, which heavily used effects, but in conjunction with actual props and locations) renders the spectacle more tedious than thrilling. In much the same vein as the reviled prequel Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Jackson has sacrificed emotion at the expense of attempting to create awe, but awe is created with a blending of grand spectacle combined with concern for characters. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was immersive in scope, a grand attack on a large scale, but at its heart was a concern for the people of Rohan, our heroes laying everything on the line in a last desperate attempt to save humanity. The Battle of the Five Armies has several random armies fighting for gold and jewels and strategic advantage. With Bilbo, Thorn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pretty much on the sidelines, there is not a lot to care for. Bilbo needs more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series suffers from a lack of direction, torn between adoration for the original trilogy with its hardened war analogies, and Tolkien’s original novel, more whimsical and youth-based. For every scene where the dwarfs are in danger of being eaten by trolls (youth), there is a gory battle scene involving orcs and decapitation. The lack of a cohesive vision has hurt the series overall, giving it no real identity. Audiences can only wonder what originally-planned director’s Guillermo del Toro’s films would have been like. A new director with a new style may have served the story well, differing in tone from the first trilogy while still fitting into the same Tolkien world.

Somewhere hidden in this mess of forced romances, overlong battles and dismissive comic relief (the character of Alfrid is not only not funny, he is downright painful to watch) lies a pretty good four hour film. Perhaps some fan edit will give us the Hobbit film audiences deserve. What Jackson and company have given us however are three films that pretend to deliver heart, but abuse that sentiment under an avalanche of CGI nonsense and subplots that offer nothing to the tale of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the supposed protagonist who is often relegated to secondary status, the single worst sin by the filmmakers. Bilbo’s tale, and his relationship to Thorin and the other dwarfs, should have been the heart of the film. What we have instead is a mess.

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Live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a cashgrab snore

Disney continues its run of uninspired, derivative live-action adaptations with “Beauty and the Beast.” Directed by Bill Condon, the film follows Belle (Emma Watson) as she meets the Beast (Dan Stevens) who… well, you know the plot.

The film feels more like an excuse to photograph lavish set design as its story is exactly the same as the animated film. Right down to the jokes pretty much, there is nothing new in this film, and the end result is that the movie is boring. You know what’s going to happen exactly as it happens. So while it’s pretty to look at, that’s no excuse for good story.

The cast is fine for the most part. Luke Evans is adequate as Gaston in a role that is far too villainous for its own good. Emma Watson does an okay job with Belle, but Dan Stevens as the Beast, in all his CGI monstrosity, is distracting. All the digital effects substitute realism for design and the result is a disconnect with whatever story we have. Special effects are supposed to blend in with the story, not be a central focal point.

In conclusion, the film is less a film than a mass marketing enterprise. It sells nostalgia instead of ingenuity. It sells it well though. The film has grossed half a billion dollars in the United States. Instead of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Disney has finally achieved nothing ventured, millions gained.

 

‘Doctor Strange’ a worthy addition to MCU

Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.

Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.

But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.

Could it have been saved?- The Hobbit Trilogy

Peter Jackson’s sequel trilogy to his now-classic The Lord of the Rings had so many problems: it was too long, unfocused, relied too heavily on CGI, had random subplots that did not add to the story. It is quite hard to fathom just how wrong things went. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, which you could lay at the feet of George Lucas being out of the filmmaking business for so long, Peter Jackson is still a filmmaker at the top of his game. He has a deep love of Tolkien and accomplished a monumental feat with the previous trilogy that few thought possible just a few years ago. So, what exactly did go wrong?

We’ll never know for sure. Hubris, studio involvement and too much attachment to the original may have contributed. But could it have been saved?

Gandalf
Gandalf

Let’s start off by acknowledging that The Hobbit trilogy are not bad films. They are simply misguided. The filmmakers were so enamored with what they had achieved with The Lord of the Rings that they did not want to stray too far away from that formula. The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is about a band of individuals with one hope to save the world. The Hobbit is about a troop trying to slay a dragon and reclaim their home. It is far more fantasy than the real-world parallel that The Lord of the Rings has with modern day wars and conflicts. It is the adolescent to the adult novel. So tying it in to the first trilogy is inherently problematic because you suddenly have scenes with trolls trying to make dwarves into chili and characters riding down lakes in barrels in a world where people are brutally decapitated and mass genocide is taking place. It just doesn’t mix.

This is one instance where a new director with a new vision may have really improved the dynamics. For awhile, Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the films. His unique approach to storytelling may have really added a contrasting design that still fit in with the universe. Instead, Jackson stuck to the tone that was successful for him in the past, but inappropriate for the current story.

Then comes the problem of Bilbo Baggins. In the novel, he is often just carting around with the dwarfs, seldomly driving the plot. That is a major problem in a motion picture. The protagonist needs to initiate the action. He needs to be actively involved with the outcome of the film. He is the vessel we feel emotions through (so something better happen to him), and he is our view into the world. Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, but he is very underutilized. The best moments of the trilogy are when he has his confrontation with Gollum or saves the dwarfs with the barrels or meets Smaug. We relate to the story through him through these circumstances. We feel his apprehension, his relief and his desire. When the film pivots away from that interaction with him, we are left emotionally distant. More time is focused on Thorin and Gandalf, but their journeys are less defined and less empathetic. Bilbo is our vessel and for far too much of the story, he is unavailable to us.

Bilbo
Bilbo

Thorin and Gandalf’s narratives should have been told through Bilbo. Thorin can be unsure of Bilbo in the beginning, come to regard him as a friend, break away from him as Bilbo realizes his dissent into madness only to have Bilbo save him from his sickness and regain his trust. With Gandalf, there should have been some tension. He recruits him to join the adventure, Bilbo resents him for it when things get dangerous, Gandalf convinces him of the necessity of living one’s life and not lounging around at home all day, they get separated, get back together and on. Some of this happens in the film, but it is separated by hours of subplots and universe-building so its effects are nullified.

In short, Bilbo needs to be in just about every scene. We should see all the events through his eyes. He should build up relationships with each of the dwarves (some he trusts, some he doesn’t) and all of the characters. And through it all, he learns about the need to fight for one’s home and help his friends. The films greatly struggles with why Bilbo should even care about the dwarf’s plight since he has no personal stake in the outcome. Only through a strong emotional arc about living adventure and helping your friends can we understand why Bilbo acts the way he does. In the trilogy, we are given just about nothing.

Bilbo’s journey is muted primarily because of a strange insistence on the part of the filmmakers to overcrowd the film with secondary characters. It almost seems as if they were afraid to focus on a singular protagonist and needed to built up a supporting entourage of storylines similar to The Lord of the Rings, but those storylines diverged on one single goal: helping Frodo destroy the ring to save the world. Now there are storylines about Legolas and his relationship with his father, a romance between a she-elf and a dwarf, Gandalf discovering Sauron is still alive and Azog trying to murder Thorin. None of these exactly go together, and they clutter up the films. The overarching goal, just like the first trilogy, should be simple: Find the gold and defeat the dragon to reclaim their home. Anything outside of that endgame should be left out of the film.

An unnecessary subplot
An unnecessary subplot

This necessitates another drastic change to the story: abandon the idea of a trilogy. The subplots add extra weight to the films which can easily be cut down to two or even just one movie. Multiple films could have been used if there had been natural ending notes, but there are not. In The Lord of the Rings, the first film ends with the fellowship breaking. The second ends with a climactic battle and the gaining of the appropriate courage to finish the journey. There are no such breaks in the much shorter Hobbit source material. A single film would really focus on Bilbo and his plight, his relationship with Thorin and Gandalf and the overall lesson about friendship and adventure. This is what fans deserved.

The rest of the issues hurting the value of The Hobbit trilogy are trite in comparison. Fans can complain about the overuse of CGI or the portrayal of characters, but those points are moot if the final product had been great. The Hobbit is simply too long, too convoluted and too distracted with itself to be a worthy followup to The Lord of the Rings. A different approach was needed. Fans are just left wanting.

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