The Hobbit – The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)

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Hobbit2

 

Here we go again.  161 minutes of deepest, darkest Tolkien, albeit adapted by Peter Jackson and team.

Thankfully, there is much more of a gallop at the start of this film when compared to its predecessor.

A short scene showing the meeting of Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellan) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) at The Prancing Pony Inn in Bree opens.  This shows Gandalf persuading Thorin to quest for the Arkenstone and reunite the Dwarves in order to have them reclaim the lonely mountain from the dragon Smaug.  The whole point of the adventure.

Then we’re back into the march across Eriador and Rhovanion a year later, picking up where we left off with party being pursued by the orcs, led by Azog The Defiler.

One of the major changes is the amount of coverage that Azog has got so far in the Hobbit films.  In the original text, he gets mentioned in one line by Gandalf rather than leading from the front.

Elves make a return, initially rescuing but then imprisoning the company in their domain of Mirkwood, with Prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his father, the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace) plus Chief Of The Guard Tauriel (an almost unrecognisable Evangeline Lilly) being the leading protagonists.  Legolas doesn’t appear in the book, though does appear in the later Rings trilogy, and Tauriel has been created to allow there to be a strong female character in the story, as Tolkien neglected to even-up the sexes in his story telling.  Fear not, she is a great addition, well acted, and not just a pretty face.  Will have upset the purists though.

The ever-amusing Sylvester McCoy makes an appearance as Radagast The Brown, which doesn’t happen in the book, but allows a part of the plot to be spelt out where it may otherwise have become muddy.  He also doesn’t have birds living under his hat in the book – how could Tolkien have missed that trick ?!

The Master Of Laketown is played by the always fantastic Stephen Fry.  It’s about time he had a role in a major movie and got some ounce of recognition on the world’s stage.  Hard to fathom why he doesn’t enjoy the same level of celebrity abroad that he does in the UK, particularly when remembering his double-act days with the now interstellar star Hugh Laurie.

There is plenty of light relief throughout, like The company being smuggled in to Laketown inside barrels and having tons of fish dumped unexpectedly on them, or entering the house of Bard The Bowman (Lee Pace) through his toilet.

However, some parts are cringeworthy.  The CGI of skin changer Beorn in bear mode didn’t impress me, but far worse was the barrel-run when the Dwarves escaped the Elves and rode off down the raging river.  It seems that they decided to either ignore or distort gravity in order to make the barrels fly around in a way that is as bad as the broomstick game Quidditch in the Harry Potter films.  Just awful.

I also still haven’t worked out why some dwarves look stereotypically “right”, all big noses and broad shoulders, and some are no different to “normal” humans except in height.  It almost appears that the higher the “class” the less pronounced the Dwarvishness.  That’s a bit non-politically correct.

Fortunately, the CGI of the dragon Smaug more than made up for the other weaknesses.  Whilst obviously still animated, they appeared to have blown a fortune getting it right.  Kind of important though – an unimpressive dragon would’ve ruined the film totally, as it HAD to be all powerful and monstrous.  It was.

His voice was provided by Benedict Cumberbatch and more than fitted the bill to match the visuals.

The detail in the subterranean Dwarven city is mighty impressive too, though it does get a bit cartoony towards the end of the battle with the frankly huge dragon.

So having got to the Lonely Mountain and confronted but failed to destroy Smaug, we reach the end with the company realising they have condemned all in Laketown to death as the dragon heads off towards the town hellbent on vengeance.

A “nice” point to end.

8.5/10.  Better than the first, and sets up the finale nicely.  Roll on December !

 

Flash Gordon (1980)

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Flash

 

Classic cheese.  Just under 2 hours of Sci-Fi escapism in extremely vivid primary colours.

When I first saw this film, it was as a fan of the band Queen who had recorded the soundtrack and had a UK top 10 with both album and single.  Given that the theme song “Flash” is on Queen’s “Greatest Hits” album, and that is the all-time best selling album in the UK, you could say that the song is quite well known !

Compared with the less than heavy hitting lead actors of Flash (Sam J. Jones) and Dale (Melody Anderson), there are some notable stars in the cast.

The legendary Max Von Sydow as Ming The Merciless, ruler of the universe.  A fantastically over-the-top performance from a true acting great.  He is able to seem psychotic and unhinged whilst being quiet and calm.  Quite an achievement.

There’s a pre-007 Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, ruler of the Tree-men on Arboria and instant enemy of Flash.  Richard O’Brien of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fame is one of his men.

Brian Blessed plays Prince Vultan, leader of the Hawkmen.  This role would forever be his most well remembered, and 30+ years later he’s still trooping out his “Gordon’s alive ?!” catchphrase at the drop of a hat.

There is also Dr Hans Zarkoff, played by seasoned Israeli actor Topol.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is good harmless fun, though not really young child friendly as there are some deaths in the film, and whilst they aren’t over the top with fake blood, there is some and I know our 5 year old wouldn’t be happy.

The world of Mongo appears to be some kind of “retro-futuristic” – the craft look authentically like 1930′s imaginings of far-future designs.  Director Mike Hodges works wonders in creating the alien environment.

Apparently there was some kind of schism between Sam J. Jones and producer Dino De Laurentiis that led to a falling out.  Sadly, that meant that further films were cancelled and only this one created.  A pity, I would’ve loved more of these.

 

8/10. Good, mindless fun cult classic.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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2001

 

Years ahead of its time comes Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the future of the development of mankind.

Starting at 4,000,000 years BC, (the novel says 3,000,000) the journey takes us from humanity’s first developmental steps to reaching for the stars with a mission to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel).  Discrepancies occur because the novel and movie were developed at the same time, and it was sometimes necessary to make changes in the film for either economic reasons, or because they couldn’t create the relevant special effects well enough.  The change from Saturn to Jupiter was primarily because they couldn’t successfully produce the rings of Saturn effectively.

The film is an exceptional feat of cinematography, with the most impressive space scenes imaginable, particularly when you consider the age of the production.  Some much newer films look far less impressive than this, made with much more advanced equipment.

In fact, the clarity of picture is that good, that during the opening act, “The Dawn Of Man” with the early “ape-men” you can see the backdrop curtain that they used for the desert background has some folds in it where it hasn’t been smoothed out properly !

The story behind man’s development being guided by an unknown extraterrestrial influence is interesting to say the least.  How creepy would it be if we really were only evolved from apes because of an unexpected push in the “right” direction by another civilisation, represented by the “Monolith”.

Unusually, the first and last 20 minutes have no dialogue, and rely totally on the images onscreen to capture the imagination.  The novel (unsurprisingly) is far more descriptive of the activity going on, and fleshes out the reasoning of the plot whereas the film is purposefully enigmatic.  This means that the film can be unfathomable to some viewers.

Act 2 (TMA-1) is our introduction to the (then) future where man has already built space stations and space travel has become routine and even commonplace.  We have our first zero gravity trickery, and some spectacular model footage of space, plus pre-moon landing flights on the surface of the moon.

The third act journey to Jupiter on the Discovery spacecraft only has 2 actors present, plus the iconic computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain).  Keir Dullea is Dr David Bowman, and Gary Lockwood as Dr Frank Poole.  Between them they demonstrate the ingenuity of the production  with fantastic spacewalks with believable zero gravity, and the equally impressive rotating carousel section of the Discovery, which allows for both actors to appear in shot simultaneously in opposing gravitational positions.

The fourth and final act, Beyond The Infinite, is Bowman alone, and the most psychedelic trip I can remember on film.

The film can appear to some to be slow at times, though in my opinion it is paced perfectly.  The version available widely is the theatrical version which has about 19 minutes trimmed from the premiere in 1968.  Apparently (despite Kubrick’s best efforts) the trimmed film has been recently recovered in excellent condition, so we may yet see a restored version released.

All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous soundtrack which is as much of a standout as the visual elements are.

There can’t be many scores more well known than this, and the famous Strauss waltzes make the film standout so much more against other Sci-Fi epics out there.  I actually own the soundtrack album of this film, which being classical music is quite unusual for me.  However, it really does stand up alone, and is very listenable.

Given that a full score had been commissioned and produced by composer Alex North, and then abandoned in favour of the temporary classical music that Kubrick had used during production, it could all have been so different.  Rumour has it that North wasn’t told about the change, and he only found out while attending the premiere.

 

This is my first 10/10 review.  I love this film, and it is in my all-time top 10.

Labyrinth (1986)

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Labyrinth

 

This film combines muppets, magic, music and fantasy in a captivating family film.

Director Jim Henson and Designer Brian Froud had worked together previously on “The Dark Crystal”, another film made with lots of advanced animatronics, which had been a success at the box office even though it was considered “too dark” for a lot of younger audiences.  Another film was talked about even as early as the premiere of Dark Crystal.

This new film was to be lighter, with more humour and incorporate songs and dance routines, aiming for a wider audience.

A kind of modern fairy tale, the film’s biggest star David Bowie plays Jareth, the goblin king and principal “bad guy” who sings and dances his way through the film trying to prevent Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) from rescuing her brother Toby, who she sent away in a fit of anger by reciting part of her favourite book, “The Labyrinth”.  With the exception of Sarah and Toby’s parents who briefly appear and the start and the end the film, every other character is played by what I would loosely term “muppets”.

The film has some impressive scenery, and is convincingly “other-worldly” in Jareth’s domain, and I love the impossible staircase arrangement near the end where Sarah finally catches up with Jareth and Toby.

The other characters are a motley crew, from the cowardly dwarf Hoggle to the giant beast Ludo, and the myriad goblins and beasties, there are all manner of great designs of muppets in there, all used to great effect.

Bowie’s songs are memorable and whilst they didn’t set the pop charts alight, you’ll find them stuck in your head for quite some time.  I can’t say the dancing is particularly inspired though !!!

Suitable for all, our kids have been enjoying this from about 3 years onwards (though not necessarily understanding it all), particularly due to the muppets, both heroic and villainous alike.

As much as I enjoyed the film, it appears the the movie-going public didn’t and the film was a flop at the box office, though it has gone on to be a cult movie and a success on home video.

Sadly, the failure of the film at the box office led to it being the final Jim Henson production before he died in 1990.

Incidentally, the reference to George Lucas (executive producer) on the film poster above, is that he was one of several who viewed and modified Terry Jones’ (Monty Python) original script.  How much improvement he was responsible for I’m not sure, but it was further revised after he’d had his turn, so his wasn’t the final version.

8/10.  A fine example of a family fantasy movie.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (2012)

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Hobbit 1

 

The first part of the story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins.

We had to wait a long time from first announcement to actual delivery of the movie, due in part to finance problems at MGM Studios which also led to initial director Guillermo del Toro dropping out and Peter Jackson stepping up to direct again.

If you have seen any of the Peter Jackson creations of The Lord Of The Rings, you’ll know precisely what to expect.  If you haven’t, where have you been for the last 10 years ?!!

I have read The Hobbit, though it was many years ago now (maybe I should rectify this) and so I was familiar with the story to come (loosely), certainly more than with the Lord Of The Rings books which I fear I abandoned long before completion (something else to retread at a later date).

As with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, certain liberties have been taken in order to make the film series work “better”, though I haven’t heard as many complaints as when they overlooked the “Tom Bombadil” character in the Rings trilogy.  It is noticeable though that three movies of nearly 3 hours each from a book that is smaller than any of the 3 Rings trilogy individually is going to need a LOT of padding out !

I don’t propose to go through all the differences between book and film, as to be honest I didn’t really mind.  I can’t quote the book verbatim, so wouldn’t notice extra lines added, or others removed, I’m not that worried.  Maybe it would matter to a true Tolkien aficionado, but to me I was far more interested in the entertainment value of the film.  Probably more important to me are cosmetic changes, such as Bilbo originally envisaged as being 50+ years old with a fat belly – something they clearly haven’t stuck to with Martin Freeman !!

Incidentally, if anyone REALLY wants to see the differences between text and screen, there are plenty of websites out there who can cater to your curiosity, such as http://www.theonering.com/complete-list-of-film-changes/introduction for example.

There is an extremely slow start to the film, just like the first of the Rings films, and I found myself getting restless waiting for some “action”.   Strangely, Tolkien’s son Christopher has been complaining in the press that he doesn’t think the books should be made into “action movies for young people aged 15 to 25″.  I’d say he hasn’t watched too many action movies.

The New Zealand scenery is as breathtaking as ever, and coupled with the fantastic quality of image and the incredible audio it really is an amazing feature.  I can’t comment on the 3D or “High Framerate 3D” versions of the film, as I haven’t had the opportunity to see either, though my previous exposure to 3D movies has not been encouraging – usually headaches and a noticeable drop in the quality of the picture.

Various actors/actresses return from the Rings movies, such as Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Elven Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Andy Serkis as Gollum, plus of course Bilbo Baggins played in a prologue by Ian Holm as the “old” version of the character, alongside Frodo played by Elijah Wood, which is a character that doesn’t actually appear in the book of The Hobbit.

There are other returning characters from the later Rings trilogy that don’t appear in the original Hobbit, but have been brought in to link the two trilogies together and show their overlaps – Cate Blanchett is Galadriel, Christopher Lee is Saruman.  Both are only in for a short reprisal of their later roles, and add a little welcome familiarity.

So, visually stunning, with a mildly bum-numbing duration, but plenty of action and adventure to keep you interested.

I had to “get into” the film, meaning that I persisted past the slow start and found that I became more entertained as it went along.  I also felt it ended in a good place, making me look forward to the next instalment, which I will be reviewing shortly.

8/10.  A bit too long to be perfect, but still a great movie.