Saturday, 28 December 2013

REVIEW - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 5/10


Oh Peter, Peter, Peter... what is going on? How can you make a film enjoyable but massively flawed at the same time? I really don't know what to make of the latest instalment in The Hobbit trilogy... I felt the same about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - confused - and the same applies here with The Desolation of Smaug. Even though this one is better entertainment-wise, there is a lot more wrong with it, and I'm way more disappointed with it than the prequel. The main issue with this film is the liberty Jackson has taken with the plot. In case anyone is interested, here is the link to my review for An Unexpected Journey (yes that is my other blog).

This film is a lot better as far as action is concerned. There are some exciting sequences that keep you on the edge of your seat. But what is fundamentally wrong is the liberty Peter Jackson and his team of writers have taken. I feel that they went too far with this film, not just because they were inventing characters and situations, but because those fake characters and fake situations were given more time than other characters and events in the book itself. That is what really annoyed me. 

Here is a review of my film in bullet points, covering everything from the good, to the bad, and the very ugly. I know I am far from the best writer in the world so if anyone were to read this review, I've tried to make it easier/more readable.

The Good:

  • Bilbo : As ever, Martin Freeman comes to the rescue of this series. He is one of the few actors who fits in with Middle Earth. I think that he has studied Ian Holm's Bilbo, because the expressions he makes and way of speaking is very similar. In this film Bilbo has his first encounter with the Ring's power - he is overcome with possessiveness when a spider almost takes it, and he kills the spider with relish to get his precious back. After he regains the Ring and he returns to his normal self, he suddenly realises his actions, and looks suspiciously/cautiously at the Ring (Freeman even manages to put fear into his eyes as he studies the object). Bilbo seems to have developed a lot from the previous film; he's more courageous, not so panicky about tricky situations, quick-thinking, and above all believes in himself. Not to mention he is adorable, and really stands out as the only one with brains in his group. Freeman plays the part so well, I only wish that he had more to say in Desolation

  • Thranduil: I was awaiting this character with so much expectation, and Lee Pace met it completely. Just as Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett performed Elrond and Galadriel's roles well, he has done the same. We feel like he is an Elven King, one of the great, wondrous, and wise Elves who we met in LOTR. But what is interesting is that there is an edge of danger and wildness with Thranduil. Galadriel is similar when we first meet her, we don't know what to make of her... she is very powerful, but there is also a softness to her, a sort of maternal quality. We don't have that with Thranduil. He seems selfish, reclusive, snobby - all very Elfish - but he seems unfriendly, more wild, less forgiving. He speaks eloquently and with great command. He was really wonderful. I only wish that he had more lines too. I felt like we hardly saw him on screen and that he barely said a word. Missed opportunity!

  • Bard: Luke Evans - what a find! Here is someone who really fits in with Middle Earth. He is strong, cool, cunning, understated, and aware (unlike the others) of the damage Bilbo and the dwarves could cause if they wake-up Smaug. He speaks beautifully (especially with his superb Welsh accent - I know I'm biased but it's lovely) and has a lot of presence. We feel like this is someone struggling in society, outcast, riddled with the guilt of the failure of his ancestor, Girion (bit of an Aragorn vibe here). He gives the film an authenticity, like Bilbo/Freeman and Thranduil/Pace that was desperately needed. 

  • Thorin:  I adore Richard Armitage. He is brilliant in the BBC series North and South, and I think he is perfect as Thorin Oakenshielf. He brings the right balance of stubbornness, cynicism, not trusting of others, and unfulfilled ambition to role. But the script doesn't give him enough to say or do. His lines are totally uninspiring. You know, this is the King under the mountain reclaiming his throne, we should be impressed and in awe of him like we were with Aragorn. So why is he given so little to say? You have a fantastic actor for the role. Again - sort it out. 

  • Smaug: Benedict Cumberbatch must have undergone intense preparation for the voice of Smaug and it pays off. The moment he starts speaking to Bilbo his voice fills you with terror and dread. A dragon is one thing, but a talking dragon is much more terrifying. He isn't stupid and knows exactly what the dwarves are up to. One tiny qualm - I would have liked a tad more cunning in Smaug's voice, that would have made him seem more equal with brains as with braun. The animation of Smaug was impressive too. The facial expressions were quite disturbing and made him across as very evil (a tough call when it comes to talking animals). I loved how you could see the fire in his belly when he was ready to attack. What was also impressive, is that Cumberbatch is a young man, and yet the sound and expressions of Smaug seemed old, experienced, and ancient. I only feel that Smaug didn't seem very big when he was walking around Erebor... more on that later.

  • Action: There was a lot of action in this film, however, even that is tainted because it is overlong and involves too much Elves vs. Orcs fighting (I love both but it is overdone here).

  • Necromancer: Possibly the most difficult part of the film to pull-off was Gandalf's meeting with the Necromancer, who finally reveals himself as Sauron. Very difficult, a lot of pressure to be met... but this was done okay actually. Gandalf battles the Necromancer's shadow spell, and gradually the shadows fade away to reveal the glowing hot eye of Sauron - with the pupil slit in the shape of Sauron's "human" form which we see in the Fellowship prologue (made obvious by his distinctive helmet). I loved how Howard Shore used the Mordor theme from LOTR over Sauron's revelation - emphasised that he had returned and of course that sound of the menacing doom of Mordor sent shivers down my spine. This scene was very hard to pull off and it was done decently, however, I was hoping for more.

  • Comedy: There was some great comedy in this instalment. I particularly liked it when Legolas captures the dwarves and searches Gloin. He pulls out a picture frame with images of Gloin's wife and son. Legolas makes fun of his wife, and also insults his son, who as Gloin states, is his 'wee lad Gimli.' It's funny that Legolas should be so repulsed by Gimli's image, seeing as he will feel the same when he meets Gimli in Fellowship and yet they end up being the best of friends. I also laughed when the dwarves were covered in tonnes of fish to help smuggle them into Laketown.

  • CGI: One thing I detested about the previous Hobbit film was how so much of it was CGI. What made the orcs and monsters of LOTR work was how so many of them were real actors wearing prosthetics. That reality is lost on CGI. In this film, Jackson seems to have taken that onboard. There is less CGI involving characters, for example, the orc Thranduil and Legolas interrogate. 

  • The Dwarves: I found them all quite irritating in the first film, but here they are less annoying. I think it's because they're not trying to make them likeable. We know who they are now and they are able to be themselves. James Nesbitt as Bofur is particularly funny.

  • Laketown: This set looked really cool, literally like a lake-town. It had a cold and very depressing feel. Surprising seeing as I wasn't anticipating the look of this location much. Nicely done. 

The Bad:

  • Smaug's Size: Our first encounter with Smaug has him buried under mountains of gold, and he seems enormous. This scene really makes him giant and terrible. But as soon as he starts chasing the dwarves and Bilbo around Erebor (another scene that goes on too long) the size doesn't translate. It was to scale with the buildings but I never got the feeling of 'shit - that huge dragon is chasing them.' The matter of size was fine with the Balrog in Fellowship, but here it was very hit and miss. And I know Erebor is very dark inside because it is not home to the dwarves anymore, but I wanted to see Smaug's beautiful colouring more. It was all very dark and difficult to see clearly.

  • Soundtrack: Anyone who knows me will know how much I admire and love Howard Shore's score for LOTR. They are stunning beyond words and bring the film to life. This one seems less inspired. It starts well, the first few minutes of the film have a beautiful piece, but the rest is unnoticeable. It's a shame because when the Necromancer reveals himself the theme of Mordor is played, and when Bilbo does something courageous, the Shire theme is played. Those beautiful, unique pieces of music that we recognise so well. I get teary-eyed every time I hear those bars from 'Concerning Hobbits,' but it's an insult to LOTR to use them here. Because of Freeman's performance, fine, use the theme for him, his Bilbo deserves it. But it's so frustrating because when you hear those tunes from LOTR you're just reminded of how outstanding they were, and how average this is in comparison. Smaug's theme isn't a fraction as menacing as the Mordor/Sauron themes in LOTR

  • Languages: This only occurred to me today, but why do the orcs in Hobbit nearly always speak their own language? They didn't do that in Rings... so why are they doing it now? I love how Jackson keeps to the traditions of the book by using the languages. Hearing the Elves speak in their own language is lovely, but they're not always speaking in it, which is good because it seems more real. But the orcs speaking another language is so irritating and unnecessary, and it makes them seem even more fake and unbelievable. I loved the cockney, prosthetic orcs of Rings, they were hideous and sounded like east-end thugs. Maybe Jackson is overreaching here.

  • Necromancer: As I said before, this was cool, but I felt it was lacking in power. I never forget the first time we see Sauron in Rings, on the battlefield, he seems so dominating, and you wonder why he wears all that armour... what is he hiding? Here it just misses on that. It's cool, we can see it's Sauron, we see his silhouette in the slit of the eye, but it made the audience gasp rather than think, 'holy crap, it's Sauron!'

And the Ugly:

  • Tauriel: Firstly, I just want to say that I have no problem with Evangeline Lily - her performance was fine. The problem is with the screenplay. Why has Jackson made her such a focal point in the film? Why is she given so much more screen time than real characters and real events? I wouldn't have minded at all if she was just a warrior, had a couple of lines... that would have been fine. But I felt like here Jackson was trying to make her like Arwen, and failing miserably.

  • Legolas: I love Legolas, I love Orlando Bloom's portrayal of Legolas, but what was this about? Seriously? The contacts they gave Legolas were far too bright, the make-up was terrible - dark eyeliner and the foundation was off-colour too. To top it off, I felt Bloom overacted here. 

  • Return Performances: When an actor reprises a performance decades later, do they automatically over-act? Do they become a parody of themselves? It certainly felt that way with Legolas/Bloom and Gandalf/McKellen in Hobbit. Al Pacino did the same in The Godfather: Part III... maybe actors should avoid reprising roles in the future. 

  • Love Triangle: This was the biggest WTF point for me. Why the hell was half of the film spent on this fake love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili? It is boring, pointless, unconvincing... instead of giving us a proper chase between Bilbo and the spiders we are given Kili and Tauriel talking about stars... and instead of showing us more of the cunning riddles Smaug exchanges with Bilbo, we have to watch Tauriel healing Kili and Legolas being jealous. Right. Makes sense. 

  • Mirkwood: I have serious arachnophobia. I am terrified of spiders and every time I rewatch LOTR, I am find myself able to watch less of the Shelob scene. And yet even I was unimpressed with the Mirkwood spiders. They were horrible, yes, but where was the real chase? In the book it's terrifyingly exciting as Bilbo (invisible because of the Ring) plays with spiders and sends them on a wild goose chase in the dark. That didn't happen here. The spiders seemed pathetic and the scene was a real let-down. Even the forest itself wasn't scary. Mirkwood is supposed to be really dark, poisonous, foreboding... worse than Fangorn... but that doesn't come across here.

  • Woodland Realm: Remember how enchanted we all were the first time we saw Rivendell and Lothlorien in LOTR? I'd never seen anything so beautiful. You wanted to live there yourself. We hardly see the home of the Mirkwood Elves. The most we see is the dungeons, but the kingdom itself is rushed through and underwhelming. I was gutted about this. It's like everything about Mirkwood uninterested Jackson completely, so he speeded through it ASAP. Such a waste. 

  • Beorn: Whoa - writing this review I nearly forgot that Beorn was in this film. Again, he had about 5 lines to say in the space of 4 minutes. And yet Tauriel had tonnes of scenes and a load of lines to say? I had hoped to have more to say about Beorn, he seemed cool, and I wanted to see more of him, but his role is one of those 'blink and you'll miss it' ones. 

  • Azog: I couldn't stand Azog in the first film, and here he was no different. He is such a dull character, he isn't scary, but I'm afraid we will have to endure him for the entire trilogy (even though his screen time was less in this one - thankfully!)

  • Laketown characters: Aside from Bard the Bowman, the characters in Laketown were so annoying and overacting like crazy. I don't know if it was because they were all excited to be in the film, but nearly all of the characters were cringeworthy and OTT.

  • Fighting: Perpetual collisions between Elves and Orcs became monotonous and bland very quickly. It was the same in the first film, too many near misses and excessive fighting that dragged on too long. 

Reading through this blog post, I've just been ranting and complaining. But I'm afraid the film was that bad. It's such a shame because there are some great performances by Freeman, Evans, Armitage, Pace, and the story of the Hobbit is an adventurous, exciting one. However, Jackson has ruined it by not only stretching the story out into 3 very long films, but filling the gaps with fake events, and also giving the fake events (love triangle) priority over should-be amazing scenes like the spiders and Elves of Mirkwood.

Some may say that I am unfair in comparing the Hobbit films with LOTR, but when Jackson did such a brilliant job with the latter, I have a right to be outraged that he has made such a complete mess with the former. Watching the films, it's like a joke - one big party Jackson is enjoying because he was drafted in at the last minute. Let's have some fun with this, I know we'll chuck Legolas in there, a hot female Elf, forget what actually happens I want to spend ages on stuff the audience will hate and slow the narrative of the film. Even his cameo right at the beginning of this film - it is so obvious and in your face - he's clearly not taking it seriously. The whole project seems badly planned, rushed, disorganised, and prioritising on events/characters that are unnecessary.

What a shame, what a waste! These films could have been so much fun and a great addition to the Middle Earth filmography. Alas, Jackson and his writers have gone too far this time. In fact, I'd say that the liberty he has taken with Hobbit 2 is unforgivable. I highly doubt that I'll be going to see the third installment.

I love LOTR, and I will forever love Jackson and all the creators who helped make that trilogy possible. But something has gone seriously wrong here. I can't believe that the same people who got it so right one time, have gotten it so wrong now. I understand that with adaptations not everything is as you imagined it in the book - totally understand that - but the changes made here are too much in the wrong direction.

My rating? 5/10 - worth a watch but only if it is on television and there is nothing else on. It's worth watching for some of its performances and the odd beautiful scene. But other than that, you really aren't missing anything. 

Friday, 9 August 2013

Scene Analysis: Encounter with The Black Rider

The Black Rider - as depicted by artist, John Howe.
Peter Jackson's trilogy has a never-ending list of brilliant scenes - nearly all are memorable and exceptionally made. However there are a few that are truly outstanding. So many talk about the Battle of Pelennor Fields, attack of the Warg riders, the Balrog scene... but I find that the most overlooked scenes in the entire trilogy are the ones including Ringwraiths in The Fellowship of the Ring. Forget your horror films, the first time you see the Black Riders pursuing Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin on their way to Bree/Rivendell are truly terrifying. Full of suspense, terror, and fear, Jackson does complete justice to Tolkien's creation AGAIN. For this post I will be analysing our first encounter with the Black Rider. Yes we see snippets of the Wraiths thundering out of Minas Morgul & questioning Shire folk about 'Baggins,' but we don't actually encounter them or begin to have any idea of the danger they pose until our four hobbits hide from one under a large tree. I will not only look at how suspense is created but also what the scene means and how it helps the narrative to progress. You can find the clip from the film below:

So, let's begin. After Sam and Frodo literally bump into Merry and Pippin and fall down a hillside onto a main road, Frodo remembers Gandalf's warning to stay off them. This is then followed by Frodo getting a spooky and ominous feeling from the road ahead, and he commands his friends to get off the road - quick!

As all four hobbits jump down under some very large tree roots, Frodo sits and waits anxiously whilst the other three compare vegetables and giggle (they haven't noticed their friend's anxiousness). 

As if out of thin air (this could be a production error but I'm going to assume it was intended), a black horse mounted by a black rider appears from the left side of the tree and stands directly above our hobbits. The gentle tweeting of birds fades into silence as the hooves of the ominous-looking horse and it's master come into view. 

Sam, Merry, & Pippin stop joking around once the hooves alert them to the presence of the other, and they sit silently and as nervously as Frodo. 

The camera pans upwards - showing how the rider is shrouded in black materials, hooded, and without a face. By panning upwards and having the camera at that angle, you see that the hobbits are dwarfed in size but also it would seem, in strength and power. They look helpless and at the mercy of this person. Will it see them?

The camera cuts to a shot of Frodo as he looks back between the gaps in the roots, trying to catch a glimpse of this strange and scary presence that has appeared from nowhere. 

We cut to the hooves of the horse. Black fur with nails in its hooves, this horse is no country breed, but from another, more sinister place. 

We are shown the horses face - the mouth looks wet and ravaged (weather?) hinting that again it has travelled from far away lands. It's black reins with leather straps and metal buckles are a stark contrast from the wood and warm browns we saw in the Shire. A red eye gleams from under its harness. This is no ordinary horse. But what about its rider?

At this moment we are shown the faces of Sam and Merry - both don't look as nervous or as aware as Frodo, but they are curious, and whatever it is up there, they know that it is best they keep quiet.

Finally, with a loud clunk, the rider dismounts its beast. Like the harness of the horse, the rider has shoes made from metal and designed with sharp, angled lines - giving off a harsh and lethal appearance. The black robes come down as far as the floor. 

Frodo's head turns sharply away and faces the front again. He has seen that this thing is not local, but from a dark place. It is also clear that this thing has been drawn to the same spot as the hobbits for a reason. What is he looking for?

The rider is looking for them. In a terrifying moment the rider bends down, hands firmly clutching the roots above the heads of the hobbits - inches away from their discovery. For definite we see that this creature has no face - beneath its hood is dense shadow. Every movement the rider makes sounds a large clunk and clink of metal - a hard, industrial sound.

To emphasise just how close to danger the hobbits are from the rider, the camera shows us a close-up of the rider's hand which is large and covered in a metal glove with sharp edges and spikes. Just below that deadly looking hand is Frodo, looking up in fear.

The rider obviously can't see them, so he tries something else... he tries to sniff them out. Taking in a few big whiffs he tries to catch their scent - or at least the scent of something. 

By now the hobbits know that they are whom the rider is after. Even though they can't see him (save Frodo) the rider has an aura of doom and fear which they can feel. The longer the rider is there, the more that nature recoils from it. Even the creepiest of crawlies flee from its presence. A large spider is shown crawling across Merry's shoulder and away from the position of the unwelcome stranger. More insects follow, including centipedes and worms. Sam, Merry, & Pippin all notice nature's reaction to the presence of this unknown but terrifying presence. 

The longer the rider lingers, the more its presence is felt. Nature is fleeing but now it seems that something is responding to the rider. Frodo goes into a sort of hypnosis/trance and before he knows it, he has taken the ring out of his pocket and is about to put it on his finger. The one thing Gandalf told him never to do! Has Frodo lost his mind? Is he doing this consciously? Or is he being taken over by some other force?

As soon as the Ring is out of Frodo's pocket - in the open air - we cut to the rider. His head jerks to the left (the direction of the Ring); he senses it. Even the horse has grown agitated. Are they connected to the Ring? Do they feel its presence?

Unusual, trance-like sounds like throbs and wobs and shrills can be heard over the scene - this is the sound of the Ring (I will speak of this in more detail in another post). The Ring is awake and aware that it is close to being found if only it can make the Ringbearer put it on and alert the rider to its location. Frodo puts the Ring closer to his finger, but luckily Sam intervenes. Nudging Frodo (maybe he thinks he feels faint?) he actually awakens our Ringbearer out of the trance.

As soon as Frodo is aware of what he is doing, he snatches the Ring away which throws off the scent of the rider (his head jerks away frustratedly). 

The hobbits can't wait under that tree forever and the wait has already gone on for long enough. Using his instinct (and the idea that for some reason this rider is after one of them), Merry throws a bag of vegetables away from the tree. This distracts the rider and drives it away (along with the shrieking sounds of the creature on top of it) from the tree as it looks for where the sound could have come from. He gives up and is gone.

Within seconds of the rider fleeing the scene, our hobbits do their own fleeing as they run down to the bottom of the hill to get away from that dreadful spot. Looking terrified and understanding that they just had a narrow escape, Merry asks a very good question: what was that?

Frodo does not respond. He is too in shock as to what just happened to him under the tree. Gandalf's words concerning the power of the Ring and how it wants to be found start to ring true. Frodo would never have even thought of putting the Ring on when that rider arrived, so why did he do it? 

Looking confused but also terrified as the reality of the Ring dawns on him, Frodo looks down at his hand (the camera pans down with it) and opens it to reveal the harmless looking golden band which almost cost him life seconds ago. 

Why is this scene so pivotal in the film? Firstly, it shows us the servants of Mordor for the first time. They look completely different to the soft, happy, and friendliness of the Shire, and instead have a dark, sinister, harsh, and merciless appearance. Instead of wood and cotton, you have black shrouds and metal. Furthermore it shows us that indeed Frodo and the Ring are being hunted. We also witness for the first time the incredible danger the Ring poses - Sauron's spirit, cruelty, and power live within it. It wants to reunite with its master and when the Wraiths are near/calling out to it, it responds back. 

Gandalf explained this in Bag End but Frodo took it as a simple warning to live by rather than understanding the serious danger he is in. He couldn't fully believe it until he experienced it, but now he has. The Ring is his enemy and what is most terrifying and dangerous is that even if Frodo does all he can to conceal himself and avoid danger, the Ring can control our Ringbearer and push him straight into the path of evil.

This scene is so superbly set-up and directed. You really feel the terror of the hobbits as this unknown with a dooming presence appears, and their fear as they realise it is hunting for someone/something. As I said earlier, this scene gives most horrors a run for their money. It is overlooked as pivotal because it isn't action-packed and has almost no dialogue - but that is where it's brilliance lies! The tension and suspense are built purely from shots of what is actually going on, the little that Frodo can see, and the facial expressions of the hobbits as their anxiety increases and the Black Rider's senses are alerted. 

Best of all it introduces us to the evil nature of the Ring - Gandalf's warnings do not do the danger of the quest justice. The Ring is being hunted by servants of Sauron and it will do all it can, including controlling Frodo in the moments where he needs to be completely on his guard, in order to get back to its master, Sauron.