A Battling We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014)

The_Hobbit_Battle_PosterThe Battle of the Five Armies is a very long and busy film. From it’s opening moments, it is all about trying to out do Return of the king.  Dragon fights! Giant battles against orcs! Wizard Battles!

Bilbo and the Dwarves had failed to stop Smaug who attacks Lake Town.  As the citizens try and escape his wrath, the Bard seeks to fulfill his family’s promise and slay Smaug. After ending Smaug, the citizens make their way to the ruins outside the the mountain fortress of the Dwarves.

Thranduil arrives with an elven army to reclaim what he feels the elves are owed by the dwarves.  However, Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone.  To make matters worse, he seems to be falling pray to paranoia.  Unknown to the dwarves, Bilbo has found the stone. Concerned that Thorin is being spiritually poisoned by his obsession, he slips out to give the stone to the Bard as a bargaining chip.   This only makes matters worse.

Eventually, the armies must unite against the armies of orcs and other evil that sets upon the mountain. This culminates in a battle royale between Oakenshield and Azog.

The Battle of the Five Armies is really a culmination of the desire to recreate the Lord of the Rings.  The changes of the first Hobbit were not really needed, but mostly harmless.  But the snowball started in the Desolation of Smaug. And here, the battle is the focus.  And everything is gigantic. It consumes a large part of the time, and it gets kind of confusing.  And everybody starts to blur together.

So many things feel like calls back to the Lord of the Rings.  And granted, this is a prequel to those films.  The book the Hobbit came before the Lord of the Rings books. But the films are a prequel.  And it is expected to see some loose connections.  But here, it feels like nothing can stand as it’s own.

This all makes for a rather disappointing final.  I did not hate the movie, but I don’t think it comes close to, say, Jackson’s very flawed but still well done King King. The flaws make the good stuff harder to enjoy here.

I don’t hate these movies quite as much as some.  This may in part be due to the fact that I don’t have a real tight connection to the series.  I did not read the Lord of the Rings books until after I saw the films, as I was nearing thirty.  I did not read the Hobbit until after I started watching the films in 2012. So, I never entered the films with presumptions of what I would see, beyond vague memories of the Rankin Bass cartoon from the late 1970’s.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do not feel the strengths overcome the flaws.  And so the Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near as satisfying a watch as the Lord of the Rings films.

To Rule Them All Thrice (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003)

LOTR_Return_PosterAll stories must conclude.  Some just take longer than others.  A lot longer. But more on that later. Sauroman is defeated, Aragorn and the people of Rohan have defended Helms Deep and Frodo, Sam and Gollum are at the door of Mordor.

Te film actually opens by jumping back several hundred years before the story we have been watching where we see hobbits Sméagol and Déagol fishing in a small boat.  After being pulled into the water, Déagol finds… The Ring. Both are gripped by obsession for the ring, resulting in murder.

Aragon and the others make their way to Gondor to unite the armies of men against Mordor and it’s seemingly endless forces.  We see most of our characters reunited.  Sam and Frodo’s relationship is tested by the duplicitous nature of Gollum.

Without question, the visual effects, costume and set design are top notch.  There really is not much to say here that I have not recognized in my previous reviews.  Sure, there are minor slip-ups (hobbits that are clearly height doubles wearing masks of the actors) and a few of the “Legolas being amazing” sequences in battles are surely CGI.

Faramir and the hobbits all get better deals here. Both Merry and Pippin get to be more than comic relief, with downright heroic moments and emotional moments.  There is a scene between Pippin and Gandalf where they say nothing, but share a look of great heart break from across the room, as if Gandalf knows Pippin is about to face some truly unfair tests.

Gimli, unfortunately, has never recovered from the Two Towers and remains embarrassingly frustrating comic relief.

Elijah Wood tells the story of how Jack Nicholson told him he left after the first ending. And this film has, like the book, several endings.  Though, most lamented is the scouring of the Shire, which the extended edition and theatrical cuts never included (the first film paid tribute to it in a vision with Galadriel). Here, the extended cut moves the unceremonious end of Sauroman from the scourging to earlier in the story.

But the frustrating part is that each “ending” feels somewhat necessary. Each gives a certain sense of closure to the tale. For all their flaws, the trilogy comes together and has far more to love than hate.  The strengths of the performances, the overall writing, the effects, the set design, the costumes…brings together one great epic.

To Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

LOTR_Fellowship_PosterJohn Rogers, one of the writers of the abysmal Catwoman film once also wrote “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

And the Lord of the Rings is definitely one of those book series that had legions of admirers.  Ralph Bakshi has adapted the three books into two animated films in 1978 and 1980. And there were a lot of false starts until the late 90’s.  The first plan was to try and make one film…then they thought they could convince a studio to do two…but somehow, Peter Jackson convinced New Line the only proper way to do the film was to adapt each novel and film them back to back.  They then took it a step further and released the special edition DVDs.  These sets were expanded to include many scenes not used in the theatrical releases.  My reviews will be of the Expanded Editions.

The story of the Lord of the Rings is that long ago the evil Lord Sauron tricked the leaders of the Elves, the Dwarves, and Man, creating powerful rings for them all…secretly creating the one ring that would rule them all.  In a battle between Sauron and the final alliance of men, dwarves, and elves, Sauron was defeated.  Instead of destroying the ring, Isildur keeps it for himself. He is eventually killed.  The ring was then lost to time.  It was found by a creature who hid with it in the mountains.  It eventually fell into the hands of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. He has had it ever since.  The Fellowship of the Ring is the beginning of the final push to destroy the ring.

The wizard Gandalf the Gray calls upon Frodo, nephew of Bilbo for this task. He sends Frodo on, promising to meet in a small town.  Frodo is accompanied by his friend Samwise (or more simply, Sam).  Soon after leaving, they are joined by fellow Hobbits Merry and Pippin.  As they go on their journey, they pick up help from the mysterious ranger Strider (Revealed to be Aragorn, a descendant of Isildur).

When Frodo is wounded by a Ringwraith (the souls of the original nine kings of men who were enslaved to Sauron), he is whisked away to the Elvish city of Rivendell. There they meet up with what are to be the final members of the Fellowship of the ring, the Elf Legolas, the Dwarf Gimli and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor.

They find themselves constantly under attack, primarily from Sauroman, a wizard like Gandalf, but having chosen to serve Sauron. Using magic and a new generation of Super Orcs he tries to stop them at every turn.

Filmed in New Zealand, almost every shot of this film is awe-inspiringly beautiful. The Hobbit Shire has been carefully created bringing the environments of the book to life in a vibrant way.

Along with the sets, the film’s costumes are incredible.  Everything has power and weight.  The craftsmanship of the weapons and costumes immerses you into this world.

The visual effects have withstood the test of time.  A lot of Weta Workshop’s work is a combination of digital and practical.  But unlike far too many movies, the digital is groundbreaking and almost never distracting (except in it’s dedication to looking natural).  The Fellowship of the Ring broke new ground in its digital work to create massive armies that seemed to move without being duplicated.

The film also uses a lot of practical tricks to create the illusion of different heights.  Both Hobbits and Dwarves are supposed to be significantly smaller than the rest of the cast, and in spite of actors who are as tall as anyone else in the cast, using perspective tricks, smaller actors as stand-ins they manage to create a nearly seamless illusion.

And then there is the cast.  Some scoffed when Elijah Wood was cast as Frodo.  The books describe Hobbits in a fashion that insinuates, they are naturally a bit hairy and pudgy.  But Wood (and really the other hobbit actors) are rather attractive.  But They all do quite well.  And Wood and Sean Astin really sell the deep and heartfelt friendship between Frodo and Sam.  Frankly, I love the fact that the films capture this love.  Films featuring male relationships can often be quite superficial.

Ian McKellen, so compelling as Magneto in the X-Men films carries great weight here as the wizard Gandalf.  He is warm, yet can seem stern and menacing when necessary.  And he brings a sense of grandeur so necessary for such a character.  Viggo Mortenson brings a quiet nobility to Aragorn.  And Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as an unearthly and elegant beauty.

This is not to suggest there are no flaws.  While not as large of an issue here, Gimli can often be reduced to comic relief (the same with Pippin and Merry). On the other hand, the storytelling is more expedient than the books. Often, Tolkien can seem a bit obsessive in his world-building, with sudden diversions into poetry and legends and language of Middle Earth.  The filmmakers wisely cut the Tom Bombadil sequence.  While this is a fairly loved section of the book, the screenwriters are correct that it undercuts the narrative of the Ring to suddenly have a character who is not impacted at all by it.  Especially so early in the story.  Personally speaking? I don’t care for that section of the book, and so I did not miss it within the film.

The Fellowship of the Ring is s very strong adaption of the book, full of epic adventure. It was a risky venture that paid off quite well for the filmmakers and the studio.

 

 

Future Love Pt 1 (The Fifth Element, 1997)

Fifth_Element_PosterWelcome to the Future.  It is run down and grimy.  And Bruce Willis lives there. And a mysterious object is hurtling towards Earth…a planet…an evil planet.  The Government is trying to destroy it, but a religious order is pushing for an alternate plan…

Using the DNA from an alien life form that is said to be the greatest warrior in the universe, military scientists end up with a beautiful young woman.  She escapes and finds herself in the flying cab of Korben Dallas.  He does not want any trouble, but when the woman (named Leeloo) begs for his help, he finds he cannot just turn a blind eye.  This of course, forces Dallas into helping Leeloo along with Priest Cornelius. Hot on their trail are alien creatures working for a deviant business man named Zorg.  They must find a set of stones that were stolen and use them in conjunction with Leeloo to stop the evil planet.

Luc Besson’s the Fifth Element is a richly beautiful action film.  It is filled with colorful costumes, vibrant lifeforms and entertaining characters set against an a crazy backdrop of tall buildings, exotic spaceships and flying cars. The costume design is almost amusing in it’s weird fashion sense and impracticality.  McDonald’s workers have sexy uniforms for goodness sakes.  But Besson has a real eye for detail, with the designs being important.

The characters are, largely, archetypes…and Dallas is basically that “Bruce Willis Guy” that we saw throughout the 80’s and 90’s.  World weary, tough and sarcastic.  But Besson puts that to good use.  Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo falls into that “Child-Like Super Hero Girl” Trope.  You know, can barely speak, innocent and super powerful.  This is, admittedly a painfully over used trope…but Jovovich gives one of her stronger performances here, making Leeloo like an exuberant child as she is absorbing knowledge and working through the mission.

Gary Oldman’s Zorg is a strange duck, but Oldman is very entertaining.  Surprisingly, the real standout though?  Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod. Rhod is a flamboyant television host who is clearly modeled after Prince.  Tucker pretty obviously had a lot of fun with this role.

The Fifth Element is a fun Sci-Fi amusement park ride.  The plot is very simple, overall.  The evil planet is evil because…well, it is (and it can make phone calls).  And Leeloo is good, because…well, she is.  And yet, the film is an entertaining visual rush.

The Hunter or The Hunted? Pt 1 (Alien, 1979)

Alien_PosterAlien begins rather quietly.  We see the interiors of a ship that is floating through space.  It comes to life and we meet a crew…space truckers, so to speak.  We do not know much about what they are hauling, though it does not matter much.  We get that these are working class joes.  This is not Star Trek.  The ship has awakened the crew due to a distress message.

Going down to the planet, one of the crew members  is attacked by a strange creature that attaches to his face.  And so begins a terrifying trip for the crew as they try to eliminate the alien creature that evolves to become a greater and greater threat.

Alien is a expertly crafted “haunted house in space” tale.  The ship is vast, yet it has a confined and claustrophobic feel.  The design of the sets is that of a blue collar environment.  It feels used, run down.  It is an industrial, a utilitarian styled ship.  It was assembled for it’s purpose, not it’s beauty.

The alien ship is unique and feels remarkably unearthly.  The pilot, long petrified is inhuman and ominous.

Then there are the designs of the creature itself.  The work of famed artist H.R. Geiger, the alien (later dubbed the xenomorph in the series) feels uniquely creepy and unearthly.  A hard shell, with acid for blood, it seems to exist only to destroy.

The cast  is terrific as weary workers just trying to get by, but being forced to deal with something beyond their pay grade.  Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley steps up to the plate to lead the fight after the crew takes some losses.  At this point the game becomes more one of cat and mouse.

Alien is a film full of surprises and character and manages to stand up to repeated viewings.  It has become a classic for good reason.

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