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.

A Desolationing We Will Go (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013)

The_Hobbit_Desolation_PosterThe film picks up with Bilbo, Thorin and their band of Dwarves on the run from Azog’s orcs.  They find themselves appearing to be hunted by a very large bear.  Gandalf promises they are near the home of a man who might help them with safety.  They rush, chased by the bear until they reach a remote home.

Once inside, Gandalf explains that the bear is actually the man they are trying to reach.  Beorn is a shapeshifter who is also mistrustful of dwarves, so Gandalf cooks up a plan to slowly reveal them to Beorn.

Once on their way, they find themselves facing giant spiders and elves, eventually reaching Laketown, near the mountain fortress they seek. Initially, Laketown presents an obstacle, but Thorin promises to share the riches of the mountain if they allow them passage and provide some weapons.  Of course, most of the citizens being poor and desperate, it is not a hard sell.  And the mayor is a greedy man who figures if they succeed he reaps the reward and if they get eaten by Smaug they are out of his hair.

Meanwhile, Gandalf has gone to find and confront the Necromancer, a dark being that is an impending threat to Middle Earth.

Once they reach the mountain and find the secret entrance, it falls to Bilbo to slip inside and see if he can locate the Arkenstone.  This turns out to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, as there are jewels and gold coins everywhere. Bilbo must outwit Smaug, who is wakened by the presence of Bilbo.

The Desolation of Smaug is the first of the three films to start really padding on story.  And this drags the film as a whole down.  There are some great sequences, and the Smaug sequence itself is pretty nicely done.  But the film also adds in completely unnecessary subplots like a love triangle. The film includes Legolas, whose father is the Elvenking Thranduil, as a link to the Lord of the Rings films.  Legolas did not appear in the book, though as he is the son of Thranduil, it is not an unreasonable addition.

The filmmakers felt it would be good to add a female cast member in some of the action scenes.  They created Tauriel, a young and skilled elven warrior.  Portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she is a tough adventurer. Even as additions go, the character herself is not a problem.  I like Tauriel. However, Lilly agreed to take the role as long as her character was not in a love triangle. She was assured this was not going to be the case.  So the film has her being sought by both Legolas and the dwarf  Kili. It feels like they really wanted the Kili and Tauriel aspect be a callback to Aragorn and Arwen.  And while they introduce it as a love triangle, it is entirely pointless.  It is not a source of real conflict.  Legolas could have gone to her side simply as a friend, not out of romantic desire.  It is clear the film wants to focus on her and Kili.  And that is perfectly fine, and would have improved the sub-plot had they dumped the “triangle” part.

Honestly, the inclusion of the Necromancer stuff (none of which comes from the Hobbit, it is referenced in the Lord of the Rings appendices) is more to make the audience get those “Lord of the Rings” vibes. It does not enhance the story or threat…and it feels wholly unconnected to the main story.

Smaug looks great, and Cumberbacht’s voice performance is good stuff. The visuals are great.  I still enjoy the performances, I actually like a lot of the charcters…and yet?

Story suffers from bloat. When it drags along? It reaaaaally drags.

Superman and Zeus (Immortals, 2011)

Immortals_PosterImmortals begins with an ominous dream in which a man uses a mythic bow to free the Titans who were locked away by the gods.  We are told how the gods defeated the titans, and in the midst of their battle the powerful Epirus Bow was lost.  Now, eons later, the vicious King Hyperion seeks to find the bow and set free the Titans, allowing him to reign destruction across the earth.

A seaside village is under threat from Hyperion’s armies, hastened when a soldier betrays them.  This results in Hyperion killing the mother of peasant Theseus. Unknown to anyone, including Theseus himself, he was trained as a warrior by Zeus himself (in the guise of an elderly man).  Theseus is hopeless and enslaved, until Phaedra, the virgin oracle, seeks his help in escaping the grasp of Hyperion.  Their mission becomes that of stopping Hyperion from freeing the Titans.

The gods of Olympus are not playing games here, and in a way the film kind of inverts the Clash of the Titans remake.  Instead of the gods demanding the faith of men, here, Zeus implores the other gods to follow his lead and have faith in mankind.  They have a rule against direct interference (Zeus’ loophole for helping Theseus was that he did not use his god state, but rather did his work in the form of a human). The other gods are more impatient, wanting to intervene directly.

The film does not hold very tightly to the myths of Theseus (the mythical founder of Athens). This is not to say those stories go unacknowledged.  But they occur more as brief incidentals, or serve other purposes than the original tales.

Immortals is quite a visually stunning film. This is no surprise, coming from director Tarsem Singh, known for films like the Fall and the Cell. An aesthetic of beauty stands above practicality with wild armor and flowing robes filling the screen.

And while it uses a similar style to films like Zak Snyder’s 300, it feels very much like it is truly the vision of it’s director, rather than following in a popular style.  The gods move in a unique way, with their golden armor creating motion trails, and while they are moving through fights quickly, their blows strike the targets in slow motion (simultaneously).  And yet, the film ends up feeling more like eye-candy than a real story.  Everything is so pretty to look at and yet, feels incredibly empty.

 

Modern Culture Clash (Clash of the Titans, 2010)

Clash_of_the_Titans_2010_PosterThe new millennium brought a renewed interest in Greek mythology based films.  This, of course, meant that a remake of Clash of the Titans was probably inevitable.

The modern take is…well, different.  Here, Zeus is angered by King Acrisius and to punish him, he seduces and impregnates the king’s wife Danae.  Angry, he seals her in a box with infant Perseus.  The box is found by fisherman Spyros, who raises Perseus with his wife (Unlike the original film, Danae dies).  Zeus is, of course, angered by this move and turns Acrisius into a monster.

Years later, Perseus is out fishing with his adoptive family.  They witness soldiers tearing down a statue of Zeus.  The soldiers are attacked by demons who also destroy Spyros’ fishing boat, resulting in the death of all but Perseus.  He is found by soldiers who bring him to Argos.  There he witnesses King Kephesus and Queen Cassiopeia.  Cassiopeia mocks the gods and declares her daughter Andromeda more beautiful than any of the goddesses. Zeus and the other gods are watching and angered, but Zeus’ hand is staid by his love for man and the need for their prayers.  But Hades demands that they must make men fear the gods again.  He convinces Zeus to allow him to interfere.

Hades greets the King and Queen and demands Andromeda be sacrificed or Argos be destroyed.  Perseus is convinced to go on a mission to find a way to defeat the titan called the Kraken.  Along with several soldiers, Perseus begins his quest.

You may have noticed there are a lot of changes here.  The film is less a remake and more a re-imagining.  There is no love story between Perseus and Andromeda.  His goal is to make a stand against the gods.  Perseus is in denial of his demi-god status, constantly rejecting any help from Zeus in favor of doing everything “as a man”.

The gods themselves are worried about man’s rebellion against the gods and their power is waning as fewer people are praying to them.  The only real example of the pettiness and competition between the gods is how Hades was betrayed by Zeus and Poseidon, which drives Hades’ desire to destroy his fellow gods.  Noticeably missing?

The female gods.  I mean, they are in the background.  You see them, but they are pretty inconsequential.  Unlike the original, Calibos is no longer the son of Thetis, and he is merely a pawn of  Hades.  It is disappointing that they push all other gods to the side beyond Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.  Making it about sibling rivalry is ignoring the rich history of the Greek gods. I suspect the fact that the original film was written by Beverly Cross, a woman, influenced the 1981 films inclusion of women in more equal standing.

In addition, the original cast women over forty in almost all the major goddess roles.  In this update, most of the female roles prize youth and beauty above all.

Worthington is not nearly as engaging as some of his co-stars, which is a problem.

On the upside, the relationship of Spyro and Perseus is brief but nice.  When his wife is pregnant, young Perseus is worried he will be loved less.  Spyro offers comforting words noting Perseus is no less his son than if they were flesh and blood.

And while Judy Bowker’s Andromeda was a luminous beauty, she was not given a lot of time (though we see her decrying the rules of her curse which resulted in countless deaths).  Here Andromeda is seen as a greatly compassionate woman.  We see her going about the city in disguise to help the poor.  She also refuses to accept the notion that others should die so that she might live.

The creature design is largely quite good (though the demons move so fast so as not to allow much detail to be seen).  But even there, you have flawed concepts at work.  Medusa should not be alluring, and yet, there she is in this film looking beautiful until the moment she turns you to stone.

The re-imagining ends up like a hodgepodge of mythical concepts that are thrown together, almost unrecognizable to their inspiration. In place of a romance with Andromeda, Perseus instead falls for the beautiful immortal Io.  And at times, I found myself getting bored.  This is in spite of the fact that everything tries to be much bigger than the original film.  The scorpions are bigger, the Medusa fight is in a bigger temple, the Kraken is larger.

While Clash of the Titans is louder and slicker, it just feels like a pale imitation of its inspiration.

Speed Racers Pt 8 (The Fate of the Furious, 2017)

fast_and_furious_008_posterIf prizes were awarded for the most inconsistently named franchise?  Pretty sure this franchise would own that.  If George Lucas was involved, they would all get renamed something like Dom Toretto and the  Fast and The Furious (Who care if Vin is in every film or not).

By this time, our heroes have gone from criminals to underdogs to helping the authorities.  But after saving the world last time around, Dom has apparently switched sides and is helping Charlize Theron take on the world.  She is an evil hacker with big plans…and so Mr. Nobody calls in The Fast and Furious team and a surprise guest…the last film’s villain (Jason Statham).  Has Dom truly gone bad?  Is he really turning his back on his family?

This is the first film in the franchise not directed by Justin Lin, and it definitely loses some of that cohesiveness.  It feels less like a continuation and more like a flat out sequel from the…uh…sequel factory.  F. Gary Gray is a strong director and has some definite “action/Car movie” cred with the 2003 remake of the Italian Job.  But the story itself feels like it was conceived months after the last film was released and worked to fit their latest idea together.  The previous films felt more “organic” with Lin at the helm.

I cannot pinpoint exactly why this is, as the guy who wrote this film (Chris Morgan) wrote every film since Tokyo Drift.  Maybe Gray connects with the characters differently.  But one thing that stands out is that there is a big plot point that comes pretty much out of nowhere as Dom’s motivations.  There is no point in a prior film to see it coming. It feels purely invented for the film, like a last minute idea to solve a problem they were having.

Fate is certainly not lacking for action, though they may finally be hitting that point where it is hard to top the big set piece of the previous film.  The massive race across the ice and attempts to outrun a massive submarine feel more like they cobbled together ideas from the previous film, so instead of giving us an impressive and new sequence it highlights cooler moments of past films.

While Fate of the Furious is not terrible (and not by the standards of the franchise itself, it has its moments), it does feel like the franchise is finding it harder and harder to sustain itself.

Speed Racers Pt 7 (Furious 7, 2015)

fast_and_furious_007_PosterThe seventh film in the series that has not apparently run out of gas (and fifth film directed by Justin Lin) finds the team no longer on the run and being a family.  Dom and Letty are working on their relationship, as she has not regained her memory.  Brian and Mia are enjoying parenthood.  Everything is going smoothly…well, except the fact that somebody is trying to murder the crew…and not just the crew, but anyone connected with the take down of Shaw in the previous film.  Which means Hobbs needs to team up with the family once more.

The big threat here?  Shaw’s big brother… uh… Shaw.  Well, this brother gets a first name as well.  Overseeing our intrepid clan is Mr. Nobody…played by Kurt Russell.  Because if your films are full of familiar faces and names… you cannot go wrong adding Kurt Russell to the mix.

Seven ups the stunt ante again…”Gee, we had a tank last time?”  How about skydiving cars?  Cars driven from from skyscraper to skyscraper…via the top floors?  In this film, they crash cars and use pieces of the cars in hand to hand combat.  The Rock picks up a giant gun and starts to shoot down a helicopter.  And then?  It gets nuts.

Overall, it is a pretty solid effort, though false a bit short of the sixth entry.  Part of this is due to the film having been faced with an unexpected tragedy before they were done filming.  After leaving an awards ceremony Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner) and a friend were killed in a car wreck (the friend was driving).  It was very clear from the response of the cast and crew that they had all gotten very close, and were crushed by the loss of their friend.

But this forced some story alterations.  I doubt their plan was to send Brian out of the series.  But now they had to adjust the story to do that.  With help from Paul’s twin brother they filmed some final shots.  The final moments are full of heavy comments about not saying good-bye and how things are never going to be the same.  They are clearly paying their respects to Walker, which is both understandable and touching.  But it does make things a little awkward.

Paul Walker has passed away, but Brian and Mia are just done with adventuring and are going to raise their kids.  Yet, each character speaks as if they will never see Brian and Mia again.

Overall, while not quite as strong as Fast Five or Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7 is still a lot of fun…and it could have made a nice finale for the franchise.

Speed Racers Pt 6 (Fast & Furious 6, 2013)

fast_and_furious_006_posterThe sixth film throws in a twist for Dom, Brian and their family.  Letty is back, but now she appears to be their competition.  Hobb’s has let the gang be, seeing as how they have stayed out of the heist scene since their last encounter…but a new crew of high precision vehicle themed criminals.  Hobbs knows he needs help and seeks the skills of Dom and the crew.  The carrot he dangles before them is the discovery that Letty is, in fact, alive and working with this group that is a threat to free nations everywhere.

The core of the story is Dom’s desire to get Letty back, but she seems to have lost her memory.  This allows the film to have some playful and competitive flirtation between the two, but also gives the villain, Shaw, something to use against the crew.  This is fairly effective.  For Brian, he and Mia have a child and are looking at their future.  What this means for Mia is that she is sidelined from the story, which is a bit disappointing for the character, however, the franchise’s cast tends to grow as fast as it loses characters.

And this is a big cast.  The regulars are back and they are all in regular form, firing quips, arguing, and driving real fast.  This film is as fun as the previous entry, with no fear to go big.  For example?  There is a big chase at the end that involves a giant tank.

This series has benefited from having a single director for the past few entries.  The films feel like the story advances and was actually planned, rather than assembled backwards.  Plenty of franchise sequels simply feel like they have the idea and try to fit it in…but it seems like Lin and the writers planned things out in advance.

Fast & Furious 6 continues the upward tick of the franchise, and makes for a fun adrenaline fueled time.

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